How long have you been online today? Or at least plugged into some digital device, whether it’s your laptop, phone or tablet?
Given that over half of the planet’s population now spend more of their waking hours using some form of digital technology than not using it, the chances are this isn’t your first contact with a device today and that it won’t be your last.
This trend of living symbiotically with technology is central to the learning revolution that’s taking place across the world.
Gamified learning apps, live webinars and online degrees are now an increasingly common part of the learning landscape. Personalised learning systems are already being tested in classrooms and the use of Virtual Reality for skill acquisition has the potential to radically change the way we learn, even if we’re a long way from uploading skills to our brain Matrix style.
These developments are all representative of a dramatic shift in the way we perceive learning and education, in a way that hasn’t happened since our transition to the modern industrial era.
This shift is a much-needed one and has brought a great deal of fresh thinking into a field that’s been desperately in need of it. But because of this, many have framed digital tech as a magic pill that will solve all our educational problems, without considering its drawbacks.
That’s why I believe we all need to think more critically about how we interact with digital technology, because the secret to living and learning well with it is not related to which devices we use, but to how we use them.
So here’s my take on 3 areas we should all spend more time thinking about when considering the impact of technology on our learning and lives. These are all considered to be core strengths of the use of digital technology for learning, but they can become weaknesses if we don’t use our tools properly.
We often assume that more choice means better options, which will bring us greater decision-making power and greater satisfaction. When it comes to learning, we now have more choice than ever. There’s no accurate count of the number of online courses and webinars that are run on the Internet every year, but they no doubt measure in the high hundreds of thousands or even millions at this point.
So thanks to digital technology, we can now learn whatever we want from whomever we choose. But this type of excessive choice can be a problem – it can make getting started a near impossible task because of the range of options we have to sift through to get to the one that will work for us.
And once we get started, we may constantly question whether using something else may work better, rather than working through the difficulties we face.
This makes the need to filter and focus more important than ever – better search technologies will definitely contribute to addressing this need but actual human beings are central to the process of material selection.
This means we need to take the time to define specifically what we’re looking for and seek consensus from subject specific experts whose primary motivation is to help you rather than profit from your custom.
The multiplicity of options and open access that digital technology has brought us means we now have the potential to access diverse knowledge from all over the world. In no previous age have we been able to connect so rapidly, easily and intimately and we now have the opportunity to learn from and with a more diverse range of people than we ever could have had we lived in other times.
However, one of the great paradoxes of the Internet is that it also gives us the ability to seek out people and ideas with which we already agree and surround ourselves with them. We often tend to gravitate towards the familiar, consciously or unconsciously, and if we’re not careful, we may find ourselves living in an echo chamber, in which only our own beliefs are reflected.
That’s why it’s essential to make an effort to regularly seek out the other side of the argument and to listen to the voices of those who we disagree with. Every so often, read the article of a commentator you would normally disagree with, follow someone on Twitter whose views are in direct opposition to your own or watch a debate on an issue you thought was settled.
The greatest advantages of being plugged in are obvious – with access to the world’s hive mind we have speed and range. We can research and reference much of humanity’s gathered knowledge and interact with others who have expertise in the areas we want to learn about.
But perhaps the most commonly discussed disadvantage of digital tech is the impact that our devices can have on our attention and ability to focus. Learning anything requires long periods of consistent deliberate practice and this type of deep work isn’t conducive to being interrupted by push notifications on our phones every five minutes.
That’s not to say that all digital devices always sap our attention - they can also do wonders for our focus when used properly. In fact, some of my most regular flow states come when listening to music and writing an article for the blog, or when doing an audio interview with a podcast guest over Skype.
The key is to define why and how we’re using what we’re using because unless we stop to clearly define the purpose of our usage before plugging in, the distractions that exist online can stop us from doing the work we want and need to do.
My work around for this is to simple – before opening my computer, I simply ask myself why I’m using it and what I want to accomplish. I also make the effort to build unwired states into my day, when all my digital devices are switched off or carefully removed from my pocket.
Ultimately the bottom line is simple – if you don’t take the time to think about how you use technology, you’re not really using it. It’s using you.