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In my opinion

New, critical scholarship is needed to improve digital learning

The ways that digital education is organized, enacted and designed is undergoing significant change.


Technological advances are rapid. In recent years, we have seen many promises that emerging practices (e.g., openness, micro-credentials) and emerging technologies (e.g., online social networks, chatbots) will have a significant impact on education. The narrative surrounding these promises has frequently focused on disruption and transformation. While past waves of educational technology innovations were also promising, their impact has often been disappointing. Yet today’s digital learning environments look much different than the digital learning environments of five years ago, which, in turn, looked much different than the digital learning environments that preceded them.

The ways in which we practice and think about digital education are also changing. The field itself is in an emerging state, being shaped by cultural, social, political and economic forces that are interacting with the technologies and practices of our time. It is significant in this context, however, to recognize that neither our technologies nor our practices are created in a vacuum.

Educational technologies espouse certain beliefs about the educational process

When technology is created, it is built with the developers’ worldviews, values, beliefs and assumptions embedded within it. For example, social networking sites structure relationships in specific ways (e.g., followers, friends) and perceive privacy in different ways. This is true for technologies repurposed for educational means (e.g., Twitter, YouTube, Ning, Elgg, Facebook) as well as for technologies created specifically for educational purposes (e.g., Moodle, the Coursera platform, etc.). Educational technologies espouse certain beliefs about the educational process and their default settings and suggestions may shape how they are used.

Whether the result of technological advancements, changing mindsets or cultural, social, political and economic forces, educators, researchers and practitioners are collectively refining digital learning. While the impact of emerging technologies and practices is neither as overwhelmingly positive as optimists expect, nor as poor as critics suggest, the ways that digital education is organized, enacted and designed is undergoing significant change, in the same way that educational institutions have changed over time within the cultures that house them.

Two issues need to be highlighted.

First, the field of digital learning will benefit from longitudinal, interpretive, multidisciplinary and mixed-methods research. Important areas of inquiry and research include gaining a greater understanding of:

  • The symbiotic and reinforcing relationship between emerging technologies and emerging practices;
  • The changing role and nature of education and institutions of higher learning;
  • The state of learning in networked and non-institutional settings;
  • The ways that learning and teaching are enacted within emerging organizational models (e.g., learning in large online courses or in self-organizing groups via social media);
  • The changing roles of instructors.

To gain a greater understanding of these issues the field needs to explore emerging research methodologies to understand learning in context. As research into digital learning becomes more and more interdisciplinary, we need to foster and encourage more conversations among learning scientists, educational technology developers, learning designers, data scientists, content experts, and methodologists.

Second, researchers need to examine the purposes of digital learning and the roles of the various actors involved in its prominence.

A similar exploration has occurred in the context of K-12 schooling, where a number of theorists have examined the purposes that schooling serves. On the one end of the spectrum, functional theorists have argued that schooling serves noble intellectual, political, economic, and social purposes. From a functional perspective, schooling assists in the development of children’s intellectual capacity, cognitive ability, citizenry participation skills, labour skills, and social responsibility.

A critical perspective on digital learning is desperately needed

Even though the purposes of schooling appear noble from a functional outlook, these estimations are overly optimistic. In response to this optimism and assumed moral capacity of schooling, critical theorists have noted that our society is imperfect. For example, societies appear to be beleaguered by corruption and inequality across race, gender and class lines. From this perspective, schools preserve and extend the status quo and do little to change current social statuses. Thus, a critical approach to schooling aims to change schools and create more equitable organizations.

In the context of digital learning, emerging approaches and emerging technologies are often viewed from a functional and instrumental perspective. A critical perspective on digital learning is desperately needed, and I hope that future scholarship will engage with this perspective, not simply to criticize online learning for being unlike face-to-face learning, but to drastically improve the design and functions of education overall. Scholarship should evoke change, and academics, particularly academics in schools of education, should strive to improve our societies in meaningful ways. By applying research to practice, we can make strides towards creating equitable, effective and supportive digital learning environments.

Excerpted from Emergence and Innovation in Digital Learning Foundations and Applications, edited by George Veletsianos, Athabasca University Press, 2016. Dr. Veletsianos holds the Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology at Royal Roads University.

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  1. Peter Chiaramonte, PhD / October 12, 2016 at 16:30

    Dr. Veletsianos not only makes his cry for a critical perspective–rightly–sound urgent, but acts as though simply “applying research to practice” will “improve our societies in meaningful ways.” How about research by eminent American educator and philosopher Neil Postman on what he terms “Technopoloy”? The Surrender of Culture to Technology. How does professor Veletsiagos respond to Postman’s critique: that “the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency, that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment … and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.”

    According to Postman, “The milieu in which Technopoly flourishes is one in which the tie between information and human purpose has been severed, i.e., information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose.” Without a meaningful context, this “information glut” is not only useless, but potentially dangerous. “To someone with a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and to someone with a computer, everything looks like data.”