The digital substitution fallacy

I find myself surprised by the frequency of response of a certain kind to the communication of digital change from leaning professionals. It tends to run something like this: “I don’t have any problem with digital learning but…you just can’t do everything with technology. It can’t replace everything.”

I heard this sentiment again in the last week or so and am typing my way through a reaction.

I am surprised because I first experienced this debate in my early days of digital learning back in 2008. (We called it online education in that time and place). Eleven years later the sentiment persists. In part this is due to a defensive reflex of the perceived threat of digital substitution of roles and jobs. Understandable but not realistic. Face to face learning is alive and well – some may argue that it is all too healthy.

Perhpas the anxiety about digital substituion was more understandable at that time (even if misguided). The alternative to classroom activity was in the main some form of eLearning course or module (yuck to that word) housed in an LMS. Although proposing technology as a substitue for human interaction is a bold move, proposing the eLearning of ten years ago as a substitute for anything useful is a fools errand. If that is what learning technologies could offer, then safreguarding bums on seats in training rooms had some merit.

In 2019 however, the debate needs to be more mature. The value of digital tools is demonstrable in so many ways and the nature of enquiry should be about how that value can be realised not why it should not be. Technology is yet to come anywhere usefully close to replacing the value of people spending time together in the same physical space. Whether it is a classroom, a concert hall, a pub or a park, digital simulacra are thin and shallow by comparison. I suspect this will remain true for as long as we can imagine.

This does not mean that technology cannot enhance our time together. It can and does by preparing us for that time, finding each other and recording what happened, for example. It can offer a trail of what happened when we ere together that we can return to.

In the learning world, ‘digital’ is still too narrowly defined as technology implementation.

This is the heart of the problem: technology implementation will not solve everything and certainly won’t substitute much of value either. The value of our digital tools is human value and it is realised as they are used by people. The fact that so many implementation programmes miss this point is a crime against user epxerience. They are not offering tools for use by people but systems to be managed by organisations. In these circumstances, I might agree with the digital resistance and cling to the human interaction no matter how inefficient it may be.

There is a new maturity required in organisations to manage the change needed to captilise on the application of digital tools. This fresh maturity does not value the apparent predictability and ordered process of the past. It does nit seek to tear down the status quo but recognises that expectations have changed beyond the reach of traditional assumptions.

One response to “The digital substitution fallacy”

  1. Great post Myles and you’re spot on.

    It’s about using technology to enhance the human experience, there’s nothing better than having that authentic experience together with other people and the digital world has a part to play in making this even better.

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