Digitally General: why digital is not always the answer

Making something digital does not always make it better.


It not the digital itself that it actually the issue. After all, experimentation and exploration with digital practices and devices can bring on board innovative change within academic learning and teaching. Fundamentally, it is the way we view and handle the digital which needs to be considered.
There is a notion that all students are part of a digitally native generation (Prensky, 2001a) and are much more apt to dealing with current technologies. This then encourages departments to litter their practices with a digital presence, bringing all resources to an online presence without consideration for any alternatives.

The following does not argue against the use of the digital, but instead attempts to explain how the digital can be a hindrance to learning and teaching if it is not handled properly.

Some may argue that digital conversion is always a good thing, particularly in the modern university. Students have been living within an ever-expanding digital environment which no other generation of students has experienced. According to JISC’s Student Experience Tracker (2017), 88% of learners in Higher Education use personal devices as part of their learning, cementing the idea that students are naturally inclined to learn in a digital format. Therefore it makes sense to transfer all learning to a digital format.

There are a number of points to make in regards to this. Firstly, not all students are a part of the same generation and that university education is accessible to a variety of age groups. Therefore it is incorrect to assume that all students will have the same experiences with the digital in their lifetimes.
Secondly, it must be highlighted that there are still students who do not make use of personal devices on a regular basis. Over a fifth of students do not make use of personal devices, therefore it is necessary to ensure that all students have the same access to resources. If communication spaces in lectures are going to take place online, then there must be ways for all students to be able to access this.

Ultimately, digital capabilities are not generally innate to one group of people, they are unique to each individual’s experiences. At the start of my own undergraduate course, I would have considered myself digitally capable. I could create time-lapse videos, produce magazine articles on Publisher and find my way around Excel without a guide and compass. Nonetheless I was pathetic when it came to using social media. In contrast, many of my peers were astonished at my lack of social media, but were equally curious about how to create and design academic posters. What I’m trying to say here is that digital capabilities is not a one-size-fits-all affair; they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, which then makes everyone’s digital experience uniquely different. Therefore institutions need to careful not to assume that all students have the same digital experiences.

This idea can also be reflected in more recent examples. Students using the Digital Reading Room are not automatically able to interact with the touch table/wall. They still require help and guidance from library staff when using the room’s technology. Student’s confidence with the touch table/wall also varies, where some students are more confident than others when exploring their use. This can also be reflected in the Digital Innovation Partnerships, where the idea of a digitally-literate student can vary. Where one student can support a staff member at coding interactive games, another can work confidently with online communication tools. Furthermore, these students are still improving their own digital abilities as part of the projects, proving that digital expertise are part of an individual’s experiences, rather than a collective one. Digital practices are therefore flexible, and academic practice should reflect this.

Digital practices can be extremely valuable when handled correctly within academic practices. However, they will not have an impact if digital practices continue to be general and passive. There is a need to step back and understand that digital capabilities are widely diverse, and they need to be accessible to everyone, despite their abilities.


Jones, C. & Shao, B., 2011. The Net Generation and Digital Natives. York: Higher Education Academy.

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One response to “Digitally General: why digital is not always the answer”

  1. Terese Bird

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. The notion of digital natives requiring radically different educational approaches has been shown to have insufficient evidence base. So indeed, we should not ‘do more digital things’ for the reason of digital natives. So why should we ‘do more digital things?’ if we should at all? This is a huge topic. I do not think that digital is always better than non-digital. One simple and persistent reason to do things digitally is: convenience. The post quotes Jisc’s figure of 88% of HE students using personal devices in their learning. The post also offers the figure of one-fifth of students not having such devices; I would question this figure. In student surveys I have done in the past 5 years, almost 100% of students have and regularly use a smartphone. While they undoubtedly acquired the smartphone simply for communication, not for study per se, the fact they have rely on their smartphone for communication implies that the phone will be used in any way it *can* be used for their studies. Therefore, it is almost churlish to insist (as an example) that our learning materials must be viewed on a computer browser and only design them in that way, when students will obviously try to access them on their smartphones. So much ‘digital change’ is about the user’s convenience. Whether we can afford it or not is another blog post.

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