Being Digitally Educated, Dewey, Technology, and Distance Learning

Michael Brint
Associate Professor and Director, Integrated Program in Humane Studies
Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio

I. The Experience of Education in Digital Life

In his 1995 book, Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte signals what many believe to be a paradigm shift from “atoms” to “bits”–from an “atomic” orientation to the world consumed by material interactions to an orientation unburdened by such impediments as space, time and atomic weight. Racing unfettered at blinding speed over vast distances of space, the bit, the smallest unit in the “DNA of information,” [1] has done more than help usher in the post-industrial age of information. According to Negroponte, it has become the basic commodity of interaction in the post-information age–an age in which the possibility of digital living has become increasingly viable:

The industrial age, very much an age of atoms, gave us the concept of mass production, with the economies that come from manufacturing with uniform and repetitious methods in any one given space and time. The information age, the age of computers, showed us the same economies of scale, but with less regard for space and time… [By contrast,] in the post-information age, we often have an audience the size of one. Everything is made to order and information is extremely personalized… The post-information age is about machines’ understanding individuals with the same degree of subtlety (or more than) we can expect from other human beings.Such customized digital living entails more asynchronistic communications (like e-mail), billions of bits of information on demand (in such forms as TV programs, videos, music, and news), and less and less dependence on being in a specific place at a specific time. [2]

In examining the educational implications of living digitally, Negroponte captures many of the central pedagogical points now being advanced by prominent policy analysts urging the development of distance learning opportunities. [3] In most instances, such approaches consist in the creation of highly individualized asynchronistic learning programs accessible on demand. This form of delivery is said to particularly aid the growing numbers of non-traditional students whose lives require that learning be less and less dependent on one’s ability to be in a specific place at a specific time.

Whether delivered to a classroom, laboratory, workplace or home, learning digitally as an experience is said to be one of individual exploration, experimentation, and expression. Emphasizing the benefits of computers as learning tools, Negroponte notes that

While a significant part of learning certainly comes from teaching–but good teaching and by good teachers–a major measure comes from exploration, from reinventing the wheel and finding out for oneself. Until the computer the technology for teaching was limited to audiovisual devices and distance learning by television, which simply amplified the activity of teachers and the passivity of children. The computer changed this balance radically. All of a sudden, learning by doing became the rule rather than the exception. Since computer simulation of just about anything is now possible, one need not learn about a frog by dissecting it. Instead, children can be asked to design frogs, to build an animal with frog-like behavior, to modify that behavior, to simulate the muscles, to play with the frog. By playing with information, especially abstract subjects, the material assumes more meaning. […] Anecdotal evidence and careful testing results reveal that this constructivist approach is an extraordinarily rich means of learning, across a wide range of cognitive and behavioral styles.[4]

“Learning by doing,” “finding out for oneself,” “playing with information,”–Negroponte’s orientation sounds a lot like an updated version of John Dewey’s educational approach. Stressing similar ideas, Carol Twigg, a senior analyst for EDUCOM and one of the leading advocates of distance learning, claims that “what we know about high-quality learning, cooperative learning, and discovery learning-implies a learning-by-doing model rather than the passive, classroom-based model that typifies the teaching infrastructure.”[5] Against such passive learning, Dewey notoriously stressed the importance of experience as an active process. “To ‘learn from experience’ is to make a backward and forward connection between what we do to things and what we enjoy or suffer from things in consequences. Under such conditions, doing becomes a trying; an experiment with the world to find out what it is like; the undergoing becomes instruction–discovery of the connection of things.” [6]

In a similar vein, discovery labs for physics and other natural sciences (like the CUPLE program developed at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) stress the experience of discovery through exploration and experimentation. By using a studio approach to learning, computer simulations allow students to discover scientific principles through their own active engagement. Jack M. Wilson, Director of the Anderson Center for Innovation in Undergraduate Education, explains the basic premise underlying such initiatives: “The focus is on student problem solving and projects,” he tells us, “and not on presentation of materials. The emphasis is on learning rather than teaching.” [7]

While the CUPLE program uses multimedia tools authored by experts for student use in the discovery, experimentation and exploration of science, multimedia offers new domains of student expression as well. “We are entering an era when expression can be more participatory and alive,” Negroponte tells us. “We have the opportunity to distribute and experience rich sensory signals in ways that are different from looking at the page of a book and more accessible than traveling to the Louvre.” [8] Rather than simply interacting with a designed exercise, students can become their own authors–designing and architecting multimedia projects that integrate both different disciplines and media.

CITYSCAPES at Kenyon College is just one example of a course developed to focus on the student as the creative agent of learning.[9]From a literary walk through the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires to an analysis of the role of women in the agricultural economy of Nairobi, students in this course become authors of multimedia projects that focus on specific themes related to particular cities or regions of the world. In addition to the Internet and library resources, these projects, currently produced as a CD-ROM, combine videos, photographs, recordings, interviews, and journals made by the students themselves. As authors guided by both local scholars and distant experts in various fields related to their study, students become increasingly fluid in coherently drawing together and creatively comingling function and form, method and subject, narrative and design.

Along with their expressive and experiential potentials, many see the greatest advantage of computer learning environments in terms of their potential for customization. Course materials can be delivered to fit the different learning styles of students and developed to help students realize their unique potentials and capacities. According to Massy and Zemsky, the two most fundamental advantages of information technology are the new “economies of scale” it offers and its ability to provide what they term, “mass customization.” “Technology allows faculty to accommodate individual differences in student goals, learning styles, and abilities, while providing improved convenience for both students and faculty on an ‘any time, any place’ basis.”[10]

In the post-information age, most surmise, the advent of sophisticated and customized simulations across the curriculum will increasingly provide the basis of experience for engaged learning. Many who are helping to lay the foundation for the future of information technology and education advocate the creation of a National Learning Infrastructure that could deliver these sophisticated simulations “anytime, anywhere, to anyone.”[11] If these trends continue, the experience of education in digital life may well be one of more convenient asynchronistic communication, customized educational services on demand, and less and less dependence on being at a specific place at a specific time. Yet, for all of the Deweyean-sounding practices that are supposed to accompany these educational delivery services–learning by doing, exploration and experimentation, play and discovery–I doubt it is time to begin celebrating the realization of Dewey’s educational philosophy in the post-information age.

II. Learning as a Social Environment

If many proponents of distance learning follow Dewey’s lead in emphasizing experiential and constructivist models of education, few follow his views regarding the inexorably social and relational nature of learning. Most of their accounts portray distance learning (at least at the level of higher education) as a highly individualized process of self-development, driven by the student’s own initiative toward the successful acquisition of specifiable skills.[12]

For Dewey, no matter how individualized or customized the material that is being explored, learning is not an isolated enterprise that takes place within the self or between the individual’s mind and the material it confronts, but a social activity that takes place within the context of a social environment. “As matter of fact,” Dewey tells us,

every individual has grown up, and always must grow up, in a social medium. His responses grow intelligent, or gain meaning, simply because he lives and acts in a medium of accepted meanings and values. Through social intercourse, through sharing in the activities embodying beliefs, individuals gradually acquires a mind of their own. The conception of mind as a purely isolated possession of the self is at the very antipodes of the truth. The self achieves mind in the degree in which knowledge of things is incarnate in the life about him; the self is not a separate mind building up knowledge anew on its own account. [13]

From Dewey’s point of view, even the ideal of education as self-development must be understood as a social process achieved through interaction and relation with others. Rather than fostering this ideal, advocates of distance learning, particularly those who stress self-paced, independent study, tend to reinforce individual isolation. “The effort at isolated intellectual learning contradicts it own aim,” Dewey claimed, for it “precludes the social sense which comes from sharing in an activity of common concern and value.” [14] In examining the economic efficiencies gained by computer innovations, Massy and Zemsky tellingly report that without a supportive social environment, “the students who would most benefit from self-paced learning have the least motivation to do so.”[15]

The prevailing attitude toward teaching is also particularly telling on this point. In Twigg’s words: “Because of the widespread availability of self-paced learning materials, direct faculty intervention throughout the learning process will lessen.”[16] Like a small country being invaded by a foreign power, the idea of faculty interaction is not said to be condemned simply because of the enormous costs of the labor involved (although one suspects that this is the most significant issue). Rather advocates of information technology assume a notion of independent learners at the center of the enterprise who simply do not depend on faculty as the primary source of their learning. While Dewey was among those to argue against a teaching-centered model of education, he would certainly reject the radically asocial dimension of distance learning as it is currently being discussed. [17]

Once again, Dewey’s position is that the social environment–the interdependence and engagement of individuals in the performative acts of learning–is a necessary condition for developing the unique capacities of individuals. Even if such a model as the National Learning Infrastructure could develop an individual’s dispositions for distance learning; in its current direction toward individualization, it would be difficult to account for the experience of sharing in a common activity that is central to Dewey’s understanding of both the social environment of learning and the social aims of democracy.

In contrast to Dewey’s concentration on the social functions of education, the individual ends of distance learning are most frequently described in terms of the acquisition of definable skills. “It seems to me,” Carol Twigg writes,

that our definition of learning is changing in a number of ways… Increasingly, viewing a college education as mastery of a body of knowledge is becoming outmoded. Instead we recognize that graduates need to have acquired skills… along with such abilities as finding needed information and working well with others.[18]

With this emphasis on acquired skills, we are also beginning to see more stress placed on educational outcomes. “Because of its capacity to focus on individual assessment,” Massy and Zemsky note, information technology “will make the teaching and learning enterprise much more outcome-oriented.”[19] In large measure this growing emphasis on skills and outcomes is related to a greater consumer orientation to education. Increasingly students are looking “for increased competition between higher education providers to work to their advantage as consumers.”[20]

While Dewey too understood the importance of acquiring skills, he would no doubt be disturbed by the instrumental and pecuniary ends of distance learning. In his essay, Individualism, Old and New, he claimed that “the development of a civilization that is outwardly corporate–or rapidly becoming so–has been accompanied by the prevailing mentality of the ‘business mind'” and the prevailing standards of value derived from pecuniary success alone.[21] On the educational front, the ability to buy economic success is understood in terms of the acquisition of skills of technical mastery sold at the best price. Yet paradoxically, Dewey argued, even if these skills are quite broad and fluid, such narrowly conceived individualist attempts to find economic security in an increasingly insecure economic world produces the conditions under which individuals become increasingly lost, unable to “find support and contentment in the fact that they are sustaining and sustained members of a social whole.”[22]

For Dewey, a highly individualistic or libertarian model of learning severely narrows and restricts the meaning and practical effects of education’s social function. In his view, the purposes of education in a democracy are necessarily both individual and collective in nature. They consist in developing individuals’ natural capacities and acquisition of skills in concert with their preparation for the activities of engaged citizenship and reflective thought. Indeed, without pathological effect, the growth of the individual–the unique development of the individual’s talents and skills– cannot be separated from the social environment of shared activities, values and common interests within which the individual is sustained and grows.

Although information technology has the potential “to increase learning productivity in the areas of codified knowledge and algorithmic skills,”[23] it may not serve these larger social purposes. Indeed, even if one could argue that sharing in common activities that are primarily non-algorithmic can take place within the social environment of distance learning, Dewey would strongly criticize the disembodied nature of such a “social” environment.

For Dewey, learning digitally may well push Cartesian dualism to new heights as minds connect over vast distances without the inconveniences of time, place and body. In his view, the separation of body and mind culminates “in a sharp demarcation of individual minds from the world, and hence from one another… [This] dualistic philosophy of mind and the world implies an erroneous conception of the relationship between knowledge and social interests, and between individuality or freedom and social control and authority.”[24] In educational practice, it often assumes the form of a body of knowledge distinct from its social purposes and a mind free from its social context and physical constraints. As Sidney Hook explains, a dualistic theory of mind and body, according to Dewey, “converts functional distinctions in the ‘moving unities of experience’ into separations of existence. Thus mind is considered separate from the body, whose activity is viewed as an alien influence on how the mind learns and the self is divided from its environing physical and social world.”[25]

Even as a real time-interactive-talking heads-model, being digitally educated decontextualizes the experience of learning and realizes in practice what Descartes only separated philosophically: Minds communicate through bits, bodies move through atoms. The most elemental dualism of the post-information age is thoroughly Cartesian. Detached from the motion of our bodies and disengaged from our local physical and social surroundings, education in the post-information age does not connect, but separates the self from the world, and thus from others. Rather than fulfilling its promise, learning digitally seems only to compromise the most significant elements of Dewey’s educational philosophy.

III. Learn Locally, Think Globally

Although information technology, like the printing press, opens up radically new options for education, Dewey would remind us that computers are, after all, tools. And, like all other tools, they provide ways of getting around and fulfilling one’s purposes in one’s environment. The question is how can we best use the tools of information technology for our educational purposes and aims?

In terms of delivery, advocates of digital learning often argue that information technology provides a better option than the traditional university. With its relatively fixed economy of scale and centralized location, the university has become a legacy of the industrial age. In Twigg’s words: “Our institutions of higher education are reminiscent of other kinds of industrial age organizations such as the factory and the department store–characterized by size and centralization–in contrast to the distributed, networked organization and mail-order shopping services of the 1990s.”[26] Twigg predicts that the ability to transmit through networked organization high quality learning tools customized for the individual student will begin to replace the traditional (teacher-centered) functions of the university. While there will still be a role for faculty and institutions of higher education in terms of certification, student services, and some collaborative experiences, she suggests, its centrality in the process of learning will significantly change as students become more independent and self-reliant and as physical contact becomes “less important to them.”[27]

Although Twigg may well be correct in arguing that the industrial designed university no longer provides the best option for educational delivery, her vision of the future predicated on independent learning, as we have seen, is not without its serious defects. In analyzing the profound implications of the printing press in America, Dewey noted that localism with its infinite variations and specific contexts tends to become stronger as the world (or at least information about it and our connection to it) grows closer.[28] And just as industry and politics are witnessing a tendency toward both decentralization and globalization, the best option for educational delivery may well be the more local community and small college system with new neighborhood and workplace learning centers further developed to meet the educational needs of both traditional and non-traditional students. Within these small colleges and decentralized institutions, the physical proximity of students and faculty would help to embody learning and knowledge as a social process.

To learn locally and think globally, students must have access to the tools of technology. Information retrieval, communication systems, and independent and collaborative learning tools are now necessary and even elemental parts of learning. But they are not sufficient. They must be contextualized within a learning environment. As most agree, learning tools can “stand in” for a physical and social environment, but they cannot replace it. One simply cannot replace the direct and palpable gravity of social interaction that is intrinsic to the atomic weight of learning with weightless bits traveling at blinding speed through thin fine fibers of glass.

As global communication systems eviscerate time and space, digital learning may transform the mode of educational production and delivery. It may even make the traditional university and large state institution obsolete. But as our access to the tools of technology become less dependent on space and time, as distance learning increases, the proximity of social interaction in the process of learning should increase proportionally: The more distant the means of delivery, the more proximate the learning experience should be in terms of the intensity, relation, and quality (if not quantity) of interactions between faculty and students. Rather than becoming less so, the physical and social environment may become more important as distant learning tools become more available. As in the case of localism and globalism, physical proximity and intensive social interaction may both compliment and counterbalance distance in learning. Although learning digitally may promise to make us less dependent on time and space, it is only within a social environment of learning that we can begin to celebrate the experimentation, exploration, and expression–the idea of learning by doing–central to the spirit of John Dewey.

Back to Index of Papers


[1] Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital, (New York: Borzoi-Knopf, 1995), 14.

[2] Ibid., 163-65.

[3] For example, see William F. Massy and Robert Zemsky, “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity” 4.

[4] Ibid., 199f. Return to text

[5] Carol Twigg, “The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure” 5.

[6] Dewey, Democracy and Education, in John Dewey, The Middle Works, 1899-1924, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980), 147.

[7] Jack M. Wilson, “The CUPLE Physics Studio,” The Physics Teacher.

[8] Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital, 224.

[9] A description of CITYSCAPES can be found in “Strengthening Teaching and Learning in the First Two Years,” PEW Charitable Trusts (Number 9, January 1996), 4.

[10] Massy and Zemsky, Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity,” 2. (

[11] Carol Twigg, “The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure.”

[12] Although one of these skills may involve collaboration, it is nevertheless described as a kind of “pull yourself up by your own boot straps” social environment of independent learning.

[13] Hook, “Introduction to Democracy and Education,” 304.

[14] Hook, “Introduction to Democracy and Education,” 44.

[15] Massy and Zemsky, “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity,” 4.

[16] Carol Twigg, “The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure,” 8.

[17] On the role of the teacher and the social purposes of education, see Dewey’s The School and Society in The Middle Works, vol. 1.

[18] Carol Twigg, “The Need for a National Infrastructure,” 1. See also, Jeremy Shapiro and Shelley Hughes, “Information Technology as a Liberal Art,” Educom Review (March/April):31-35.

[19] Massy and Zemsky, “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity,” 3.

[20] Carol Twigg, “The Need for a National Infrastructure,” 4. Return to text

[21] Individualism, Old and New in John Dewey: The Later Works, vol 5, p. 67f. Return to text

[22] Ibid. Return to text

[23] Massy and Zemsky, “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity,” 2.

[24] Hook, “Introduction to Democracy and Education,” 300.

[25] Hook, “Introduction to Democracy and Education,” x.

[26] Carol Twigg, “The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure,” 5.

[27] Ibid., 8.

[28] See “Americanism and Localism” in John Dewey: The Middle Works, vol. 12, p.12-16.

Back to Index of Papers

Return home