Reviewing the Post-digital

In June 2009 the ‘52group’ gathered from across the Higher Education sector to consider the confluence of education and the digital. The result was a position paper entitled ‘Preparing for the postdigital era’. At the time the paper was largely met with a mixture of skepticism and confusion, a common response being “The digital hasn’t been superseded?”. Despite this over the intervening  years the term has slowly gained traction in educational contexts.

To what extent our original paper influenced the recent proliferation of the term is of course not clear but we see the concept being employed in various locations including last year’s SEDA conference: “Opportunities and challenges for academic development in a post-digital age” and a forthcoming conference hosted by Greenwich university: “Flipping the Institution: Higher Education in the Post Digital Age”. There are also numerous examples of the term casually making its way into strategic rhetoric in and around our institutions.

To mark the shift from Digital to Post-digital thinking members of the original ‘52group’ we have each revisited the term to consider it’s definition and relevance 5 years on. This is my perspective:

At the time of writing the original thought piece, Preparing for the post-digital, we were looking to articulate how technology is not a driver of social change, but an enabler. Post-digital has taken many paths since 2009, referring to subsuming of technology into society so that its presence, and to some extent the continued proliferation and innovation becomes a social and cultural norm. However, it should be noted that this perspective is only from a global north perspective.

My focus on the post-digital looked at how some individuals have been enabled to change or modify academic practices. Most of the observations in this area have come from the social media interactions, for example individuals having access to a ready means of publishing though blogs and other social tools. At the moment there is a distinctive, and growing, group of academics and academic related staff that can be identified and recognised through the online promotion and increased visibility of their work. The way that these individuals interact and collaborate with others through media such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs, and importantly how they draw links between the different media is also a defining characteristic.

Peruse any conference information, or mailing lists and you will identify that digital is currently in vogue, and it has mostly replaced the prefix ‘e-‘. For the group of academics referred to previously, the tech-focused distinction has disappeared. To them digital is already invisible, new media are conceived in terms of affordance. They see these tools as an artist would see the brush and canvas, they are there to be used to create and articulate an image held by the user. It is the exploiting of these affordances that make them distinctive. Social media as littered as it is with academic shrapnel showing how people are thinking and developing their ideas is fertile ground for post-digital behaviours. As ideas and information proliferate, so networks and ad hoc communities emerge, often individuals collaborating and never meeting. Most of this happens in the open, reaching new audiences, but more importantly it is almost an open invitation to participate.

In the past individuals may have strongly identified with organisations, institutions or research groups. The post-digital behaviours have begun to alter these relationships they are now more fluid and agile. Relationships develop and fade as needed.

What I didn’t understand about post-digital behaviours at the time of the original paper was that they do not only relate to idea of affordances of technology. The nature of change, especially in education, as gone through a shift of emphasis. The idea of a change process occurring with fixed start and end points is less of an issue. Perpetual beta, the way in which some software is always supplying features or fixes to ensure ever greater usability, can now be seen in the way in which we work and live, for example multiple career paths. If post-digital has a set of characteristics, then the way some organisations seek to create space and time to enable and encourage their staff to always look for ways to innovate would be part of that set.

Understanding how change is happening, and the speed with which students adopt new behaviours and technologies will have huge implications for staff development. Whilst not mutually exclusive, is it better to have an accredited lecturer who has done no professional or personal development for two or three years, or a lecturer without accreditation, who seeks to constantly enhance practice and understand the changing nature of students. The impact of the journey that brought us to post-digital reveals that to prosper at work and socially, individuals need to behave with more agility and flexibility, and of course with the ability both to recognise that innovation is permanent and to accept continual change.

Further reflections on the Post-digital from members of the 52group:

Mark Childs:

Dave Cormier:

Richard Hall:

David White:

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