Digital learning and Elizabethan Poetry

In recent weeks I’ve been involved in the pilot of an online course delivered via the University’s VLE. The course is called “Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age” and it’s time for our first output. We’re to upload a poster outlining the advantages and disadvantages of digital learning.  But I sometimes like to think outside the box. So here’s one I thought of that I’m NOT going to submit for assessment.

Poster with extract from John Donne poem
Advantages and disadvantages of digital learning


You may wonder what that has to do with the exercise. Well, in my view, Donne, writing long before anyone had ever heard of a computer nailed a fundamental problem of digital learning. He was (as poets are wont to do) talking about love, and its associated joys and pains, and how by versifying he could simplify and “fetter” those emotions.

If we substitute “knowledge” for “love” it strikes me that there’s a parallel. It is possible to reduce knowledge to “numbers”, to fetter it in some kind of digital chain. That can be convenient, certainly, sometimes it might even be necessary, but the act of doing so means that it loses something essential to itself and, as Donne found to his annoyance it needs to be, and inevitably will be,  set free again if it is to “delight many”, if “whole joys” are to be experienced. (That last phrase is pinched from another Donne poem, wholly unsuitable for a respectable blog like this).  So my poster can be summarised thus:-

  • The advantage of digital learning is that it can render knowledge into a convenient package.
  • The disadvantage of digital learning is that knowledge does not fit into a convenient package.

I plead guilty to exactly the kind of oversimplification that I’m criticising. I know that there is much more to digital learning than just “packaging knowledge”, but I don’t think it is really possible to talk about “digital learning”, or any sort of learning outside the context of the disciplines and without some sort of commitment to a critical pedagogy. The sort of knowledge we deal with in universities doesn’t lend itself to being reduced to numbers, or for that matter to lists of advantages and disadvantages. Instead it invites questions of itself about what it is for, and about the dialectic between the knower, the knowledge, and the discipline. Or it should.

Anyway I like the rhythm of the poem, and if this post gets one more person enjoying Donne I’ll think writing it an hour well spent. And yes, he’s just as entertaining online as he is in print.