The Digital Amphibians

As a whole host of new and faster developments are taking place in the domain of teaching/learning online, the theme of resistance versus celebration of academic technology, which I started writing about many years ago,* is intriguing me once again. This time around, when I come across people who either celebrate their preference/interest or express critical judgments about teaching with new technologies, I am reminded of a story.

There  was this poor Nepali family that used to have a hard time because they had guests too frequently. So, the couple developed a strategy to address their challenge: the wife started serving dinner to the guests along with her husband, and as soon as the husband sensed that she may be running out of food for the rest of their family, he said, “We are full, honey! Now, you should serve the kids.”

I think a lot of people–including myself–want to be diplomatic like the host in the story above, but it is easier said than done. When others start defending or resisting new technologies, in spite of our knowledge, understanding, and empathy with both sides, we too fail to rephrase our thoughts and tone down our reactions, to wait and see what happens, to rethink our initial understanding while things evolve and improve. This analogy may not fully pan out, but I think we regularly fail to gently indicate to the guest that kids will go hungry if we keep eating!

Therefore, after a long time of wishing and failing to be diplomatic about it, I am now starting to think that it is perhaps natural for people who explore emerging tools and spaces using perspectives drawn from “critical theory of technology” to express strong reactions, to fail to be very diplomatic. And here’s why I think that happens: they are like active, mobile amphibians that constantly explore new environments, and in that process, they naturally react strongly to exciting new places, risky swamps that they need to cross, and scary new creatures that they come across. I think it’s okay to be restless digital amphibians that often react strongly to new things and situations! 

In fact, I would argue that the active digital amphibians should build on their rich experiences, value their interest for exploring new places, understand their strong reactions as natural, and most importantly, foster and promote their dual perspectives. Instead of worrying about looking odd to other creatures on both land and water, they should accept that it is okay to be more confused, more opinionated, or more excited than other creatures as they straddle established technologies and untested new spaces. While exploring the new swamps and waters of emerging technologies, they should continue to appreciate their opportunity to live and work on wet and dry lands of established professional practices and traditional technological means and affordances. In fact, those that love love to climb big and tall trees that have deep roots in the soil of pedagogical scholarship should continue to cultivate that desire, like tree frogs. 

Of course, as they mature, the active digital amphibians learn to react better. They may start responding with less surprise when they come across the big pond frogs that are too noisy; they may get used to the frogs’ loud croaking about how big they think the pond is. They may gradually learn how to join the pond parties with less judgmental attitudes and appreciate what is unique about that environment. 

Among the benefits of being active digital amphibians, these creatures get to see many others of their type that have ventured deep into the dry lands and far out to the waters; they can enjoy sharing experiences about small streams and big rivers, salty seas and warm marshes, rocky mountains and dusty plains. Even more importantly, they are able to relate easily to all fellow creatures on land who don’t want to mess with water. So, they can be beneficial to the rest of the world. 

That said, the amphibians that actively explore both land- and waterscapes do not always do the right thing. Some of them venture too far out into the ocean and forget that back on land, habitats of many species are often highly polluted or even threatened. In the world of online education, animals known as private corporations are backing decisions known as legislation to let themselves enter the public education system from the back door. If they get their way, they will severely affect the most vulnerable student demographics by replacing their actually going to the university (on state-subsidized payments) with completing virtual courses and “testing out” of actual educational opportunities.

Many digital amphibians forget that in many places, hiring in good, permanent teaching positions could soon be freezing if universities start to “solve” all kinds of educational problems by replacing “effective” education with “efficient” alternatives such as the big bad versions of online courses. There are people who gain to make millions of dollars if they can successfully confuse others about efficiency with effectiveness. When university administrators jump on the bandwagon of the biggest buzz-making new developments, they may do so without understanding the wide range of teaching methods that different disciplines require, hurting thousands of students’ opportunities for genuine, engaged learning through direct mentorship and support from experienced faculty. Around the world, especially in institutions that cannot fend themselves against powerful financial and political forces, educators themselves may be completely left out of decision making when outside forces sneak in or otherwise shape the course of events.

Some digital amphibians also get too quickly used to deteriorating professional conditions. In many places, faculty who want to raise their conscientious voices to bring up issues of student motivation, teacher-student contact, need for intensive mentoring for at-risk students–and the other thousand vagaries of being sympathetic, professionally dedicated educators–seem to already sense that they are being ignored as “resistant” against and “ignorant” about the new world of “advanced” technology.

The more active digital amphibians go into all kinds of new spaces and they personally get that one good resource here, another good idea there. They can find a nice 5-minute video lecture in a pond down the hill and bring it back to show to their students, bookmark a link, borrow a concept. But they can also get excited and forget that they are the exceptional life-long-learning teachers who also happen to have amphibian instincts and an itch to keep actively exploring both worlds.

Nevertheless, when they are empathetic and sensitive, digital amphibians can be a huge asset on both land and water. For their onsite courses, along with their fellow teachers who continue to teach in established ways, these teachers know how they have to write their attendance/participation policy using a tyrannical language, requiring students to “see me in my office at least once each between submitting the first and second drafts of all four major assignments.” Their 18 and 19 year old students may not come ready to discuss the 5-10 pages of assigned text no matter what they say and how they use the threat of failure; some students who have done the reading may be all excited about the topic but the rest may start turning the pages only after they’ve settled in class. In many classes, these teachers know that even with just 20 or so students in a room, many of them can take weeks before they start appreciating the course, enjoying the conversations, understanding the rationale of the assignments–in spite of the very clear language on the syllabus, plenty of resources to help students with the work, insistence to meet the teacher during office hours.

As they grow into more thoughtful and mature beings, the digital amphibians can understand why their good colleagues get critical and defensive and even disgusted when they hear grandiose new claims thrown at them about how to reinvent education in general. They can see why many good teachers are annoyed by the hype, why they wait for the hype cycle to complete itself. They also understand why other colleagues don’t like anyone who seem to have a chip on their shoulders, an attitude towards teachers who are still teaching in ways that are proven to be life-changing-ly wonderfully effective–however “outdated” they may seem.

Since the digital amphibians constantly explore all kinds of online teaching/learning methods, they are aware of the variety, evolution, and complexity in the emerging world of online pedagogy. They know that there are different benefits for different people in the different environments within the online world. They enter and exit from different points, using social media. They go in because they know real people in the network; for them, the online world is not just a scary virtual place that gives them anxiety; they know that it is them who are in control, not the technology that makes them feel stupid; they have even started figuring out how to overcome the cross-contextual/cultural barriers and enjoy the learning experience. BUT they know that they are the privileged few, not just from the peripheries of the technological and geopolitical ecology but also from the centers.

As they grow up and get more mindful, the digital amphibians know that different spaces do not and should not mean the same thing for everyone. They know that every place has its own drawbacks and advantages.

But since they also  always continue to explore and navigate new landscapes and waterscapes (and all the spaces in between), digital amphibians may never be very diplomatic when describing what they see and learn!



*The very first thing I got published in the traditional sense was an article in 1997 in the Journal of NELTA, (rather vaguely) critiquing the overexcited approaches that people took when adopting new techniques and technologies for teaching English. And the first major conference paper I presented after I came to the US was titled: “Neither Resistance Nor Craze…” (circa 2007) and it was specifically about two extreme views about academic technology.

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  1. Love the amphibian term and analogy!

  2. I’m really taken with the points you’re making here, but I think I couldn’t quite flipper my way between the beautiful story of home and ambivalent, strategically reactive hospitality, and then all the images of amphibious life. So if I may, I’m staying with the idea of the digital traveller, the one who stands on the threshold between hearth and outside. The traveller sees both the organisation of the home (and may intermittently accept its hospitality) but keeps a foot in the yard, and remembers all the dust and hardship of the journeying to get there.

    So the role of the traveller who isn’t looking to stay is often to bring these narratives of outside to the established places where rules are set and hospitality is formalised. And I think you’re right: because “outside” is often tough and demanding, the traveller can speak harshly or with disappointment when the rules of the home seem to be imposed. But what your astonishing Nepal story taught me is that those at home are also quietly negotiating, adjusting, extemporising. So even within the strictures of the expectations they place on themselves, they find a way to accommodate the disorderly, vagrant stranger who brings something in to them, and then needs their support to continue the journey without knowing everything about what they have done to the structure of the home.

    I am thinking about this in the context of an illness story I’ve just learned. A man and his wife were in hospital waiting for a challenging procedure. As part of the routines, the nurse asked them set questions about their wellbeing from a checklist. Without a word, they quietly decided to lie. They understood that there are times and places in which vital questions have to go unanswered, because the answer will be overpowering in that context, including to the person who seemed to want to know.

    I think in edtech we do a little of this, often.

    • Dear Kate, Thank you for a very thoughtful comment on the post. I think I couldn’t articulate very well that I am giving up on the diplomatic approach (because it doesn’t seem to work) and embracing the nature and behavior of an amphibian that keeps getting used to new situations but also continues to get excited/upset as it keeps exploring different spaces. However, after reading your comment, I am thinking that I could done better if I continued to elaborate on the story of the poor family, with the tension between the guest and hosts. I guess I didn’t want to treat the parasitical guests as a positive force in the dynamic of technological/educational evolutions! I do have a whole another post worth of ideas that I want to write about being a cultural, technological, epistemological sojourner who is always on the move and feels like an outsider and insider simultaneously. I’m thinking about the broader context of education and society/context, and the traveler metaphor may also be a great way to explore how we are navigating emerging technologies and pedagogies. Thank you again for taking the time to share your thoughts, including the brief story about strategic truth-telling (or not). Have a wonderful day.

  3. Pingback: Digital amphibians, technological determinism, and the nuances of social phenomena | Reflecting Allowed

  4. It’s an interesting analogy you present here and it’s good to explore such issues and thoughts.

    From my perspective, the theme of ‘resistance vs celebration of academic technology’ (point 1) is something quite different to the view of diplomacy in the face of new technologies (point 2). From my experience I can present two cases that put both aspects completely separate:

    1) The 60-something academic preparing for retirement, who blatantly resists the introduction of ‘the new’ e.g. a policy to ensure all lectures are recorded; or a policy to require academics to engage with the VLE to a ‘minimum standard’. This is ‘resistance’ (point 1), not lack of diplomacy, because to be diplomatic in this sense requires some experience/knowledge. The same could be applied to the academic devoted to research with little interest in teaching.

    2) Diplomacy in the face of new technology (point 2) however, might more closely relate to the MOOC phenomenon.
    The reason many (and I include myself here) are not so diplomatic with regards to MOOCs, is because of the educational media spin (which in itself is due to the silicon valley investment). Much of it centres around nonsensical calls that education is somehow broken and MOOCs will fix everything. This is why we are not diplomatic. The pedagogy and approach to teaching in the majority of MOOCs is nothing more than early attempts of distance education – watch/read some content and post in a forum. Of course there are some exceptions, but on the whole, we’ve been there and done it before, and as the media spin goes into overload, we react more strongly.

    Now if we forget the hype side of MOOCs, as well as any thought of profit (there has to be a thought for profit if silicon valley investors are engaging), then we can think about what MOOCs really do – opening up education to those who may not otherwise have those opportunities, is undoubtedly a positive thing. What is frustrating for me (and many other critics), is that MOOCs originated out of the open education movement, and yet, they are not very open. I think with that recognition we are becoming more diplomatic, but that is only through knowledge and experience (and being able to see past the spin.

    Anyway, that is just to pick up one angle that sprang to mind. This post, as well as @balimaha ‘s post, makes me think about White and Le Cornu’s notion of the Digital Resident and Digital Visitor. There are some common themes here…


  5. Hi Peter, your comment also made me realize that lots of the MOOC hype conflates online edu with MOOCs as if they r monolithic. Even MOOCs aren’t monolithic (most cMOOCs r quite open, right?)

  6. Quite interesting and new for me.

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