Maybe digital isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

So much of what I do these days, and what I produce, is digital. Tweets, status updates, audio & video files, documents, reports, etc. Less than 1% gets to where it needs to get to in any other way than by electronic transfer – money to friends (bank transfer), documents to colleagues (emails, networks, Dropbox), sharing (tweets, blog posts, status updates, etc.). Hell, even a message home to say I’ll be late will be a Facebook message instead of a phone call!

For my 40th birthday my brother bought my a USB turntable (Denon DP-200USB), something I (we) could use to rip our extensive collection of 70’s, 80’s and 90’s vinyl collection of rock, metal, and various dubious listening pleasures. So, the past few winter’s I’ve been holed up in the spare room with 300+ vinyl records (I’m sure we had more) and the turntable, ripping them, adding to iTunes, loading cover art and track listings, transferring to my iPod and listening to my childhood and teenage years in the car during the daily commute.

Even my two boys (ages 4 and 5) are getting in on it, asking for certain tracks or bands in the car with me, looking over the vinyl covers, reading the lyrics, laughing at the band photos (it’s the hair!), and not quite understanding just ‘how’ the sound works!It’s been quite an emotional experience, reliving parts of my youth I’d forgotten, just by hearing the opening riff or vocal to a song I’d not heard for decades.The feelings of a teenager trying to find his way in life, as lived (as many of us did) through our taste in music. Some of this music I’d not heard since I sold my last turntable – I’ve been slowly getting MP3 versions of the best stuff I could from the vinyl collection, but it’s still not the same as the crackles and hiss from the vinyl.

Last week, for the first time in 20 years, I bought a vinyl LP. Yes, it wasn’t the same experience as buying it from the local independent record store I used to spend hours browsing in (I bought this one online and waited for Mr Postie to deliver). But it came today, and I felt like a kid again – touching, smelling, handling, the LP, excited that’s a gatefold limited edition (those in the know know why this is special!) … and what’s more, it’s a new album. Yes, new music on an old format, and it made me feel so good! It made me think that all my MP3 tracks (some 10,000 of them) mean nothing, I’ve nothing to hold or ‘feel’. It may be the same music, but it lacks a connection and emotion when it’s just a track listed among so many others.

Next, for me, is to go and buy/make the hi-fi system I always wanted as a teenager – quality amp and speakers. I may not have the room or ability/willingness to blast it out like I used to (sorry Mum & Dad, I totally understand why you tried so hard to get me to use headphones now!) but I do value the quality of the audio experience, so I will be searching out decent equipment.

But what does this mean? For me it’s realisation that not everything that is digital is good. I realise that I now miss the old analogue, non-digital things like opening a CD or DVD case and reading the insert, opening a gatefold LP and reading the lyrics and seeing the band photos, holding the vinyl on the edges so as not to scratch the surface.

The connection is missing with digital artefacts, which is bizarre as I feel more connected with the world than I did back in 1992 (when I bought my first CD player).

I have also, of late, started buying more printed books. Yes, I still like my Kindle and eBooks, but I have realised that sometimes there is just no substitute for the real ‘hold-it-in-your-hands’ thing. For me I remember that it didn’t start with the predictable mid-life crisis or trying to relive a youth lost, it started with a power cut – no power = no Internet or TV or charged phones. I was stuck with candles (not too bad) and a book. But I didn’t have any new books to hand, it was all electronic. OK, so the power cut didn’t last more than an hour or two, but what if it had … I had nothing to do as everything needed power either to work or to charge up for reuse.

I wonder if our approach to technology and the environments we build for our students could benefit from this too?  Are we giving them so much in digital form (eBooks, scanned chapters of books or journals, PDF of presentation slides, links to news online, skype calls with experts and specialist, Apps and responsive website to make online collaboration and connection easier, etc.) that perhaps a paper copy would help?

I have been lucky enough to sit in on a few lectures recently, and the most animated and engaged students I saw was in one lecture where the PowerPoint slides didn’t explain a theory well enough so the academic switched on the visualizer and wrote it out long-hand, highlighting and updating the text as she went. The students could see something being built, in real-time, in front of them. They could see the learning ‘process’, not just the learning ‘outcome’. They could see that their academic not only knew the answer, but how to get there and how to explain it too.

So, is there room for non-digital analogue in our classrooms and learning journeys? Are we able to see the need or benefit of it if it’s there, or are we so fixed on the digital and the technology that that is all we can ‘fix’ into the equation?

With articles and tweets about teachers being replaced by computers, from the BBC and Huffington Post, I see a trend emerging that more and more people are turning away from the blind adoption of iPads and tablets for classrooms and actually looking at ‘why’ an iPad (or alternative device) would be good, and at ‘what’ it would be good at? Is there an alternative, not just to the device but to the intended use?

Here’s a good idea .. instead of using the iPad to get school children to play a game like Monopoly to learn about management, game-play, finances, control, turn-taking, etc. why not get the board-game out of the cupboard and play the ‘real’ version? Oh, I forgot, the contents of the games cupboard were binned in favour of a charging station for the iPads!

See, maybe going completely online or digital isn’t such a good idea? It isn’t about a ‘blended’ approach either, its just about using what works, where it works?!

Image source: David Hopkins (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)