Digital Education – what’s it for? by David Edmundson-Bird

As a part of our Digital Education debate, we’re getting people to write guest blog posts about the subject. Following on from Rebecca Who’s post, “What Digital Education?”, David Edmundson-Bird from MMU asks what digital education is for?


“The Oxford English Dictionary (a weighty tome produced by an institution dedicated to education) describes it as two things. And that’s where the heart of the problem lies.

We’re quite familiar with these definitions:

1. The process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university: a course of education a. the theory and practice of teaching: i. colleges of education b. [count noun] a body of knowledge acquired while being educated: i. his education is encyclopaedic and eclectic c. information about or training in a particular subject: i. health education

There is a received wisdom that systematic instruction, information about a subject or training in a subject is what education is all about. And it’s certainly true that contemporary policy on education leads us towards a system more geared to instruction around specific vocations, it might be suggested that this isn’t what we want. Or need

I think we spend a lot less time thinking about this definition of education, and perhaps we should spend more time doing so

2. (an education) an enlightening experience:

The word education comes from the latin word “educare”, which means to draw out, lead out, march out/ bring up, rear or issue. I’m not sure modern education is about (or will suddenly be about) this. I spend a lot of time looking at teaching in schools, looking at specialist training providers in the field in which I specialise, and teaching in a local University. There are radically different things going on in each arena – in some cases it’s “instruction”, but in few cases would I describe it as “enlightening”. In few cases can I see things being “drawn out”, or learners being “led out” in a subject worthy of learning. The world we’ve created for ourselves does not allow for that. You’ll hear professionally brilliant teachers, trainers and lecturers complain quietly into their beer that the curriculum does not allow for anything beyond instruction in the posited subject areas. I think this stifles learning.

How does this relate to Digital Education? We’re in a phase of history where the digital world and the digital economy (two separate things related only by context) become increasingly important (if not the most important things on earth). Education has to occur in this context, but it is not only one kind of education. The danger is that we’re falling into a trap that believes that.

Our economy which begins to rely increasingly on “digital” is one which needs workers equipped to manage the trials this frontier brings. This equipment is something that requires two things – instruction, imitation and ultimately experience-driven execution. You do not need to go on a 3 year course to learn how to use Google Analytics (or one of the other myriad of tools available for exploiting opportunities in the digital economy – indeed by the time you’ve completed your 3 year programme, the software will be out of date and the time will have been wasted.

SEO takes a day to learn, but a lifetime to master – like chess. However there are principles behind SEO (such as how search engines work, how they are created) which are less about experience and training and more about learning to understand those principles – that’s something worth teaching (mostly because without the principles you would spend a long time experiencing the symptoms of search without understanding the reasons for them. But that’s a whole other story).

Where I work we teach principles and encourage our learners to experience things like software and services. They play about with SEO (or in some cases book themselves onto $59 “learn SEO in a day” courses). I don’t teach them SEO. At the end, as digital marketers, they come with some experience of SEO and an understanding of the principles of search. I hope I’ve led them some of that way, but until you’ve had a go for real, you won’t be 100%.

Some (not many) employers say they don’t need kids with degrees – they just want people who’ve been trained up in “x” discipline and “they’ll learn the rest whilst they’re here.” When I finished my first degree, a professor at the time announced that I had become a “trained thinker.” I could use that talent to become anything I wanted (and subsequently I have done many things. It’s easy to dismiss a University education as unwanted, unnecessary and expensive (usually by citing the likes of Bill Gates and the one or two other successful entrepreneurs who made it without degree but forgetting the many thousands of successful corporations that have survived – nay thrived – with a graduate at the helm, commanding armies of graduates). But a trained thinker looks beyond the obvious, can think around a problem in a way that shows maturity and discipline. I try to produce them that way. I know some that don’t work out. Everyone can remember a lecturer who was useless – I can think of several MDs and CEOs who aren’t that hot either, as well as the learners themselves and professional trainers – but those of you who have graduated and now find yourselves in enviable positions of employment in the digital sector, should think about how that time of being enlightened allowed you to grow – even if you had to learn Photoshop all by yourself.

Finally, this all relies on the raw material itself – the learner. Irrespective of approach, the learner that is not motivated will not learn. Motivation is a quality of human than cannot be taught, it is intrinsic to our human nature. Some research I carried out for the University highlighted that the common things that digital employers wanted from future employees were – high levels of motivation, enthusiasm, passion, teamwork and energy. No amount of education, training or experience creates that. It comes from the original ingredients – the person.”


What do you think? Get involved in the comments section below. or, if you want to write us a guest blog about this, or any other issues you might have in the creative/ digital and tech industries, let us know. You can also get tickets to the live debate about digital education and join in face to face!

  • Lionel Bunting

    Interesting indeed. Point about “thinker” is most relevant as it’s the ability to think in business that is so extremely useful and is arguable where many graduates fall down. They may have academic knowledge but often (not always) lack industry exposure and experience coupled with the ability to think, and thus apply some of their wonderful knowledge after years of study.

  • Richard Eskins

    Lionel, the only way they get a chance to mix ‘the ability to think’ with ‘ industry exposure and experience’ is if you give them a placement (paid) or a job.

    Going back to the ‘original ingredient’, my good students get good jobs. Many of them have worked hard before they leave us to ensure they do have the mix.