Evolvability: a world of persistent ambient digital culture

Dean Groom, Head of Educational Development Design at Macquarie University, NSW, is interested in renewing curricula and professional practice by embedding new pedagogical classroom practice to create authentic, realistic and relevant learning for today’s learners.

Growing up online

Much has been written and re-written about the current attitude, skill, attention span, preferences, skills and knowledge of the current generation growing up online.

There is little consensus on which educational technologies are more or less valid, yet broad agreement that the generally fast paced uptake of technology in society will continually bring new challenges and problems for educators still learning to develop and manage socially inclusive learning environments. Much discussion surrounds four things: growth, constraint, collapse and transformation.

This article discusses the importance of digital culture in pedagogical practice by considering how social frameworks and boundaries are impacting learning and teaching. Segal (1994) predicted at the eye of this technological storm would be a

… complex web of social, economic, technical, organisational, and individual factors interacting to influence which technologies are adopted and to alter the effect of a technology after it has been adopted.

Today, across geographies, cultures and organisations, people have claimed new digital-identity.

Wikipedia describes the once fictional ‘metaverse’ as

… virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space which includes the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality and the internet.

The term ‘metaverse’was coined in Neal Stephenson's 1992 science fiction novel ‘Snow Crash’, where humans, as avatars, interact with each other and software agents in a three-dimensional space that uses the metaphor of the real world. For online cultures, the metaverse is no longer a fiction, but a connected reality of daily life.

Despite the phenomenal rise in use and sophistication of digital mediums in the last decade, by and large education has framed the internet as a two-dimensional medium of web-pages and content rather than as a collection of immersive things. Kevin Ashton in 2009, presented the idea of ‘The Internet of Things’, arguing the internet has almost wholly been dependent on human beings for information. The data available has first been captured and created by human beings by typing, pressing a record button, taking a digital picture or scanning a QR code etcetera.

Semantic web

Whereas the internet used to be mainly concentrated on the interchange of documents, its future, often called the semantic web, is about two things. It is about common formats for integration and combination of data drawn from diverse sources, and language for recording how the data relates to real world objects.

That allows a person, or a machine, to start off in one database, and then move through an unending set of databases, which are connected, not by wires, but by being about the same thing (W3C). http://www.w3.org/2001/sw/ In short, the internet of things is no longer driven by humans publishing more content, but by machines interpreting human interaction.

It has been beneficial for the internet to be chaotic and ill-structured. This created increasing demand in human effort, willing participation and critical thinking. Ely (1999) suggested several things contributed to the climate of this success:

  • dissatisfaction with the status quo
  • knowledge and skills exist
  • availability of resources
  • availability of time
  • rewards and/or incentives exist
  • participation
  • commitment
  • leadership.

Teachers creating a digital culture

Many teachers have used these conditions for success, despite them being the exception not the norm. They have created a digital-culture expressed through TeachMeets , hashtag discussions on social media and hold un-conferences, outright rejecting the traditional professional formats.

Web 2.0 allowed teachers to become collective authors of their own professional learning, maximising their chances for developing key information technology competencies to continue learning in the fast emerging digital education environment. To them, the internet is no longer about knowing web addresses, but knowing where to find other people who curate, exchange and analyse potentially useful ideas, methods and information to amplify, consolidate, collaborate and improve performance. This is not simply a new way to learn, it is an entirely new and significant culture.


Dalrymple (2010) suggested,

Before the internet, most professional occupations required a large body of knowledge, accumulated over years or even decades of experience.

In comparison, Hadjerrouit (2010) noted that digital literacy resources still meet with some resistance from teachers in the classroom environment. Resources, such as electronic textbooks for reading and wikis for information sharing, can be complex to implement as teachers struggle to learn how to use the systems and resources that are embedded inside digital culture.

It is difficult to clearly define digital literacy because it is constantly changing, but it is possible to map a skills set that is currently needed. In a world connected though mobiles, virtual worlds, games and social media, limiting anyone’s knowledge and skills to searching for information or using Microsoft Office are nowhere near sufficient to create a climate for personal and collective growth.

Consider these:


Many advocates for digital culture point to a profoundly liberal future made possible by Web2.0. Broad discussion ensues, from its potential for disrupting school, creating the society of mind or harnessing the wisdom of the crowd. Advocates may be proven to be right. However, Larry Sanger (2010), co-founder of Wikipedia, believes:

Reading, writing, critical thinking, and calculation, however much they can be assisted by groups, are ultimately individual skills that must, in the main, be practiced by individual minds capable of working independently.

It is a reminder not to become focused on technical superiority of one technology over another, but rather acknowledge the increasing diversity of technologies and preferences of those who might use them. Digital culture tends to reject rules in favour of principles. In the day-to-day reality of teaching within the classroom one of the biggest social constraints we need to pay principal attention to remains – the digital divide, the gap between those who have and those who have not in society. This is not simply access to ‘things’, but the right to improve personal knowledge and experience through equitable means within day-to-day classroom constraints. Failing to develop a cultural heritage of using technology for learning, as we have using books and pencils, presents a significant social-economic constraint for everyone.

For example, read:


The physical world is collapsing in terms of physical time and distance. Faster connections, richer experiences and 3D immersion was, in Stephenson's metaverse, purely science fiction. Collapse is often reported to teachers and parents in the media as a downgrading of learning. Articles, such as ‘Google is making us stupid?’or ‘Porn link with school assaults’, mean digital policy is often cautious, defensive and irrational in response.

Meanwhile, many parents provide unfettered access to technologies at home, while others provide little or none. Educators are responding online using social media, pointing out evidence of the benefits and reality of teaching the current generation of learners on their cyber-home turf.

Two such teachers are Bianca Hewes, DIY Teaching and Learning and Denise Lofts, An Educational Journey. To me, they exemplify leadership and critical understanding of digital technologies, while at the same time modelling essential principles to their students.

Read more about the issues:


Having had relatively unhindered access to books for centuries, we neither question books as a medium suited for learning nor try to frame books within one particular mode of use. We know books and we see them as a rich medium fulfilling a wide variety of purposes. When we think about technology, we tend to adopt a more cautious approach. We may not know games as a literacy, for example, whereas we might find blogs or wikis somewhat easier to relate to.

People are highly selective when they talk about technology or the internet, especially with what they believe to be true. It is extremely difficult, therefore, to provide professional development, as it is increasingly more difficult to know what new literacies teachers might need, want, or have already.

Being digitally literate is becoming ever more important as society is increasingly relying on digital media. Understanding begins with, but is not limited to, the ability to navigate and use all forms of digital media including video games, smart phones and digital repositories. It is only through continuously inquiring and exploring the nature and characteristics of these technologies for ourselves, that we can hope to develop a clearer perception of exactly how they can be brought to facilitate learning.

This presents education with an enduring problem. In order to more fully grasp the potential of any technology, we need to decipher its nature, deconstructing it and critically examining its inner components and mechanics. Education cannot afford not to create more time and opportunities for teachers to do this, nor can teachers expect the time to be entirely sufficient.

The days of non-reflective ICT training is no longer a feasible solution, nor is ignoring those teachers transforming practice and assessment at the grass roots level and quickly lifting them to key positions, based on ability rather than time-served (if indeed time is a valid measure of experience anymore).

It takes a village

The culture that is emerging from all of this exploration and discovery is not just about online tools to improve performance in the prescribed syllabus, or pedagogy.

It is clearly about culture and the role technology plays in shaping information by recognising and rewarding leadership in online cultures. Often teacher efforts to create new learning cultures creates successful projects which have almost no funding, but ambitious goals, open to participation on a global scale from both inside and outside of school, covering a gambit of digital literacies and cultures.

For example:


Ultimately, growth, constraint, collapse and transformation will always be present in any discussion around education and the welfare of young people. Personal teacher effort to foster a positive digital culture greatly improves the chances of teacher and student ‘evolvability’. When communities begin to positively connect, reflect, create and share as digital citizens and identities, they create new concepts, opportunities, knowledge and relationships in the ambience of digital culture.

References and further reading

Carr, N. 2008, ‘Is Google making us stupid?’, The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2008, accessed 14 January 2018.

Dalrymple, D. 2010, ‘Knowledge is out, focus is in, and people are everywhere’, World Question Center, Edge.

Hadjerrouit, S. 2010, ‘A theoretical framework to foster digital literacy: The case of digital leaning resources’ in Proceedings of the key competencies in the knowledge society: IFIP TC 3 International Conference, KCKS, eds, N. Reynolds & M. Tursanyi-Szabo, pp.144-154. Held as Part of WCC 2010 Brisbane, Australia 20-23 September, Springer, Brisbane.

McDougall, B. 2010, ‘Porn link with school assaults’, The Daily Telegraph, 21 May, accessed 14 January 2018.

Sanger, L. 2010, ‘Individual knowledge in the internet age’, EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 45, no. 2, pp.14-24, accessed 14 January 2018.

Segal, H. P. 1994, Future imperfect: the mixed blessings of technology in America, Amherst The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst.

Keywords: digital learning; gaming; information technology

How to cite this article: Groom, D. 2012, ‘Evolvability: a world of persistent ambient digital culture’, Scan 31(1)

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