Digital Environment

EdTech & Design, Teaching

Learning as Becoming in a Digital Environment

Teaching in support of identity development

Starting with the idea of the Internet as a metaphor for the mind and the construction of identity, Dr. Sam Oh Neill explores how, in the digital age, “schooling must reach beyond its old purposes and… become education.”

THE DAY WE went to Marshall McLuhan’s house, I felt the respect my father had for his professor as they talked in front of the television. At age seven, I was oblivious to how well McLuhan foresaw the impact of media and technology on social development and citizenship. Even years later, writing an article about McLuhan in 1985 under an assumed identity,1 I was yet unaware of how meaningful McLuhan’s message would become with the rise of the internet.

McLuhan recognized that “the new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village.”2 He would be fascinated with how social media validates this statement. McLuhan saw any form of media as an extension or enhancement of our biological selves; as an expression of our being. The interconnectedness the Internet allows is a metaphor for the flow of information transmitted through neurons via synapses in the brain. Artificial intelligence, learning machines and the Internet of things intensify this metaphor, linking the extended mind to the extensions of the body that media represent. In this digital environment the information of the mind is given expression within the world of things. The mind, though, is often unreliable, resulting in “fake news,” conspiracy theories, the making of meaningless “memes,” and people “trolling” others. McLuhan admitted that the global village was not necessarily the best place to be.

There is more information on the web than a textbook could ever contain. We can even watch talks with Marshall McLuhan. Along with useful information, there is the stuff of nightmares – things most humans keep locked deep in our psyches. There are also believable lies.

What is the role of educators in this brave new world? How do educators respond to a digital environment that chips away at their viability as the providers of liberal education? How do they respond to an understanding of 21st century learning, defined as our interactions with and through the digital environment?

The standard response of schooling: embrace the new media and bring it into the classroom. Students develop websites, create blogs instead of essays, or create YouTube videos of Shakespeare with mashups of popular songs. We log in to Bill Nye for a lecture on science, David Suzuki on the environment, and provide online assignments with Internet links. School boards provide e-learning, making school buildings seem obsolete. Some schools provide Chromebooks and teachers use Google classrooms to recreate the world in which students live, better monitor progress, more readily comment on work and potentially teach 24/7. When you embrace this media extension it also embraces you, but it has longer, more powerful arms.

Deconstructing the metaphor

To understand the path through digital influence we must deconstruct the metaphor of mind to media. Our brains are primed and ready for learning. The learning process begins with perception: our senses drawing signals from the outside world into our brains. These signals move through the brain via neurons and synapses: inanimate, unintelligent bio-mechanisms. Connections in the brain are made stronger through association, via perception, interaction and reflection. Through this process we create meaning, and through meaning the mind emerges and forms identity. This biological process of learning has existed unchanged since our evolution.

We humans are the nervous system of the World Wide Web. Each user of a computer screen and keyboard, every thumb tap on a smartphone, is a synapse in the global brain. Synapses make the connections. We send the neural signals through the network. It has only just begun and we have much to learn, but the learning process has not changed. We make meaning through connections, change the world through action and then make new connections. If the medium is the message, then the message is this process of connection and its place as a metaphor for the brain revealing mind. We must understand the process that develops mind and that forms – or deforms – identity.

But we are caught up in the content of the web. We see this in the fear of missing out (FOMO) which has people checking devices every second. The brain is always on. We have little time to make connections as we struggle to keep up.

This fixation on the message and not the metaphor is typical of schooling. In the curriculum, content is everything. Teaching in schools is primarily focused on the acquisition of course content that must be covered to achieve a credit. We fund technology in order to get access to the content on the web. When we give students Google, they search and cut and paste. Schooling prepares them for this process by providing them with answers, or leading them to conclusions needed to pass a course. There is seldom emotional connection to the process of schooling, so meaning evolves in environments outside of school.

Metaphors make meaning through relationship. The physical process of perception takes information from outside the brain and, through meaningful connections, constructs knowledge. We are able to create meaning by connecting disparate content in unique ways. This is the essence of metaphor. Through metaphor, one thing becomes the other, and learning expands beyond the confines of rote experience. The metaphor of the World Wide Web as human mind reminds us that the web is an expression of the mind. The mind is the maker of identity. The digital environment is an electrical extension of the biological process of becoming. 

As a metaphor for the mind, the digital environment finds identity through our interaction as we express our identity through it. Identity is how we author ourselves in the world; we are defined by our actions in society with others: people, places, things and ideas. The issue of identity resonates in the realization that gender and sexuality are socially constructed. It resounds in every issue of racial experience. It reverberates in how we understand nature: as an endless resource to be exploited, or a living system of which we are one interdependent organism. And identity – who we are and how we develop – is deeply influenced by this new medium which pervades the environments in which we live. It is through the meaning of the digital environment as metaphor that we find the direction for schools.

Authors of existence

There is more to 21st century learning than working with kids in the cloud. Students need learning experiences that develop a critical awareness of social influences on how they create meaning in the world, so that their identities are not misted by cloud and cuteness. Magolda3 informs us that 21st century learning outcomes require the development of “internal values that shape our identities and relations with others.” She refers to this as self-authorship. Self-authorship requires reflection on experience and a critical evaluation of thoughts and feelings about what and why we are learning within a community of inquiry. This communal reflection is essential in a world dominated by technology and social connections that do not require physical proximity. Self-authorship involves a shift from meaning-making structures dominated by the uncritical acceptance of an outside authority, socialized via schooling, to meaning-making developed through encounters with divergent ideas. When students realize their ability to develop their own systems of knowledge acquisition, and to define their own beliefs and construct their own identities, they become independent learners.

Learning is no longer viewed as a process of knowledge accumulation. It is a biological process through which we discover how to author ourselves. This is essential for the coming century because it develops flexible minds able to adapt to the changes we cannot predict. Technology provides a means for greater connection in a larger community of minds. Those minds are still emotionally motivated organisms trying to discover their way in the world. New teachers must know how to lead them through that miraculous process. They must understand human connection and the need for autonomous being, especially as mediated through the World Wide Web.

Educators must be involved in social-emotional learning (SEL) and understand their role in the process of becoming. They must do this to bring their students to a place where they can adapt to their environments. The content of learning cannot be the focus of education if we are to adapt to the changes technology brings. We must focus on why and how people learn and develop the process so that learners can learn anything when needed.

The move toward this way of thinking is already occurring in our schools. This focus on meta-learning is embedded in the foundational philosophy of differentiated instruction and assessment (DIA). DIA focuses the attention of educators and students on how the individual processes information from the world. The educator then assesses from the perspective of the student and the developmental process, not the acquisition of content. Meta-learning is also inherent in learning communities, especially those that focus on method rather than numeric results, and in the recognition of the importance of social-emotional development to learning development. Viewing learning as a biological process through which we form identity, and learning how we learn, is essential in the digital environment. It is essential because it demands a critical stance from the perspective of self and social analysis. It demands that we understand ourselves in interaction with others, which is at the heart of civic involvement.

Teaching from this perspective challenges teachers to challenge themselves. They must not only understand what motivates students to learn but also what motivates their own desire to teach. They must understand the purpose of schooling and make changes when it does not meet the learning required to adapt to environmental change. They must be able to teach students how to express who they are and what they know without being massaged into complacency by content distractions. Finally, teachers must engage in the process of authoring identity, both for themselves and with their students. A self-authored identity defines who we are by how we act in society with others.

We are at a critical impasse and the curve ahead might end with a cliff. The issue of identity engendered with self-authorship is central to the solutions that will bridge the gap between being and technology. New teachers must be able to teach to this issue and expand beyond the context of schools. Technology is already taking us away from the school context and into a global society that requires individuals able to create the world they desire. New teachers need the capacity to work within a more personal developmental paradigm for education, rather than the old socially reconstructive paradigm of schooling.

We are citizens in a shifting global environment. The digital environment brings us into close proximity with others, extending our lived experience in a media village full of disparate thought. Schooling, the reconstructor of acceptable social behaviour, must reach beyond its old purpose and grasp the metaphor of becoming that the digital environment represents. In so doing schooling becomes education, forming a society whose citizens embrace diversity and engage in critical conversations, even those mediated through small glowing screens.


First published in Education Canada, September 2018


1 S. Zero, “Misunderstanding Media: Towards a critique of high-tech culture,” Cinema Canada, February 1 (1985).

2 M. McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The making of typographic man (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1962).

3 M. B. Magolda, “Self-authorship: The foundation for twenty-first-century education,” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 109 (Wiley Periodicals, 2007).

Meet the Expert(s)


Sam Oh Neill

Teacher/ Thames Valley District School Board

Sam Oh Neill has been working in education and studying the learning process for 25 years. He holds a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership from Western University and is about to begin Doctoral work.

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