digital presence as an indicator of digital capital

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The Community of Inquiry model suggests successful online education requires cognitive, teaching and social presences.  I’d agree that designing around this combination is a useful starting point for any online activity.

However, I’d also suggest another presence is essential.

Digital presence.

In a Community of Inquiry context, including digital presence would ensure staff and students were prepared for the digital dimensions of teaching and learning online, and in possession of the prerequisite digital capabilities.

But I see digital presence as more than practical knowledge because how we work online influences access to other resources. Opportunities for networking, publication, research, teaching and learning can all happen in ways which privilege those with digital connectivity and the confidence to use it. I’m still thinking it through – hence this blog post – but suggest digital presence can be aligned with digital capital.

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I use this in the Bourdieusian sense to extend his ideas around social and cultural capital to the digital domain. A digital society requires increasing amounts of digital practice, but how often do we stop and think about what is happening? How many times do we automatically log on without considering the implications of our actions, the extent of the divides being created or what might be missing through being digitally disengaged?

I have analogue roots. This means I don’t take connectivity for granted but I do appreciate the affordances of digital access at a time, place and device of choice, in particular how this offers genuine opportunities to widen participation. For all the ways in which higher education is changing, I still believe in its capacity for making a positive  contribution to individual lives, which in turn will influence the future society our graduates will make.

My career has been built around supporting digital education development. The lack of attention to the ways in which digital practice is understood has always concerned me. Digital diversity risks differential student experiences at a time when the development of digital graduate attributes should be at the heart of curriculum design.

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Considering digital presence as an indicator of digital capital may be one way to address this.

Digital difference has multiple layers in particular the ways in which online activity enhances or diminishes social and cultural capital, described by Bourdeiu as ‘the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition.’ (Bourdieu, 1983: 249)

In other words, capital is the knowledge and skills which bestow status and power. Digital capital creates digital presence and in today’s society, this matters. Having digital presence creates tangible outcomes which relate to other forms of capital.

Society privileges the digitally fluent and marginalises others.

So digital presence is attitudinal as well as behavioural. It involves tangible qualities like identity and performance but also the ways digital practices are embodied, cumulative, transferable and potentially transformative.

Transformation in relation to digital practice is contentious. Claims which conflate them are risky. For too long, virtual learning environments have been presented as having transformational qualities when actual usage is more about management and control of administrative functions. In higher education, risk derives from focusing on technology-drivers rather than pedagogy-first pathways.

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Teaching is a complex, socially situated activity, dependent on multiple perspectives, skills and experience. Transfer the requirements of effective teaching and learning online and they multiply in ways which are not always fully addressed. The practical wisdom associated with the literature of educational practice requires digital dimensions which are too often excluded from traditional  approaches to supporting academic development.

Understanding and building digital presence could be a way to address this.

Bourdieu suggests the ‘peculiarity of cultural capital’ exists in forms which are ‘embodied, objectified, or institutionalized.’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 119). The word ’embodied’ always makes me think of Foucault and his conception of coercive power. Individuals appearing to willingly conform to social discourse through the adoption of daily practices and routines or ‘technologies of the self’ (Foucault, 1982).  even where these repllcate and reinforce disadvantage or disempowerment. Practice, in particular digital practice, is inextricably linked to the possession of social and cultural capital which in turn relates to power.

Back to Bourdieu who used the terms ‘habitus‘ and ‘field’ for this interplay between structure and agency. These relationships are often internalised. Like a fish takes water for granted, social and cultural positioning can be accepted because it operates below the level of consciousness. However, it can be known through critical reflection and analysis, which should be the heart of a higher education experience. .

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In 21st century, all social theory has digital dimensions and structures of power and control contain within themselves the possibility of change. Understanding the origins of discourse creates opportunities to challenge it. A society with increasing digital dependency should have equitable access at its heart. Teaching and learning is a great place to embed digitally inclusive practice which is not limited to accessing technology but is about the ways in which it’s used. Digital capital is made visible by degrees of digital presence.

Rather than assume everyone has the skills and confidence of the innovators and early adopters, we should pay more attention to the later adopters and the parameters of resistance. There is much to learn from studying the diversity of digital practice and the extend to which digital presence is developed may be a useful conceptual tool for supporting these discussions.



Bourdieu, P., 1983. Forms of capital. In: Richards, J.C. (Ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Greenwood Press, New York.; Coleman.

Bourdieu, P., Wacquant, L.J.D., 1992. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Foucault, M. Technologies of the Self.” Lectures at University of Vermont Oct. 1982, in Technologies of the Self, 16-49. Univ. of Mass­a­chu­sets Press, 1988.