What’s so Good about Digital Learning?
The following section moves through an extensive list of some of the main aspects that make digital learning different – and better – from what we might be used to. You may be very familiar with some of the items that follow and less so with others so the purpose here is to give us all a common foundation upon which to later draw. Please use the comments link to add your thoughts and anything I’ve missed.
The first identifiable benefit of digital learning comes from digitization itself. When media shifted from analog to digital – from movie reels and cassette tapes, books and posters, worksheets to Web sites – the very resources for learning were transformed. Like many, I was slow to pick up on the significance of this digitization. Until I experienced the World Wide Web. Even in its earliest incarnation of straight hypertext and static images, I “got” that combined with the delivery platform of the Web, digital resources opened a new era for humankind. This is no overstatement. Comparable to the Gutenberg press, the Web has continued this “flattening of the hierarchy,” putting in the hands of everyone what was once available only to the elite. An early example was the Web Museum, posted by Nicolas Pioch in 1994, which shared Wikipedia-like information and images celebrating the greats from art history. Now anyone with an interest could survey art through the ages from any Net-connected computer. Led by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, we have gone from a postcard-sized scan of the artwork to gain the ability to zoom into the finest of brushstrokes without losing clarity. I’ve used the visual arts as a case study to demonstrate a Gutenberg-like transformation in access from the few to the many. As previously mentioned, one principle benefit of digital learning is disintermediation, the ability of learners to connect directly with what they want. Those of us with any years behind them, can recall having to pay for a tape or transcript of an interview heard on public radio where now these and more appear free of charge via podcasts in digital audio & video splendor. From interactive Flash learning objects for primary students to online simulations and games for middle schoolers and even bridging senior students to courses and lectures at the world’s finest universities, a clear vision, appropriate for 2020, of what our students can achieve must include how access to such a wealth of resources change upgrade our expectations.
Customization & Personalization
We have already observed one key element of the Digital Era seen through the lens of the Ford Motor Company. In Henry Ford’s day, decreasing the time and cost of production enabled the “common man” to join the motoring world. Now that the world is full of cars, Ford.com empowers people to design and “build” something uniquely their own. In the same way, one of the key elements the digital learning enables is the personalization and customization of not only learning resources, but also the very experience of learning itself. In the first instance, by the time you read this, specialized search engines will be embedded in online learning systems that modify results and resources based upon individual profiles. Previous searches, reading levels and expressed interests will factor into a refined list of resources tailored to the learner.
More significant are the current early attempts to customize the learning experience itself. One example in this area are the cognitive tutors and interactive skill-building software that goes far beyond early software based on “Drill and Kill” for right answers. If we recall Bloom’s research showing the positive impact of one-to-one tutoring from teachers, it’s not surprising that programs could be written that emulate the best of a teacher’s ongoing modifications based on a student’s ability. A second instance of digital technology’s ability to personalize classroom learning can be demonstrated by the service offered by Wireless Generation, a company that provides a reading program for schools. Students’ performance on one day is processed overnight so the next day teachers are delivered instructional activities targeted to address specific learning gaps. More will be explored in the last section on Smart Digital Environments, but for the purpose of the current topic, it’s clear that personalizing and differentiating learning is a core benefit available to us in the next era of school-based learning.
Engagement and Interactivity
100% Classroom Participation
In a similar way, 1:1 digital access also affords 100% participation, because one person’s contribution does not prevent another’s as it does in such common activities as classroom discussions. Synchronous participation of every student is possible when discussions are online. Many of today’s educators can already testify to the benefit of giving everyone a voice, not only the usual handful of willing or lovingly nudged contributors. Digital participation also provides alternative modes of expression because responses can be verbal, written or figurative. Finally, online participation alters one of the most precious commodities in education: time. A five minute digital discussion means five minutes of everyone thinking and formulating responses as opposed to the round robin attempts to get as many voices heard as possible.
One complaint historically made against “computers” is that they isolate people. I suspect this charge can be dismissed now that, literally, everyone and their grandmother is part of a social networking site. This human-to-human connection enabled by the technology also benefits digital learning. In the last example, we saw a classroom discussion blossom from just a few raised hands to 100% participation. But the benefits continue! Not only does everyone have a voice, but these voices can communicate, challenge and confer with others at the very same time when collaboration software is used. A range of intriguing Web-based collaborative platforms allow students to build knowledge in real time. Rather than a cacophony of calling out that a teacher must frantically manage if anyone is to be truly heard, online collaboration improves when individuals lend their voice to a shared space. I see this change from the teacher-led to the student-empowered discussion along the lines of change from film to digital cameras. When each photograph consumed film and had to be developed, we attempted to limit how many photos a child took – remember all the blurry, finger-obscured images shot through windows of moving cars? But now with digital cameras, we’ve flipped completely. Take as many photos as you like, because capturing even one great candid adds to the gallery of family classics. In the same way, moderating precious classroom time so as not to waste a limited resource changes overnight to encouraging enthusiastic online chatter with the goal of finding a few epiphanies and insights. These then get shared back to the group as examples of a captured cognitive “Eureka!”
This line of benefits related to online discussion, naturally leads to another. In addition to facilitating 100% participation, the content of the discussion doesn’t evaporate into the ether, but becomes part of a digital archive that can be revisited, extended and deepened. Forum software, blogs and wikis are simple ways that such discussions can be posted online. Although this facility is as old as the Web, what changes in the Digital Era is that once all students have 1:1 access, such discussions can become the norm, which means that thoughtful responses, extended wait times, threaded discussions and deeper understandings also become the norm.
If we expand the notion of posting one’s thoughts and the power of online collaboration, we encounter yet another benefit of digital learning: global publication. Once students use online tools to share their insights there’s nothing preventing those thoughts from joining a wider community of learners. Young students, led by enthusiastic, child-centered primary school teachers, currently enjoy using a growing range of friendly Web 2.0 applications to publish such things as Voicethreads, Glogs and Vodcasts. Tools such as these seem to appear daily so exactly what they are and do is less important than the fact that very young students already enjoy something very few previous generations of students had ever experienced: producing work for an authentic audience. This is the huge difference between “doing homework” that a teacher will “mark” and knowing that your creations will be viewed by a range of real people. A child is more powerfully motivated to clearly express, execute and polish something if they know it can be viewed and commented on by a grandparent or other students. In this way, the classroom walls dissolve so that students – from the beginning of their formal education – don’t suffer the artificiality of learning in an isolated box.
Online Learning Communities
Combining collaboration and publication naturally evolves into communities of online learners – something that has breathed new life into leading educators’ careers. Used to working in the isolation of a classroom, many teachers have discovered a new world of fellow-travelers in online learning communities. The experience often starts by joining an email list or starting a personal blog or wiki. The interactions then tend to expand to a personal learning network of sympathetic souls who willingly share their obstacles and insights. The vitality that these teachers exude is contagious and a gift to our profession. Mentored by these, students can also enjoy this feeling of connectedness – a feeling that we will see also increases intrinsic motivation.
“Serving the Net”
But motivation for what? As we will see in the section on pedagogy, contributing to something beyond your self leads to feelings of “authentic happiness.” So the wise educator will leverage technologies’ global publishing capability and channel students’ efforts toward pursuing a meaningful goal. This is beautifully captured in a phrase from Al Rogers, one of the seminal figures facilitating global classroom learning. Al said that he didn’t want students to just “Surf the Net,” but to Serve the Net. I believe this is epitomized in the work of a teacher at Immaculata High School in Somerville, New Jersey. Quoting from the Child Slave Labor News Web site:
“… the senior U.S. History II Honors class, taught by Miss Joann Fantina, publishes numerous newsletters throughout the year covering many aspects of child slave labor. A new group of students takes over the project each year as the previous class graduates. It is a common interest among the students and is continued enthusiastically year after year.”
Visiting the Web site immediately conveys that this is a pursuit of passion, a public service, not an exercise in Web publishing. Currently 32 student writings are listed with 10? three additional years’ worth in the archive. Although much more could be done to leverage the Web’s power, the Child Slave Labor News is compelling in its effectiveness and simplicity. No teacher could be intimidated by CSLN as it is essentially a posting of essays like those any class of students could write. Child Slave Labor News demonstrates the power of a good idea shared and developed over the years. Proof of this statement is realized by searching for the term “child slave labor.” Regardless of the search engine used, Miss Fantina and her students’ work comes up first on the list of results. Forget international Non-Governmental Organizations or university research centers. No, a passionate teacher and a bunch of teenagers are the global “Go To” place for seeing what’s posted on the topic of child slave labor. Imagine how these students feel. This is a great touchstone for the kind of authentic learning all students can experience when they make significant contributions to the global learning community. More ideas and examples on “Serving the Net” are provided in the New Routines section.
Traditional research and essay writing are excellent skills to master and will continue as part of the next era in education. This said, a new way to gather information has emerged with the Web. When someone benefits from the accumulated contributions of (often anonymous) others, the process is referred to as “crowdsourcing.” Examples range from massive collections like Wikipedia, The Gutenberg Project (e-Texts) and Gracenote (the database that magically supplies song titles when you import a music CD). A more recent permutation has accelerated the process. Like any new tech trend, Twitter has attracted media attention, adoration and derision. Love it or dismiss it, what can’t be ignored is that key figures with legions of “Followers” enjoy a new source of collective intelligence. When they have a question or seek input, these leaders can rely on instantaneous contributions. One such leader is David Pogue, a technology writer for the New York Times who provides an endless supply of good-natured reviews and insights. An example related to crowdsourcing was posted back in September of 2009, entitled, “Got a Burning Question? Ask the Net,” in which he says he could rely…
“on Twitter for all my obscure-question-answering needs. Often I’d ask for help on some tweaky Photoshop filter setting or a detail of some 1950’s Broadway show–and sure enough, someone or other would always know the answer.” 
Now it’s common for everyone from individual bloggers to international media conglomerates to track Twitter feeds to get the scoop on what’s happening from the real-time source of natural disasters, people’s rebellions and celebrity sightings. Pogue goes on to celebrate a more recent application called Aardvark (vark.com) where a more sophisticated approach facilitates connecting ordinary people who have questions with those who can answer them. Clearly crowdsourcing will continue to offers benefits that enhance digital learning and should inform a vision of students as sophisticated participants in the knowledge building process.
Software that Gets Smarter
If work done online creates a digital archive and individuals actively participate in sourcing and construction of knowledge, then leveraging the “data trails” our online activities generate is also a core benefit of digital learning. In addition to the deliberate data that individuals post online, the growing trove of data that accumulates through a user’s online interactions is the next benefit of digital learning. Google’s early accomplishments in this area are akin to Henry Ford’s first moving assembly line. Just as in the earlier industrial era, manufacturers already took advantage of interchangeable parts to enable mass production, but it was Ford’s idea to animate the task by bringing it to a ready line of workers that revolutionized the industry and our world. Similarly, technology companies in our era knew that the data being passively generated by online users held secrets, it wasn’t until Google applied its algorithms that the data could be assembled into meaningful information. Like the preceding benefits mentioned where digital learning provides a more personalized experience, this aspect of data trails is the underlying mechanism that will drive even greater benefits.
Some have referred to this aspect of data mining as “Web services,” “Web 3.0,” “The Semantic Web” and “The Internet of Things.” The essence of these related concepts, and what powers Google’s success, is that the entire system continues to “get smarter” without human intervention. Web services are applications of machine-to-machine interactions that enable a new iteration of the Web that goes beyond Web 2.0’s capabilities so that appliances on the Internet share information in ways that create new knowledge – all without active human management. To make this abstraction a little more concrete consider how a Google search improves its results through use: as millions of people enter particular keywords, click on certain sites listed, spend time at some sites and interact with a few, the ranking of sites changes over time. Anyone who has spent time using the Google search engine since 2000 has witnessed these improvements.
The Internet of Things
Taking the concept further, we can see how our geographic location becomes a “machine-to-machine” variable: when we search Google Maps from our phones, the engine doesn’t look for every café in the world, but assumes we’re after one in the local area: without any input on our parts, the phone has prompted an “advanced search” and contributed data about our location. This experience is an inkling of what’s in store with the “Internet of Things” that many see in our near future. Just as we had computers in homes, schools and businesses that we then joined by the Internet, we also have a huge array of “computers” in our home electronics, personal devices, cars, “loyalty cards” and home appliances that can also be interconnected to enable object-to-object communications. A simple, only slightly sci-fi, scenario might be that your refrigerator notices you’re low on milk, your car recognizes your location at the grocery store, your loyalty card “sees” that your preferred brand is on sale and your phone suggests you pick up a carton of “Light White” – how were you to know the kids are in the midst of a cookies and milk binge while you’re out on an errand?
Consider the applications for education once learners’ digital trails combine with this “Semantic Web” where “sense” is made from data. Two very general possibilities emerge immediately. First, as already suggested, as students undertake more of their learning online, Smart Digital Environments will “get to know them” as learners. This includes offering resources and experiences increasingly tuned to a student’s abilities, prior knowledge and past successes. This has already been mentioned in the context of cognitive tutors, but in the timespan of a child’s school years, this capability for such systems to “get smarter through use” will become the norm. A second set of applications – and one that will truly alter the teachers’ responsibilities – involves taking over some of the more menial logistical tasks. Much of the time consumed in schools is focused on logistics, not learning: taking attendance, checking homework, marking assignments, compiling grades, communicating student performance to parents, classroom management techniques that keep everyone doing the same thing at the same time… Gone. Really. What’s more, these largely computational tasks are more likely to be error-free when automated. A more complete exploration of the possibilities follows in the last section of this book on Smart Digital Environments, but for the purpose of setting a renewed vision of “2020” learning – I think we can see some of the potential digital learning makes available to school’s next era.