Digital or eLearning is the subject of much discussion as technology continues to work its way into the fabric of our lives. One of the most important threads in that fabric is the education of our children and society. Given its importance it is not surprising that there is great debate around the impact and consequences of digitalization on learning and intelligence.
Discussions around how technology reduces attention spans, erodes concentration and weakens education have been put forward by many including Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows. Alternatively others have observed technologies ability to create engaging learning, build new skills, resolve logistical issues, increase access to education and addressing special needs all of which are issues that plague school systems.
It is debatable as to who is right. At one level digital technology reduces complex ideas in 140 characters, increasing connectivity without making deep connections and reduces complex issues into simple ‘pop’ solutions. On the other hand you see people engrossed in learning about things via digital tools, having greater access to thought leaders and leading educators, gaining access to education resources and materials that only the best schools used to be able to provide.
Regardless of who is right, there are a few things that I think digital education will do regardless of its implementation.
- Increased use of digital education will increase the gap between high and low performers.
- Increased use of digital education will compress the time involved to consume a curriculum.
- Increased use of digital education will create more specialists
These observations come from characteristics intrinsic of digital channels that enable you to work as an individual, work at your own pace, and follow your own interests. These characteristics have already transformed the music industry, books, and other media where they have fragmented markets, reduced barriers for use and finally amplified the ability of people to follow their passions.
Education is a form of media. As digitalization has changed other media, so too will lit change the nature of education regardless of the direction it takes. Here are some thoughts as to why
Learning focused on the individual rather than class will increase the gap between high and low performers.
By gap I mean the degrees of separation between the highest achieving students, the average for their age and the lower achieving students. Digital education in general, and self-paced learning in particular, is personal. You consume it at a rate you choose and to a degree you choose.
When individual students are digitally enabled they act independent of their ‘class’. Students with different aptitudes will progress at different rates and levels jumping the traditional boundaries of age-based grades.
Learning at your pace will compress the time involved to consume a curriculum.
Time is an essential element in analog training models as the opportunity for formal instruction is defined by the class day. In digital learning the potential for instruction is 24 x 7 x 365. Time is less of a factor as students who invest more can compress the time involved required go educate themselves. While constant learning may not be the most effective, students who are able to consume education at their own pace, place and time have greater control over their progress.
When individuals are digitally enabled they are free to can learn at their own pace which can change the time it takes to consume a curriculum. Placing people in ‘accelerated’ classes is a version of this, but in a digital environment people can go a their own pace – faster or slower as knowledge acquisition and skill building is based on attitude and time investment more than the passage o time.
Learning based on passion will create more specialists
Interest drives learning. Digital technologies enables people to follow their interests and passion, find others with similar passions and form communities around those passions. This will lead to learning that creates more specialists, those with deep knowledge of particular areas rather than broad generalists.
The breadth and continual creation of content via digital channels gives just about every interest a critical mass of content and collaborators. Wikipedia is the poster child for this type of digital learning asset and many have compared it to formal academic documents. But there are much deeper opportunities from iTunes U, to Universities putting courses online, to communities of interest doing collaborative research – all point to the increased focus on specialist learning tied to passion.
Digital Learning Lessons
Ability, time and interest drive education achievement. The availability and acceptance of digital education tools, curriculum and content increase the importance of each in the education experience. Traditionally, classroom/cohort based education as influenced all three. Grouping students by like ability or assuming ability based on age. Limiting the time applied to education to the classroom day and predetermining the availability of curriculum have shaped the education system and are being reshaped by digital education.
Working as an individual breaks the connection between age and assumed education level. This development cuts both ways impacting both best and least. This changes the nature of education from one of class progression to one of cognitive performance. These education issues are ones that I have heard few people talk about. Instead they concentrate on issues of bandwidth, security, protection and channel.
There is more to education than acquiring knowledge, reading electronic books or taking electronic tests. Education is socialization. Deeper understanding comes from inquiry, debate, discussion and testing more than loading up information for regurgitation. So, while remote education is possible, look at Phoenix University or other remote learning programs, such education is multi-channeled to one extent or another.
Regardless of how you feel about digital technology and what it does to our brain, you have to recognize the disruptive force digital technology creates on education fundamentals. Digital technologies are personal technologies and people learn at their own rate, based on their ability and follow their own interests. How educators at all levels incorporate these realities into the future of education represents a significant challenge and opportunity worth watching.
What do you think? Is digital education a good thing only when uses ‘appropriately’ or is a universal positive or threat?