What are some of the assumptions and challenges underlying the call for digital education?
What counts as good use of digital learning is really dependent on when we asked the question. Ten years ago, in my mainstream suburban public high school, good use of digital learning meant ensuring that we were teaching students how to use new and relevant digital technologies tools across a variety of subjects – how to use programs to produce various products as evidence of learning, how to use specialised industry specific technology, and how to use the internet to find information – in other words, how to ensure digital literacy in a changing world. Ask me now and I would say that these criteria stand, but now require much deeper and broader considerations, such as: a greater variety of assessment strategies using digital technologies; creative possibilities for students sharing ideas and solutions and providing each other with timely critical feedback; interactive online assessment and learning tools; enhanced program capacity for the creative development and presentation of ideas and the increased inclusion of students unable to attend on site.
In any discussion about how to do digital learning well, we always have to acknowledge the intrinsic relationship between the technology – access, equity and capacity, for both teachers and learners – and the learning experience – innovative, creative, well designed, scaffolded, differentiated and relevant. It is true to say that high quality learning design is the key to making digital learning achieve the goals we hope for. It is equally true to say that digital learning is only as good as the technologies, systems and supports that we have available to us.
The idea that the very fact of something being possible, makes it so, is a significant block for how we reimagine education inclusive of everyone in changing times. Even when we are able to solve issues of equitable access to high quality technologies, and we have confident, skilled, innovative educators, student motivation and the expectation students have on what a learning experience looks like, plays a critical role in the engagement of disadvantaged, marginalised and at risk students.
How do we change the perceptions in the community about the role and expectations of schools, teachers and learners? How do we use digital learning strategies to build the capacity of unmotivated students who have yet to discover a sense of purpose and meaning through education? Access does not automatically lead to engagement. How do we counter the idea that smart devices do not sit in the domain of learning but rather in the domains of gaming and social media? If we are to support all learners to be successful in developing their 21st century skill sets, and we must, what else do we need to do to support the fundamental capacity of learning how to learn? Particularly when these students are coming to us as teenagers and young adults.
Some of the ideas presented by the Education Innovation Grid (Hannon, V, Patton, A and Temperley, J, 2011. Developing an Innovation Ecosystem for Education. CISCO/Innovation Unit White Paper, November 2011- adapted from Leadbeater and Wong 2010) might offer some solutions, particularly the idea that new digital technologies can provide new ways to access subject matter specialists. The essential role of the teacher in this context is firstly that of facilitator, creating the opportunities for students and outside agencies and providers to connect and communicate. The teachers role is then the design and implementation of innovative formative and summative assessment tasks that make authentic links with, and build upon, the learning achieved through this connection. This links beautifully to both design thinking and inquiry based learning, where students investigate, problem solve collaboratively and produce solutions. These evidence rich domains are significantly enhanced through the well designed and facilitated use of digital technologies.
In reading the report from the DEAG – Beyond the Classroom: A New Digital Education for Young Australians in the 21st Century – I appreciate the depth and breadth of thought that has been going in to ensuring that Australia is prepared to meet our education obligations. I also notice that the aspirational timelines of implementation are already running seriously behind schedule.
Reflections on the history of digital learning so far and how this relates to my own work.
When considering the history that has brought us from the early days of the post-pack of analog contents to the benefits and challenges of embedding ever evolving new technologies in learning and education, it's clear that the need to both provide and access education opportunities beyond the classroom has never gone away.
There is no doubt that the same convenience of time and place that drove early versions of distance learning, are also driving current conversations about online and blended learning. But while the challenge of providing authentic and meaningful learning has remained, I'd argue that what we are witnessing now feels like the opening of a whole new world with a great number of questions and challenges, that feel both incredibly exciting and daunting.
One thing that struck me with the first set of readings (Preparing for the digital university: a review of the history and current state of distance, blended, and online learning - Siemens, Gasevic & Dawson) is the challenge of finding relevance in this research to my own work as a high school educator. Studies reporting equal (or sometimes better) results in online versus traditional classroom learning in university contexts can not be easily translated to high school setttings. And even then, high schools themselves can certainly not be considered equal when we take into account the powerful trinity of cultural, social and financial benefits afforded students in private and elite public schools versus everyone else.
In my experiences since entering the teaching profession, the learning of new technologies has very much been left up to the individual teacher with little support from faculty of other school leaders. While there was an expectation that we embed new technologies into our teaching, there was often very little direction about which technologies to embrace and how best to enhance our teaching and learning. Rather than there being any consultation with teachers and evidence based implementation, it's all been pretty haphazard and seems to depend entirely on your site, your leaders, your colleagues and yourself. When the COVID19 pandemic hit, teachers around the country were, I suspect, left significantly underprepared for the sudden expectation that we "go online". Most of us took this challenge on with great professionalism. Most of us also learned that you can not simply transfer what you do in a classroom to an online context. A completely new set of strategies, supported by the rigorous and relevant professional development of teachers, will need to come into play as we move forward.
In my own context as a suburban public high school teacher in a very low SES school, teaching adults returning to education, EALD students and significantly disadvantaged and disengaged FLO (Flexible Learning Options) students, I can see some significant benefits and challenges with the ongoing implementation of digital learning strategies.
These benefits include: greater opportunities for more targeted and creative differentiated learning, both for students requiring higher levels of support and for students benefiting from significant extension; greater access for students who face barriers to attending, such as poor mental or physical health, family responsibilities or location; and more creative solutions for the building of strong language skills for EALD students.
There are four main challenges we must develop bold solutions for as we build policy and capacity in the new world of digitally enhanced education. Firstly, the challenges of the technologies themselves: which are most effective in which contexts?; How do we best enthuse and train the existing teacher workforce?; What training needs to be embedded in pre-service teacher education?; And how do ensure equity of access?
Secondly we must explore and address in our new policies the issue of student motivation and capacity. Students don't necessarily come to us with any degree of positive and usable approaches to learning. Neither do they necessarily arrive with the skills required to successfully navigate the digital technologies we want to use.
The third challenge is that of the creation of authentic communities of learners. The evidence has been telling us for a while that active participatory learning is the learning that sticks. We need to get much more creative if we are to create these types of learning experiences in both synchronous and asynchronous digital learning contexts. I am not convinced that the student to student online forum is the best solution for creating communities of learning - many peoples experience of an online forum is likely restricted to Facebook, which often comes with negative experiences, feelings of exclusion and a lack of rigorous informed debate.
Finally, we also need to look at what we teach and how we assess student learning in new ways? Beyond competency based tick boxes and rote learned test results, what other changes and innovations can we embed with these new digital learning possibilities to provide new ways for students to demonstrate their learning? Authentic learning and assessment needs to be purposeful, differentiated and accessible, regardless of whether it is delivered in a classroom, via a digital context or a combination of the two.