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.