Subscribe to CP&M E-News

College Planning & Management's free email newsletter keeping you up-to-date and informed.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy

Technology (Innovations for Education)

Learning in a Digital World

Digital Learning 

PHOTO COURTESY OF KE0NI CABRAL

On any college campus on any given day, students sprawl across grassy lawns, perch atop walls and lounge on benches, performing a host of scholarly duties. When not reading from a textbook or scribbling notes, many of these same students will be engaged with another type of world — the digital spaces of their smartphones, tablets or laptops. What would happen if students discarded their books and notepads and attended class when and where it was convenient for them, using these devices?

Technology has shaped the way the world works, and college-aged students seem especially receptive to these changes. The faculty, staff and administrations of colleges and universities are becoming excited about the educational potential of digital devices as well. Together, these mutual interests are coming together to create new paradigms for teaching and learning in the digital age.

The Format

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have been born at the juncture of cuttingedge technology and the educational expertise of professors at brick-and-mortar institutions. A MOOC is a learning platform that provides unlimited participation and interaction via the Web, and through a host of other online tools such as social media. Professors and other experts oversee each course and provide assignments and assessments as they would in a physical classroom.

While a MOOC can function somewhat like a traditional classroom, there are far more opportunities for student collaboration and reward. Some instructors have even “gamified” their courses by providing point-based (or other) incentives for answering questions or researching topics as part of the curriculum. Everything from Facebook profiles to YouTube videos can be used as course materials.

One of the most central concepts in a MOOC is the “flipped classroom” approach to learning. This approach requires students to learn core course materials on their own, outside of a classroom, and then to bring these ideas and concepts to a collaborative online classroom environment.

This concept is paramount to many of colleges currently offering digital education initiatives including Vanderbilt, Boston University and MIT, among others.

Digital Learning in the Real World

As MOOCs have recently grown in popularity, many colleges and universities have set up offices and programs to help with digital learning initiatives. Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, houses the Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning, a branch of the college that focuses specifically on MOOCs and other forms of digital education.

Another university that has found digital success is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), an institution that has long been known for its ability to infuse learning with technology. Vijay Kumar, senior strategic advisor in the Office of Digital Learning for MIT, says that the current digital learning initiative at the school had grown from the institution’s earlier experiences with IBM and collaborative learning.

There is great emphasis at MIT and other colleges with digital learning initiatives on promoting student learning outside the classroom. This allows for more time to be devoted to in class discussion and collaboration, two concepts that seem to be the lifeblood of many digital programs.

“Some of the school’s initial experiments in the digital realm were based on small groups of students learning and collaborating in class, rather than simply sitting and listening to a lecture in a larger group of maybe two or three hundred. The early digital courses set the tone for what we have now, a classroom setting tailored to smaller groups and the open sharing of ideas related to course material,” says Kumar.

Creating Community

One of the greatest benefits of MOOCs and other digital learning platforms, according to both Vijay Kumar and Dr. Doug Fisher, director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning, is the ability to create a sense of community around a course and the material it presents. While the idea of a learning community may be nothing new, the idea of students from different places or in different locations connecting and supporting each other academically is. There is no residence hall or meeting room necessary, just an Internet connection and the will to collaborate.

Efforts to crowd-source curricula, along with other experimental efforts, are leading to a gradual shift in how students and professors interact. Rather than simply stressing what a professor deems important, the professor is able to work with students to see what they want to get out of the course. The students can work together to reach this consensus and in turn, learn more about teamwork and their own educational values. But just how sustainable is such a framework?

A main concern voiced by the critics of the MOOC model and other digital initiatives is the fact that not all students finish, or even attempt to try to make serious progress when the course is open to, and being taken by, a large number of learners. Some administrators fear that a percentage of students will “fall through the cracks” academically.

For Dr. Fisher, a resolution to this concern is still being worked out. Yet, the most success seems to come from a blended model of learning, at least for the time being. “Our use of the purely online courses through Coursera are still in the piloting phase, but we are beginning to analyze the data; I think that the real benefit is in the blending of the two mechanisms, online and on-campus,” he says.

The idea of a blended learning model is gradually stating to make appearances in the growing the world of digital learning and changing certain perceptions about the practice in the process.

Where Will They Grow From Here?

The feedback at MIT and Vanderbilt regarding digital learning has been overwhelmingly positive. The emphasis has shifted from professors presenting single ideas to allowing students to explore a wealth of information from different angles in a new and fresh way, Kumar notes. Given such positive reviews, the future for MOOCs and other digital learning initiatives seems boundless. But how much can the idea of a digital classroom truly grow?

Some detractors have argued that students need less screen time on average, while others have pointed out that levels of student homework could quickly rise to an uncontrollable level in the digital, self-paced environment. Proponents of digital education have acknowledged both arguments, but they counter that the future benefits will surely outweigh any problems caused by a nontraditional learning environment.

Vanderbilt’s Dr. Fisher is quick to point out that MOOCs and other digital courses might actually benefit students who are struggling, rather than burdening them with unmanageable levels of work and screen time. “Digital environments can be customized to individual students in other ways beyond simple access as well, to include forms of ‘dynamic assessment’ that adapt to a student at the time of assessment, exploring more deeply apparent points of weakness and strength in a student's knowledge and skills,” he explains.

One of the most important elements of a MOOC that is beneficial to students is the overall flexibility of the platform, according to Dr. Fisher.

“A primary benefit stems from flexibility. Students can access online content at any time and place; revisiting online lectures, for example, as often as they need from wherever they are located,” he says. This means that students can revisit areas that may be challenging for them over and over again, reinforcing concepts that might be overlooked in a lecture environment.

Dr. Fisher is also quick to outline the potential for MOOCs to customize the educational experience for large groups of students, a phenomenon that could potentially transform the college environment. “[MOOCs create] the possibility of providing customized learning experiences to large numbers of students, and the possibilities for embedded campus learning within a global learning and teaching community, so that our students and instructors can interact with learners and teachers around the world,” he says.

While the media may emphasize the growing spirit of competition present in global education, Vijay Kumar at MIT sees a spirit of collaboration blossoming in the same space. “Through MIT’s OpenCourse-Ware and other avenues, teachers and professors from around the world have been able to view lesson plans and other curriculum materials we use at MIT,” he says. “The great ideas of professors and students can impact people around the world in a new way that is truly unique.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

Share this Page