Technology (Innovations for Education)

Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age

Teaching and Learning Technologies


In the August issue of College Planning & Management, we discussed how visionary faculty members are revolutionizing the way students learn by incorporating the use of powerful technologies, including those that enable universal access. By harnessing the power of technology, students are empowered to access digital media and resources, collaborate with dynamic learning communities of their peers and explore many other capabilities. But with these technologies come opportunities as well as responsibilities. Five such opportunities and responsibilities are discussed here.

Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) have emerged as one of the most promising ways to integrate technology with the psychology of learning. The PLE concept is based on emerging research demonstrating that students are more engaged and more academically successful when utilizing a range of technologies to construct their own online personalized environments. This is particularly the case when compared to receiving instruction through traditional classroom lectures.

Historically, institutions have employed a teaching environment with a fixed set of tools and within a prescribed configuration. This represents a very rigid approach that is based on a one-size-fits-all premise. Research has demonstrated that individual students learn differently, and that technology and collaboration are factors that improve student learning outcomes. Institution-centric teaching is gradually being supplanted by student-centric approaches, including PLEs, which are far more effective in ensuring optimum learning among all members of a class or cohort.

Robust technologies that include individualized portals, social media, presence technology and other interactive learning tools are now being integrated in a way that enables students to create their own personalized set of strategies and tools through flexible and configurable user interfaces. Student learning and retention is seeing remarkable improvements through effective use of PLEs.

Learning as a collaborative, social activity. Educators are realizing that learning is much more effective when it is based on the understanding of students as active, engaged learners who benefit most when they take responsibility for their own learning and when they help one another learn. Corresponding instructional strategies that incorporate collaborative, problem-based learning in which students work together to develop solutions are being used effectively both inside and beyond the classroom. Numerous technologies now enable students to work together as dynamic, interactive learning groups on class assignments.

Far beyond lecture and recall, these techniques are more effective because they incorporate the premise of experiential learning: learning by doing. Research has repeatedly shown that students learn and retain far more in this way. These approaches have other important benefits, as well. They also promote teamwork, collaboration, cooperation, and interpersonal and communication skills — the so-called “soft skills” sought after by employers. Moreover, few would argue with the adage that you never really understand something until you try to teach it. Collaborative, social learning also provides students the opportunity to learn by actively assisting others students in understanding difficult concepts, thereby reinforcing their own understanding.

Navigating the universe of information now available is one of the greatest challenges facing students today. In this vast universe, faculty play an incredibly important role by helping to guide students in the quest for information that is the basis for knowledge and understanding. This is one of the most fundamental shifts of teaching and learning in the digital age.

Under previous paradigms, the focus was on instilling in students the cardinal axiom that faculty, and the books they espoused, were the only authoritative sources of information. After all, you couldn’t trust the evil Internet with its “unanointed” sources (such as Wikipedia). But books have given way to Internet-based digital content that is now the primary authoritative source in many disciplines. For example, it would be difficult to imagine an astronomy course today that doesn’t incorporate digital news and media from the Internet provided by organizations such as NASA. Similarly, would a climatology course wait until Superstorm Sandy appeared in a printed textbook before incorporating it into a course?

An example of this involves information in the public domain. The rise of the Internet, coupled with digitization of numerous information sources, has revolutionized the availability of information. At the same time, it has become increasingly difficult to determine what information must be cited and what can be assumed to be in the public domain. The very interesting question becomes, what would a reasonably educated and intelligent person be assumed to know in the digital age?

Digital ethics is another vital component of teaching and learning in the digital age. The same tools and techniques that have advanced teaching and learning can also be used in ways that enable circumvention of the learning process. For example, digital-age cheating has been redefined in many ways. TurnItIn and similar tools are now widely used to detect plagiarism and similar attempts to take the “easier road” to grades. The responsibility of faculty in this regard is not only to be aware of this new reality and seek to identify students who take this route, but also to educate students in conducting themselves ethically in the use of tools and information sources. For example, properly citing sources of information, and avoiding improper use of materials that may be copyrighted.

In Young People, Ethics, and the New Digital Media, published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education (2009), the authors discuss five key issues: identity, privacy, ownership and authorship, credibility and participation. The authors note, “We define good play as online conduct that is meaningful and engaging to the participant and is responsible to others in the community and society in which it is carried out.” The role of faculty in promoting these principles cannot be overstated.

Use of technology to create sophisticated work products such as assignments is among the most exciting of the developments in the digital age. For millennia, printed words constituted “knowledge” until illustrations were added. Such unstructured information in the forms of music and art are not new; they have been around and in printed form for hundreds of years. But in the past, students often only referenced and described these things. Photocopiers made it possible for students to include these resources in preparing assignments. But advances in technology over preceding decades has made it possible for students to use powerful digital technologies to create work products and to prepare assignments that are far more than typed papers. To be clear, writing has not diminished in importance; it is more important than ever. But numerous forms of information constitute information, knowledge, and understanding. Today, faculty and students have access to resources that were unimagined just decades ago.

Rather than simply being asked to “write a paper” about a complex subject such as the molecular structures of polymers, students can employ a range of assets in providing a far more comprehensive solution to the task. These techniques can also deepen and reinforce learning in the process. Developing such solutions requires that students deal with concepts, technologies, concepts and abstract thought in very different ways than merely structuring printed words. As the noted researcher John Seely Brown has observed, “Our responses to nineteenth-century essays do not have to take the form of nineteenth-century essays.”

Teaching and learning in the digital age is, and should be, very different than what has occurred in the past. Particularly if we take seriously our roles as educators in preparing students for lives and careers of success in the decades ahead.

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of College Planning & Management.

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