Written by Alyssa Walker

From slate tablets to horn books and chalkboards to filmstrips, technology has always played a role in how students receive and transmit information. Ballpoint pens, headsets, videotapes, photocopiers, Scantrons, and countless other technological innovations have all been “the next best thing” that will help students learn and ease the sting of learning.

But what of computers? They first entered traditional classrooms in the 1980s and since then it’s been a fast path from those big floppy disks to USBs to cloud-based apps and all that goes with them.

We have reached the stage where digital learning is the norm rather than an innovation. We use computers and digital tablets, mobile phones and AI to teach and learn. With these tools, teachers and students in all corners of the world have the opportunity to learn, collaborate, share, experiment, and ask questions. They also have a duty to learn how to use the very technology purported to help them.

Digital learning has certainly opened many doors for people across the world, all from behind the screen of a desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone. It has even created the opportunity for students to learn from robots and, for the first, time, holograms.

Digital learning lifts some of the constraints of traditional learning of time, place, space, and pace so students can learn in meaningful, personalized ways. It’s more than just sitting in front of computers. It’s about autonomy, engagement, and positive relationships between teachers and students.

Here’s what you need to know about how digital learning has changed education...

  1. Education is more personalized

Education no longer follows the one-size-fits-all method that required students to sit in rows, memorize rote information, and regurgitate it for the Friday test. Digital learning has allowed for a more personalized approach.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, technology that encourages digital learning “links teachers to their students and to professional content, resources, and systems to help them improve their own instruction and personalize learning.”  

Online and digital tools help students and teachers work together to determine what students need and how students can learn it best. In an article on Edutopia, ESL teacher Tsisana Palmer explains that when students have access to digital learning tools “there certainly is no need to “spoon-feed” the knowledge or teach “one-size fits all” content...When students are allowed to make their own choices, they own their learning, increase intrinsic motivation, and put in more effort.”

Students in traditional and non-traditional classrooms alike now have a variety of ways to communicate with their teachers and with their peers. There are in-person interactions, online face-to-face interactions, emails, discussion boards, and other technological forms of communication.

When there’s more opportunity for choice and communication, there’s more opportunity to break out of the one-size-fits-all mentality.

  1. There is expanded access to education and knowledge

Education and knowledge are no longer isolated to the classroom.

We live in a world where information proliferates. Not only are books abundant, but digital advances have made books, audio, images, and videos available through the internet. The US Department of Education views digital, open educational resources as “an important element of an infrastructure for learning.”

As access to information grows, so too do opportunities for more formal, online learning. Free online learning opportunities, MOOCs, podcasts, online degree programs, and high-quality online schools offer students information.

  1. Collaboration and interactivity is on the rise

As resources and school time are no longer limited to the traditional classroom, neither are collaboration and the opportunities for peer interaction.

Students in a rural classroom can learn about anything from the Mars expedition to Arctic exploration. They can read scientific blog posts, view photos, email scientists, and maybe even talk live with them via videoconference. They can share what they learn with others across the world with a variety of collaborative tools. With an internet connection and a working knowledge of cloud-based apps, students around the world can collaborate on the same Google doc, talk to each other, share photos, music, and video, and learn together.

Digital, interactive learning also facilitates the development of problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Programs like New York’s Quest to Learn uses blended and game-based learning to “engage students in the learning process…[and] allow teachers to assess students in real time and provide feedback on learning experiences immediately.”

While many digital learning tools and techniques are being developed for and utilized in primary and secondary questions, digital learning is making strides in higher education as well.  Higher education experts assert that many post-secondary educators also see high value in digital learning tools. According to a report in a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, digital learning “makes educators better able to meet students where they are technologically better able to adapt lessons for varied learning styles, and better able to reach more students.”

  1. Students can learn on their phones

The idea of anytime, anywhere learning is no longer limited to those with laptops, desktops, and tablets. Students can now learn on their phones.

While cellphones and smartphones have long been the bane of many a classroom teacher’s existence, evidence suggests that smartphones may play an integral role in a student’s learning experience if used correctly.

Once -- and still, to many -- a distraction in the classroom, rather than banning or confiscating mobile devices traditional teachers are now looking for innovative ways for students to use their smartphones in the classroom.

While many students use their smartphones for the passive absorption of entertainment and social media, some classroom teachers are using them for their cloud-based capabilities, allowing students to take review quizzes, practice peer editing, and sign up for teacher conference times.

For exclusively online learners, mobile devices offer some students the only path to an online education. In November 2017 QZ reported that mobile phones and tablets have given more students in sub-Saharan Africa the opportunity to access higher education. For some, digital learning has opened a door to students who previously didn’t know of its existence.

  1. Learning spaces have changed

Rows of desks facing a chalkboard? Not so much. In traditional schools, educators have reshaped their classrooms to create collaborative spaces that mimic the modern workplace. Instead of chalkboards, many teachers now use SMARTboards and SMARTdesks. And many students have learning labs with access to virtual reality goggles.

In addition to using these things for learning, students have to learn how to use these devices, apps, and programs. They have to learn how to consume the technology they use. Says Renee Patton, Director of US Public Sector Education at Cisco, in an article for Times Higher Education, “creating an effective digital learning environment is not just about offering convenience and familiarity to students, [and] the consequences for their futures if we don’t keep pace are manifold and damaging.” Digital tools are here to stay and new technology emerges every day.  Students need to understand how to adapt to new developments, understand the repercussions of instant communication, and utilize the tools at hand to create future opportunities.

Colleges and universities have embraced similar trends, and in some cases, they take it a step further. There’s no classroom, just pure interaction wherever the students and professors are. The phrase ‘in-person’ has taken on new meaning as video-conferencing apps allow for a completely virtual experience.

The digital revolution has challenged the how’s of traditional learning and has created a new subject entirely -- digital literacy.

It’s not about trading the teacher for the laptop or the learning for the technology. It’s about embracing those teachers we cherish and the roles they serve in adapting the digital revolution to everyday classroom use... whatever that looks like!

Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.
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