Digitally-Enabled Learning | Improving learning with digital
An important element in successfully developing the use of digital tools, technologies and resources across your school will be understanding the benefits that they bring to your learning environment.
Whilst each organization will decide on the benefits of digital technologies that fit their particular context, there are some general areas that can be considered when building such lists.
The three pillars upon which digital can support improved learning, that we set out in an earlier chapter, engage, enable & empower can be addressed through the use of a range of digital elements, four of which are discussed within this chapter.
Digital Media is a broad category that includes the use of productivity tools such as word processors, graphics packages, whiteboard tools, etc. as well as rich media such as high-quality graphics, digital video and digital audio.
The digital nature of these media types allows a greater range of learning and teaching activities to be carried out than would have otherwise been the case with traditional, analogue media.
Importantly, the diversity of tools and resources that enable students and staff to manipulate, edit and create a variety of different digital media artifacts increases the opportunities for learners to be able to use these to demonstrate their understanding of topics and present the outcomes from a learning activity.
Being able to mix different digital media in order to present ideas, outcomes, evidence, etc. encourages a greater degree of creativity in building learning activities and enabling learners with different needs, experiences and aspirations to engage more effectively in learning.
Perhaps one of the most important benefits that can be derived from the use of digital media is the inclusivity and accessibility it provides across a wide range of needs.
Now, more than ever, students have the opportunity to access knowledge and information in a variety of ways that support their individual needs at the time that they want to access that knowledge and information.
Revising for a test using a smartphone app when they are waiting for a bus, having their study notes read back to them whilst they write about the topic on their laptop or using a 360 degree video to explore a geographical feature mean that the mainstream student has an incredible arsenal of opportunities that were never available previously.
An even greater impact of digital on accessibility and inclusivity is in the potential to empower those students who have specific educational, social and physical needs.
The ability for a young student who has been hospitalized with a long term illness to take part in learning activities with their school-attending friends or enabling a youngster with a severe physical impairment to engage effectively with a wider range of educational tasks demonstrates the ways in which the increasingly.
Similarly, students with very specialized interests, based on a specific topic or founded on cultural/societal needs, are increasingly able to make use of learning resources and activities that address and support those needs, even if none exist within their specific location.
Using digital thus provides educators with the opportunity to engage, enable and empower learners in ways that supports a more personalized learning experience and provides educators and learners alike with a variety of ways in which to understand the learning journey.
Complex systems, such as spreadsheets, programming environments and simulations provide ways to enable learners to explore topics and complex concepts in ways that support their own ‘starting points’ on the journey to understanding.
They encourage the learner to ask questions about a concept without the barrier of time and place that is imposed by a specific lesson structure delivered in a classroom.
Learners can ask questions of the model and receive instant feedback, with no question being too complex, outlandish or even too simple.
The use of complex systems is prevalent in many commercial organizations where it is too costly or impractical to enable employees to learn ‘in real life’.
We predict that the use of complex systems will grow across a wide range of educational organizations as cost pressures begin to make a bigger impact on many educational organizations and an increasing scarcity of high-quality teaching staff begins to deprive some schools of classroom leaders in specific areas of the curriculum.
Such systems will go much further than the largely discredited ‘independent learning systems’ (ILS) that we deployed in the early part of this century. Those tended to be based around banks of questions and ‘explanatory screens’ with very limited abilities to respond to the individual needs of the student.
Instead, the complex systems of the future will benefit from the increasing strides being made in the fields of augmented/artificial intelligence and big data alongside the massive improvements in processing power available through cloud-based systems.
Initial examples will probably be based around the need to support topics such as the teaching of Maths, Science and Computing. In these subjects designers of complex systems can use data collected from potentially millions of student interactions to improve the support that the underlying ‘intelligence’ of the system can provide to individual students.
The data collected can then be used to help inform the actions of subject leaders in schools, school districts and regional/national governments and organizations.
Whilst there are enormous possibilities for using complex systems to improve personalization, differentiation and ultimately impact positively on learning outcomes the potential pitfalls, as demonstrated by the early ILS systems, are concerning.
Thus we expect initial, effective uses to be limited to ‘hard-to-teach’ topics where the use of complex systems may be more cost effective than traditional, analogue methods.
Although complex systems are largely under-used within many learning environments at the moment, developments in computer modeling, artificial intelligence and computing power will undoubtedly mean that they will become ever more useful over the coming years.
Feedback systems and tools are becoming increasingly important in providing learners, teachers and administrators with a more useful understanding of the learning progress being made by individuals and across a cohort of learners.
A great deal of attention is presently focused on using systems to collect structured data about individuals that can, in some way, be standardized and presented in graphs and charts that help teachers and administrators identify progress.
This structured data collection is important but there is more and more research suggesting that the use of feedback which enables reflection by the learner, and others, on their learning journey can help improve learning outcomes by creating a shared understanding of learning progress and ways in which it can be improved.
The impact of improved feedback systems is closely aligned to the development of augmented/artificial intelligence and the use of big data to help inform both learners and those who support them about the effectiveness of their learning activities and the appropriateness of those activities to their goals and aspirations.
In the relatively near future learners may be able to compare the learning that they are carrying out currently with similar students around the world, both current and past, in order to check whether it will help them achieve their educational goals.
Tracking achievements against those of similar students who went on to gain specific qualifications and employment goals will enable learners to benchmark their own progress against those who have already achieved their desired outcomes.
More flexible feedback systems that enable individuals to capture, record and share a wider range of achievements and interests will also enable learners to explore future career pathways more effectively.
Being able to explore the career paths that have been taken by others with similar interests, strengths, weaknesses and achievements promises to open up a much wider range of career choices to young people, which may, in turn, help motivate those who may not have clear goals.
Similarly, educators, especially administrators, will gain a great deal from future feedback systems. Being able to compare and contrast student achievement within your institution with others, similar students brings huge benefits.
Being able to ask questions about your learning and teaching environment based on an increasingly rich data set from a greater number of learners will open up new avenues for reflection about how you are supporting your learners.
Making more effective use of a combination of learner data and public data from the general population will also empower administrators to make more effective choices for the future.
As an example, one school district identified that whilst there were several hundred young people considering taking up a course on Health and Beauty there would be fewer than one hundred jobs in that sector once they had completed their course. Working with the careers advisory team they helped many of the youngsters to make different choices, focusing on vocational courses where job opportunities would be more plentiful.
Combining large amounts of data to provide meaningful information has always been a challenge. We expect the development of more effective intelligence engines to bring greater efficiencies to the ways in which educators use the data available to them.
Continuing the careers theme, we would certainly see colleges and universities being able to use data about learner progress and wider achievements to help them ‘market’ courses to potentially interested students. Such students may not, as yet, be fully aware of their options for future education and the use of effective feedback systems aligned to intelligent engines may help providers to present a wider range of possibilities than would otherwise be the case.
Savvy educators should also be considering how to use the vast amount of non-academic data that may be available to them in the not too distant future.
Most students will, in the very near future, be carrying a smartphone, or other personal computing device, that will be able to provide a great deal of feedback about an individuals general lifestyle.
Already there are apps that enable you to track your steps, calorie intake and other health-related information. As wearables, of whatever kind, become more common the amount of data available that can assist in understanding the performance of individual learners will become almost overwhelming.
The challenge will then become, not what data can we collect, but how do we focus on the most important data that is appropriate to help each individual.
Using the data effectively to help improve the conditions that will make a positive impact on a learners performance will be an important element in the way that feedback systems are used in successful, future learning organizations.
Two examples of how this could have been used to help young people may go someway to indicate the potential for the use of this non-academic data.
A young student spent much of his time in school branded as a ‘troublesome’ youngster. This despite the fact that he could be very agreeable at times. However, he could never seem to concentrate in lessons, was frequently disruptive and often had a short temper that would boil over to cause physical harm to other students.
He was moved from school to school as his parents tried to find somewhere that could help him achieve what they believed to be his potential.
Finally, at one organization, a doctor became determined to try and find out the root cause of his disruptive behavior and carried out a series of tests to study various elements of the boys lifestyle.
One of these tests identified issues with his sleep patterns and digging deeper they identified that the poor boy was never going into REM sleep. This meant that the poor boy was, without really being consciously aware of it, always tired.
As most teachers will know, when you are tired all the time your temper can become more than a little frayed at times. Now add into the mix immaturity, teenage hormones and constantly being told off and you may begin to understand the issues that the poor boy had to confront every day.
Having identified a major physiological issue the boys sleep issues began to be managed more effectively and there was a consequential improvement in both behavior and academic performance.
In a school district the district leadership wanted to know more about the reasons behind the relatively low achievement levels that seemed to keep affecting specific populations and areas across the district.
The school district commissioned a local university to study the lives of young people outside of school. Rather shockingly the study found that over 20% of students between the ages of 14 and 16 were spending at least one night during the week sleeping away from home. Worse still, many of these young people were spending two or three nights away from home.
Obviously, this was having a major impact on their educational progress, especially as more and more homework was being used to try and improve standards.
The school district used this, and other data, to gain funding for more after-school facilities for young people, including using space within local businesses and developing an after-school mentor programme.
Schools, groups of schools, school districts as well as universities and colleges can start to gain some of the benefits of effective feedback systems now.
It is relatively simple to use free, or very inexpensive, tools to create simple ePortfolios for students. Build structures into these ePortfolios that enable you to collect, track and analyze a combination of structured data, such as academic performance, outside interests, non-academic achievements, etc., alongside unstructured data such as reflections on learning progress and outcomes.
Embed the use of these ePortfolios into your whole-school curriculum and require both staff and students to actively engage with their development.
Over time this will provide you with a vast amount of data that will not only help the students who are using these ePortfolios to improve their own learning outcomes but will assist you in developing the learning and teaching activities within your organization and help inform future students about learning pathways that they may wish to take.
Of course privacy and the safety of individual data will need to be protected if these systems are to be acceptable to the educational community as a whole and the wider public population in general.
However, the potential benefits of these systems and the promise that they offer are so enticing that we expect developments over the coming years to overcome any barriers and provide an increasingly effective, data-rich learning environment informed by feedback systems that enable a wider understanding of the learner.
As with complex systems, the development of feedback tools and the ways in which they can be used to support both learner and teacher will accelerate over the coming years as digital technologies start to enable both structured and unstructured data to be combined and used effectively.
Anytime, anyplace learning environments
Anytime, anyplace learning environments have been hailed as ‘the way forward’ for many, many years.
Whilst some organizations have built their learning infrastructures in such a way as to make use of the power of these anytime, anywhere tools, many more are still struggling to make effective use of the ability to provide a vast range of learning activities outside of the formal school infrastructure.
Learners today have come to expect access to a wide range of information and interactions as and when they want or need them. Why then, should their expectations for learning activities be any less?
So learning organizations can gain a huge amount by enabling and encouraging the development and use of an anytime, anywhere learning infrastructure.
The improving speed of networks, both institutional and mobile, and the increasing power of cloud-based systems to deliver a much wider variety of tools and services, provide opportunities to provide an increasing range of learning activities across the curriculum as a whole.
It is difficult to think of a mainstream educational activity that could not be carried out using anytime, anywhere tools and technologies. Even previously impossible tasks such as video editing and desktop publishing can now be carried out through a web browser.
Companies are offering ever more creative tools that enable collaboration, creativity, opportunities for educational rigor and the provision of effective feedback to teachers and students alike.
The flexibility that these anytime, anywhere solutions provide to educational organizations is not simply the ability to provide access to students outside of the physical constraints of your buildings. Many of these tools will enable you to be flexible and creative with your use of space inside your buildings.
Cloud-based language labs free the school from having to designate specific rooms for language activities and open up opportunities for more effective use of ‘expert’ teachers who can support many more students through a more flexible language lab infrastructure.
Similarly, the use of cloud-based programming and software development environments provides even greater incentives for organizations to rid themselves of ICT suites and develop environments that provide the flexibility to support the differing needs of individual students.
Thus the development of anytime, anywhere learning solutions offers organizations the potential to evolve flexible approaches to learning and teaching both within their classroom environments and outside the ‘normal’ school timetable.
Of course, as with many educational technology trends, anytime, anywhere learning has developed buzzwords and trends. Ideas such as the ‘flipped classroom’ and ‘blended learning’ are becoming increasingly popular among more forward-thinking institutions.
These ideas offer theoretical and practical infrastructures upon which educators can build new, engaging and exciting learning activities that reflect some of the potential benefits that anytime, anywhere learning tools and technologies offer.
However, they are merely subsets of the wider potential benefits that are available and educational organizations that are making the most effective use of these tools are realizing that they impact every aspect of their organizational functions.
Timetables, classrooms and learning environments, catering, teacher workload, school year, technical infrastructure, assessments, asttendance measures, etc. All these areas and more need to be reconsidered if the potential of anytime, anywhere learning tools and technologies is to be factored in to your digital learning strategy.
This is where the ‘Day in the Life’ scenario developments can help with your planning. One school used the development of their digital strategy to challenge teachers to rethink their role in an environment where the use of physical spaces and structured timetables would change.
How would their teaching change when access to resources, collaboration and communication between students and staff, and feedback on learning progress were far more effective than was currently the case?
Working in small groups, over several months, staff explored a variety of ideas, some of which were understandably challenging.
Staff were given the opportunity to ‘build’ example learning environments within an un-used industrial space where they could layout different physical structures and test how they could be used in conjunction with a variety of online tools. This gave them a certain degree of confidence that changes could be made in ways that they could handle.
The outcomes from these activities saw both the development of a long-term strategy, emphasizing flexible learning spaces and timetables, and more immediate developments in the use of online tools as a core element of their learning and teaching activities.
Within twelve months several subject areas had transformed at least parts of their classroom environments into flexible, multi-disciplinary spaces and the timetable infrastructure for the top two year groups had been re-organized to enable flexible attendance, start times and a greater focus on tutorial, rather than whole-class, sessions.
As exciting was the transformation that the Library/Resource Centre underwent. The staff were among the first to embrace the implications of anytime, anywhere learning for their service.
They began to re-analyze the various curriculum models and tried to build a deeper understanding of where the interface between paper-based books, magazines, etc. interacted with online resources. This gave them a focus for their future procurement activities and enabled them to discuss how they could support learning activities more effectively with subject leaders.
Alongside this work they started to offer short, information seminars about how the library could support students in various aspects of their learning. These seminars were carried out within a small ‘teaching’ space inside the library, where students could attend in person, but were also streamed live on the Internet as well as being recorded so that they could be accessed later.
By working with subject leaders and closely matching the content of these seminars to areas of the curriculum that could benefit most, these sminars became increasingly popular amongst both students and staff.
Without meaning to, the Library became one of the major driving forces for the changes taking place across the organization.
The library staff soon found themselves working with staff, students and parents to help develop a range of digital literacy and information management skills and the Library/Resource Centre itself, far from becoming an anachronistic desert, found itself at the centre of an exciting range of activities.
Importantly, these changes also enabled the organization to work collaboratively with other institutions to offer a wider range of subject choices within these final two years. They also saw a reduction in students dropping out of courses and an increase in attendance, with students being able to attend based on a flexible in-class timetable infrastructure and the ability to ‘attend’ classes virtually.
This ‘virtual attendance’ was seen as being particularly important to many of these older students, some of whom needed to travel quite long distances to attend classes.
In the past, having to come into school for one or two classes cost a lot of money and used up a lot of time for these students. However, with the new approach they could register their attendance in a class by logging in remotely and actively participating in the online activities that accompanied the class.
In some subjects, where the number of students taking the class was small, nearly all ‘lessons’ had some element of virtual attendance and staff became ever more confident in developing effective approaches to integrating the in-class and online experiences.
Importantly for the administration team the anytime, anywhere learning tools also provided them with more effective, closer to real-time, feedback about what was happening within their learning environment and how the new learning and teaching activities were supporting learning outcomes.
They cited this ability to more accurately understand what was happening as an important element in the developing success of the programme. When something was tried that did not seem to be working they could identify this quickly and take remedial actions so that student learning was not impacted negatively.
When something was clearly seen to be working well, this again could be identified quickly and the knowledge shared across the teaching staff and student body.
Administrators began to look at different data points in order to measure effectiveness.
Data about interactions with online learning activities, including frequency of use, times when students were interacting with learning activities and feedback on the use of learning resources began to give these administrators different data points that would help them gain a greater understanding of what was going on across their learning environment.
There is lots of data and trying to pinpoint the data that they want to use to become more effective educators is an on-going challenge. However, they have the data and even on a very basic level of knowing when and where individual users log in to their learning portal account is an important measure of engagement.
The developing landscape of digital
There are, of course, many different facets to each of the above. Blogging as a way to improve literacy, especially in boys, has become popular recently but this is just a combination, where it is done well, of the use of digital media, reflective feedback and anytime, anywhere learning.
Many of the ‘popular’ and effective trends in the use of digital tools are, in effect, aspects of one or more of the themes addressed within this chapter.
Once leaders understand the power and benefits of each of these overarching areas of technology it is relatively simple to apply that understanding to the potential effectiveness of a new tool.