How Digital Will Change Schools?

Digital learning is all the craze in schooling now, especially in the Western countries. It seems at times that going digital promises to fix all the challenges and problems in schools these days. The picture is, of course, not that simple.

The first truth about digital is that digital alone is absolutely nothing.

A book read from an iPad is still a book. And often, using old media in a new platform gives a worse user experience than using the old media itself. A printed book, after all, is still one of the best user interfaces for distributing information.

In digital, I believe the old adage is true: content is king. If the content is not of high quality and well adapted to the platform in use, learning results will more likely suffer than benefit from adopting digital tools. This has, in fact, been what many schools have found out after pouring millions into digital infrastructure.

A tablet or a mobile phone alone does nothing. In the worst case, the digital tool will even contain distractions that will draw attention away from learning. Hence, plummeting learning results.

The second truth about digital, the one fueling all the craze, is that once a digital tool is used well, it can boost our activities in ways previously thought impossible.

Email, with all of its shortcomings, is a massive improvement over penning letters. Digital imaging enables us to do in seconds what used to take graphic artists hours, days or even weeks. Music, video, desktop publishing and countless other fields have benefited massively from adopting digital tools. And so may schools, if they do it right.

There are a few guidelines that I think are critical for successful implementation of digital tools in schools.

First, school districts, schools and individual teachers should direct resources for content curation. It is critical to understand and differentiate high quality material, whether it’s online content, MOOCs or learning games.

Second, this curated material should be made available to teachers as widely as possible. (To be of some help, I compiled a while ago a list of what I think are the best learning games out there.)

Third, teachers should be aware of when to use digital tools and when to stick to the good old pen and paper. Sometimes using the chalkboard is more interactive than using a smartboard. And, as I already said, often a book beats an e-book just because you can leaf through it, fold dog ears and scribble in the margin. Try doing that to your iPad.

Lastly, teachers should also make sure to eliminate as much of the distractions online tools offer. While I’m not a big fan of content blocking, in a big classroom this probably does mean turning on the parental controls on the tools available to kids.

Also, trust is key: telling kids it’s ok to use their phones as long as they use them to study might work if you have a good relationship with your class. But I would be very careful with allowing non-study related online or mobile activities in the classroom. (That being said, there have been teachers successfully leveraging even Angry Birds in teaching, say, maths. So if that’s your thing, go for it.)

Digital tools are not a magic wand that will transform learning straight out of the box. But like so many other technologies, they do offer a lot of ways to make learning more fun and engaging – if they are used right. As with any tool, using digital in the right way in the classroom requires time to understand how it works – and how to get the best mileage for your and your classrooms’ needs.

When digital tools are used in the proper context and with the kinds of emphases that I have described above, I do believe they can have a huge positive impact on schools. But this is only if digital learning is done under the supervision of a capable teacher.

In this way, I think that the digital revolution, when done properly, will make the teacher’s role even more crucial than it used to be to generate truly engaging learning experiences.