The Alliance for Excellent Education has named Feb. 1, 2012, “Digital Learning Day,” a nationwide campaign intended to raise awareness of teaching and learning through digital media and technology. Thirty-nine states have committed to the event, which is reaching 1.7 million K-12 students. Hundreds of school districts and 15,000 teachers are participating in the event with their own programs, directed by toolkits provided by the Alliance for Excellent Education. All of this culminates today in a “National Town Hall” webinar featuring FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
According to Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, this all began with one West Virginia elementary school that had its own Digital Learning Day.
“It asked the students for one day to put their pencils down and engage in some aspect of digital learning,” Wise said. “So instead of powering down cellphones, power them up. Use smartphones to do research-based inquiries, to answer questions. It was designed to get teachers thinking about ways that they could better use technology; what kind of innovations could they bring.”
Wise was taken with this idea, and took it nationwide. It’s focused on K-12 schools but Wise said the connection through college and into professional learning and development is clear, as companies are looking for employees who are comfortable with digital tools.
“The corporate world is going to be constantly updating and upgrading its workers’ skills,” he said. “Much of that is going to be online and through digital technology. So I don’t see how in almost any occupation you’re going to make it if you’re not comfortable using digital tools and also learning and constantly upgrading on a digital basis.”
Wise said engaging with digital learning teaches students “deeper learning skills” such as communication, innovation, self-reflection, collaboration and teamwork. “Whether you’re working on an assembly line or in the most advanced IT operation, those are increasingly common skills, and digital learning is a major tool in advancing them,” he said.
Digital Learning Day has a number of corporate partners sponsoring the event, one of which is education company Kaplan Inc. Justin Serrano, president of Kaplan K-12 and College Prep, said the event addresses a steadily increasing need for college graduates in the U.S. He cited a 2010 study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, which found that by 2018 the U.S. will have 3 million more jobs that require college degrees than it has college graduates.
“Access to technology is a part of that,” Serrano said. “The great promise of technology is being able to deliver the highest level of education and instruction anywhere.”
Serrano agreed with Wise that digital learning builds collaboration among students, specifying that it does this by removing social barriers. “Students are asking more questions because they don’t feel uncomfortable raising their hand and looking stupid in front of their classmates,” he said. “When you think about technology and education, sure it might subsume some parts of what’s going on in the classroom today, but I think it’s actually highly complementary.”
That’s a major consideration in promoting digital learning at the K-12 and collegiate levels — is it meant to replace teachers and classrooms, and if so, to what extent?
“Having a person who’s interacting with students and having a personal, emotional and motivational connection for students is important, so I think to say that you’re going to have online replace teachers is an oversimplification,” Serrano said. “You’re not throwing out the baby with the bathwater in terms of what a good teacher can accomplish. You’re just using the technology to amplify what a good teacher can deliver to a classroom or potentially have a good teacher amplify across a much bigger network of students.”
Wise agreed that replacing teachers is not what digital learning is about. “It’s about making teachers more effective and productive and giving them the tools to truly bring high-quality education for every one of their students,” he said.
So why has the time come for Digital Learning Day? As CLOs know, e-learning and online delivery have been dominant forces in companies for some time. But according to Wise, digital learning hasn’t taken over K-12 education at the same speed “and it needs to.”
“Education is faced with the same set of circumstances that many corporations have been faced with, which is a demand for a much greater product — that is much better student outcomes — and at the same time less dollars to do that with,” he said. “So you need game-changers. This isn’t the sole answer, but education historically has used technology least effectively of many of the industrial sectors.”
Wise pointed out that price points for educational technology have dropped rapidly in the last five years and will continue to do so. He said, “My guess is that in a number of our states within five years you’ll see far more digital content being carried around by students in their backpacks than you will textbooks.”
Daniel Margolis is a managing editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at dmargolis@CLOmedia.com.