What are the benefits of digital education?

Digital education requires teachers to acquire new skills that they may not have had the opportunity to acquire before. However, the benefits of digital education for both learners and teachers provides significant impetus for teachers to develop new skills.

Consider the infographic below. It illustrates the impact that teachers in sub-Saharan Africa believe digital education can have on teaching and learning.

Teachers who have used digital tools in their classrooms will have experienced many of the benefits of digital education that I will discuss in this blog post.

Understanding the benefits of digital education

One way to understand the benefits of digital education is by considering: 

  • the impact of digital education on teaching and learning methods
  • the need to equip learners to function effectively in the digitised 21st Century.

A variety of teaching and learning methods

Digital education offers the potential for a wide variety of teaching and learning methods. 

If we consider that digital education offers opportunities to change how and to what extent learners engage with the teaching and learning process, and the traditional relationships between pedagogy and content/skills, then the outcomes of digital education could be represented as follows: 

Three approaches to digital education

Frameworks for digital education

The SAMR framework is a useful model to help teachers further understand and evaluate the impact of digital education on teaching and learning.

SAMR

SAMR stands for substitution, augmentation, modification and redefinition. The framework was developed by Dr Ruben Puentedura who has worked in education environments for more than 20 years. He specialised in critically evaluating the impact of digital tools on teaching and learning.

The SAMR framework considers the impact of integrating digital tools into an educational strategy. At the first level, teaching and learning is enhanced. At this level, digital education relies on substitution and augmentation. In substitution, only the medium changes, so teachers and learners use new (digital) technology tools in place of old ones, for example PowerPoint instead of the chalkboard. Consequently, no functional change takes place in the teaching and learning tasks. In augmentation, the digital technology directly substitutes print, for example, and improves either the quality or variety of the content that is made available for teaching and learning purposes. Again, though, there is no change in the teaching and learning process itself, and the fundamental pedagogies remain the same.

However, at the transformative level a substantial change in pedagogy takes place. In modification, the learning tasks that are set and with which learners engage are substantially different in that they can be redesigned. Game-based learning is an example of modification made possible by digital education. Redefinition goes one step further than modification. Digital intervention enables learners to complete tasks such as simulations of real-world scenarios and tasks that were not previously possible. 

Example of applying the SAMR framework

Consider the following assignment: Discuss a natural heritage site in your country as a tourist attraction. 

  • Original task: Learners write a 300-word essay and provide examples.
  • Substitution: Learners use a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation and include pictures they downloaded from the World Wide Web.
  • Augmentation: Learners design a travel brochure using Microsoft Publisher. They make it available online and include hyperlinks to useful websites.
  • Modification: Learners collaborate to deliver an online video or blog that includes narration by learners.
  • Redefinition: Learners use Google Earth to identify the features that are being used as examples in their video. They include interviews (via Skype or recorded face-to-face) with local residents, tour guides and environmental organisations. 

Anderson’s framework for online learning

In his book The Theory and Practice of Online Learning (2008), educationalist Terry Anderson developed a framework for online learning. He identified four components necessary to design a successful online learning activity. The activity should be:

  • learner-centred
  • knowledge-centred
  • assessment-centred 
  • community-centred. 
Community-centred online learning

Anderson suggests that there are six levels of interaction available in a technologically-driven learning environment, where interaction is defined as ‘reciprocal events that require at least two objects and two actions. Interactions occur when these objects and events mutually influence one another’. The use of a combination of these interactions results in deep and meaningful learning. The six levels are outlined as follows: 

  1. Learner-to-learner interaction allows for collaboration, the development of social skills and multiple perspectives. 
  2. Learner-to-content interaction is the use of technology to consume, create or interact with content. 
  3. Teacher-to-teacher interaction revolves around the interaction of teaching professionals and the development of a community of practice and further professional development. 
  4. Learner-to-teacher interaction revolves around synchronous and asynchronous communication and is a two-way flow, i.e. from teacher-to-learner and learner-to-teacher. 
  5. Content-to-content interaction is the (generally) automated process whereby a content item communicates with other content sources for notification of changes or to provide meta information. 
  6. Teacher-to-content interaction occurs when the teacher creates content to be used in learning activities or task. 

Equipping learners to function in the digitised 21st Century 

The digitisation of industry via computers and other digital advances is driving a revolution in how we live and work. In their book The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee explore the impact of digital technologies on the 21st Century. They compare the advancement and challenges offered by these technological developments with those of the Industrial Revolution.

In education, therefore, our challenge is to equip learners to function effectively in the 21st Century, a century in which life and work will be enhanced, but also dominated, by digitisation. 

Skills for the 21st Century 

Digitisation has changed the way we live, work and interact with one another, and it will continue to do so. Therefore, the skills that are considered most necessary for the 21st Century all focus on how to live and work in a digitised environment. Look at the illustrations below that summarise these skills. Then look at the cognitive skills illustrated in Bloom’s taxonomy that are needed in order to learn and interact effectively in complex environments. 

The learning and innovation, as well as information, media and technology skills needed for learning, working and living in the 21st Century can broadly be categorised into cognitive skills and practical skills.

Cognitive skills

As you would have noted, cognitive skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and creativity are covered by curricula that are delivered in non-digitised environments. Therefore, you will know from experience that it is possible to teach and learn these skills without having access to digital tools and environments.

What, then, are the benefits of digital education in acquiring these skills?

Personalised learning

Learners progress at an individual pace. The challenge of offline/non-digitised learning is that learners are expected to keep up with (or slow down to) the majority of the class. Digital education enables teachers to pace learning according to individual needs. In this way, it facilitates the acquisition of cognitive skills at the level of each learner’s ability, allowing some learners opportunities to practise more and others to go ahead when they are ready to do so.

Expanded learning 

Expanded learning refers to additional learning opportunities outside of the usual classroom teaching and learning scenario. Digital education is able to offer learners across the ability spectrum additional opportunities to either extend their knowledge and skills by having access to extension materials, or to consolidate and/or improve their knowledge and skills through doing support activities and by practising similar tasks.

Increased engagement

Learner motivation is key to engagement and hence learning. Digital education methodologies such as game-based learning offer opportunities for teachers to increase learner engagement with subject matter and thereby improve learners’ performance. In addition, access to varied and current content online allows learners to not only enhance their knowledge, but also to develop their ability to engage critically with information.

Learning collaboratively

Digital education makes collaborative learning easy to implement. Digital platforms allow for three key things: teachers can set group tasks; learners can collaborate with one another to complete tasks; teachers can monitor learners’ individual contributions and progress towards completion. In addition, collaborative learning scenarios give learners invaluable opportunities to critically evaluate one another’s inputs and to communicate with one another in order to solve problems through teamwork.

Assessment for learning

Digital education enhances the teacher’s capacity to assess learners both diagnostically and formatively in order to accurately identify the cognitive skills that are lacking. In so doing, digital assessment programs enable teachers to offer personalised learning opportunities that are appropriate and effective. Further, game-based learning programs assess learners in a way that makes the assessment process invisible to learners who experience each task as yet another challenge in a competitive environment.

References
Extract from Integrating ICT in Education. 2017. Cambridge University Press

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