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Published in Print: November 19, 2008, as Digital Education: Mapping Innovation

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Digital Education: Mapping Innovation

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To use a bit of techo-slang, digital education is a Google “mash-up,” combining data from more than one source into a single integrated tool. Here’s an example: Using cartographic data from Google Maps to add location information to real estate data creates a new and distinct Web service that was not originally provided by either source.

Educational mash-ups will define the classroom of the future, and right now, people are wiring a colossal learning mash-up.

A project I am working on, the American History and Civics Initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is one example of that trend. It endeavors to map historical-thinking tools against 21st-century skills through multiplatform digital media. A big target. But what we’ve learned in the prototype phase alone goes a long way toward mapping the future of digital education.

Today, K-12 students receive most of their curricular content on paper. In 20 years, most of it will arrive digitally. What will this new digital content look like? How will the new media transform the way students absorb information, build skills, and learn concepts? And how will we assess student gains?

Work now in development, such as the history and civics initiative, tries to address these questions. Although the initiative hasn’t arrived at answers yet, we have some good indicators of where we might find them.

The new-media content will not look like old media delivered digitally. The natives won’t stand for it. Growth in online learning notwithstanding, the digital presentation of traditional instruction will probably fade within a few years, as the low completion rates for online courses reveal its weaknesses. If “engagement is the answer,” as Joseph S. Renzulli wrote in these pages, then saddling new technology with old pedagogy will not address the problem. ("Engagement Is the Answer," Commentary, July 16, 2008.)

Digital content delivery promises individualized instruction calibrated automatically, engaging content presented in multiple formats, standards correlated on the fly state by state, and the recording of each standard achieved in a secure individual student file. Teachers can become coaches, encouraging students to find their own paths to understanding, and schools can become attractive oases.

No wonder some people consider digital education a dream, especially given the April 2008 report Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader from the Economic Policy Institute asserting the need for a $20 billion investment in infrastructure. The uneven quality of first-generation digital learning sometimes leaves an impression more of hokum than of transformation. But the second generation will not.


We’ve only just begun to assess what it will take to create digital content that students, teachers, schools, and districts will embrace. But here are some of the conditions that must be met:

Layered content. Standards have helped us define what we would like students to know and be able to do in most subjects at each grade level, but flat presentation of that information ruins digital delivery. We need to anticipate the levels of student engagement, first presenting material in a way that motivates students to seek out further knowledge, and then layering the content so that retrieving it builds vital skills. When we ask students to retell the story of a novel from a minor character’s point of view, we take advantage of content layering to build interpretive skills. Good learning platforms can engage students whom teachers sometimes have trouble reaching.

The uneven quality of first-generation digital learning sometimes leaves an impression more of hokum than of transformation. But the second generation will not.

Active learning environments. Engagement and learning go hand in hand. We can’t expect students’ knowledge and skills to grow if they don’t care about the content. Digital delivery of content can keep students engaged and learning, through games and social networks that reward project-based learning. Students in collaboration work more actively than students working alone, even when that collaboration is competitive. The success of the educational gaming company Tabula Digita in using math tournaments to promote active learning can point the way for products that connect content more securely to motivation.

Capitalize on technology’s strengths. Computers can’t empathize with a child, ascertain the likelihood of success, or meaningfully advise a student at the edge of a new understanding. But technology can automate some fundamental processes, even in the classroom. Project-based learning works, but many schools and teachers shy away from using projects because of the preparation they require. In developing Web-based projects, however, with the full range of rubrics, supports, and collaborative tools, we can make project-based learning almost turnkey. Instead of asking students to write a term paper, for example, we ask them to investigate the historical object of their choice—and provide structured help in building their investigations. Technology offers the advantage of integrating scaffolding, assessment, and collaboration into a single package.

Many ways to learn. Perhaps because we’re creating content for new media, we don’t think of digital content as a single thing. The graphic novel deepens the game experience. Cellphone-based learning activities help most when participants are collaborating with students across the country. The video assets enrich the primary sources. Multiple points of access encourage students to encounter new knowledge through the media that suit their learning style best. By designing the digital content to connect meaningfully with other sources, they work together to enhance learning, especially for students who have struggled to learn through traditional media.


Creating digital education requires teams of people with complementary skills to fashion high-quality content. In my explorations of this new world, I have found that we need content experts, teachers, Web developers, game designers, graphic novelists, and curriculum planners. Some projects call for expertise in other fields, too.

Once we have the content, success will depend on other elements of design outside the learning platform itself. Three vital pieces come to mind, and each will require its own massive exploration.

First, we will need a useful distribution system. Schools will have to review technology policies that now often starve schools of Internet access. Such openness does not come without risk, but the alternative seems much worse. Most schools demand that their students drop back half a century when they enter: no cellphones, intermittent Web access, copied worksheets, prescripted paper-based content. Building 21st-century skills means having 21st-century schools, places that encourage open exploration and require collaboration, that engage by design instead by a teacher’s singular efforts. Statewide policies that privilege traditional textbooks will also need reworking. Textbooks will likely have a place in this digital world, but not the one they have occupied for 150 years.

Second, the learning platforms will have to develop plug-and-play operations, so a student’s online activity feeds his or her performance against standards into student information systems. The Education Grid, under development at Boston College, promises to serve just this function, but it will take several years to launch. We’ll also need reliable assessment tools imbedded in the digital content delivery, so student performance on the game or Web activity itself measures achievement, individually and seamlessly.

Finally, we must prepare our teachers to work in a digital world. The International Society for Technology in Education has proposed just such a program for preservice teachers, called Preparing Teachers for Digital Age Learners Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader , or PTDAL. As included in the federal Higher Education Act, PTDAL will provide $100 million to schools of education that transform their curricula in support of digital learning. A program of equal size will need to be developed for in-service professional development.

We can only speculate about the world of digital education at this point. This brief survey of the landscape might make this mash-up for the future of education a little more real. In the next few years, classrooms will expand with new, exciting ways to engage students. The question is how to fuel this change and make it as educationally effective as possible.

Vol. 28, Issue 13, Pages 22-23

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