Ed-Tech Policy Letter to the Editor

Even in Digital Learning, the Old Is New Again

August 10, 2010 2 min read
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To the Editor:

When it comes to modern-day educational issues, King Solomon’s admonition that there is nothing new under the sun is as salient as ever. With our continued emphasis on school reform, it appears that we have not made much progress.

Just consider that back in the 1600s, the Czech educator and writer John Amos Comenius penned the chapter “It Is Possible to Reform Schools” in his book The Great Didactic. Unfortunately for us, many of his observations still hold true, including the following:

• “It is a common complaint that there are few who leave school with a thorough education. … This complaint is corroborated by facts.”

• “[E]ducation given shall not be false but real, not superficial but thorough; … [man] shall not merely read the opinions of others and grasp their meaning or commit them to memory and repeat them, but shall himself penetrate to the root of things and acquire the habit of genuinely understanding and making use of what he learns.”

• “The class instruction shall last only four hours each day, and shall be conducted in such a manner that one master may teach hundreds of pupils at the same time, with ten times as little trouble as is now expended on the teaching of one.”

Comenius wrote these words looking through the lens of a traditional lecture method, which is still commonly used today. But as noted in your special report E-Learning 2010: Assessing the Agenda for Change (April 28, 2010), we are on the brink of some truly innovative models of teaching with personalized learning platforms, or PLS.

Pioneers such as B.F. Skinner, Robert M. Gagné, and Fred S. Keller created basic PLS design principles, but their ideas have been crudely implemented. Most of these early efforts only allowed students to advance through a course at their own pace by using a scripted and static document of programmed material. While the ideas fueling personalized learning platforms have been around for decades, the implementation of these concepts has been limited by the educational publishing industry’s traditional models of delivering curriculum.

Today, these limitations are no longer a factor. The emergence of digital content, a better understanding of the instructional principles needed to progress from novice to expert, and advanced psychometric theories and tools allow us to realize the promise of what early pioneers conceived so many years ago.

Malbert Smith III



Durham, N.C.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 11, 2010 edition of Education Week as Even in Digital Learning, the Old Is New Again


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