A Pedagogical Divide in the World of Digital Learning

By 04/06/2011

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Digital learning is gaining support from across the political spectrum. Not only has the idea won backing from Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, but from a gathering of progressive academics who gathered together for a three-day conference at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education last week.  If one flies over the digital world at 5,000 feet, one sees a grand consensus forming.  As compared to the high school of today, digital learning is more efficient, more effective, more customized, and more in tune with the young people of the 21st Century.  On that, digital enthusiasts from whatever part of the political spectrum can agree.

But when walking through the virtual forest, one stumbles up and down many an ancient pedagogical  divide. For some (put me on this right-hand side of the canyon), digital learning provides advanced students with the opportunity to learn challenging materials at an early age, and students with limited backgrounds an opportunity to learn at the pace appropriate to their skill level, and all students a chance to learn at any time, any place, take any path, at any pace, as the motto of Florida Virtual School puts it.  That’s also the vision of  “School of One,” about to go national after a trial run in a few schools in New York City and of Khan Academy, the open source math curriculum getting a trial in Los Altos, California.

But for others (on the left-hand side of the canyon), digital learning is not about learning fractions, long division, Mandarin, chemistry or calculus.  It is about cooperating with diverse groups of students from across the globe, playing games, and creating new things. Through such unstructured activities, a student will acquire the 21st Century skills of creativity, openness, playfulness, and cooperation.  One presenter at the Harvard event impressed us by displaying a student-created website built with a simplified programming toolkit.  A big fish ate little fish, with the number of little fish consumed recorded accurately. Nor was this concept of digital learning an outlier.   Many words were spoken in favor of creativity, cooperation, new modalities, and 21st century skills, but little attention was given to the best way of designing a three-dimensional biology course.

In one intense conversation, pedagogical differences exploded into political ones.  On  one side, there were those (such as myself) who were worried about intellectual property rights and the best way of ensuring that entrepreneurs would be compensated for their contributions.  If incentives to invent are not available, no one will design the fabulous physics, chemistry, language and history courses that are potentially better than those now available.

But many others disapproved of polluting the field of education with such mercenary motives.  Digital courses should be created and distributed freely by schools, universities and selfless servants of the public.  Perhaps there is some connection between this perspective and the notion of what is to be taught in a course.  If one only needs to teach creativity, cooperation and 21st century skills, then course construction may be done as a hobby or left to students themselves.

And who should decide what should be taught?  Most participants assumed that digital learning would take place mostly within schools as we know them today.  They did worry about disseminating the innovation within a school system that consisted of many small school districts that were hampered by regulations and collective bargaining agreements. They knew that most teachers and administrators were so hide-bound in their thinking that it would not be easy to get them to change their ways.  But they resisted the idea of side-stepping the status quo by letting students choose their own courses from whatever vendor they preferred.

In the end, I found a fundamental self-contradiction in the perspectives of those on the left-hand side of the canyon.  On the one hand, they thought young people could teach each other better than any adult could teach them.  But on the other hand, they wanted to make sure some group of adults—whose values were not unlike their own—told students which courses to take.  But those on the right-hand side had their own challenge, though it was never fleshed out at the conference.  If students are to select government-funded courses from a multiplicity of competing vendors, what is the best way of ensuring that the available courses are ones of high quality.

Digital learning is coming, but the battle over its form and content is just beginning.

– Paul E. Peterson

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