Responding to ‘Why Hasn’t Digital Learning Lived Up to Its Promise?’

Looking in all the wrong places.

September 21, 2020

Tom Adams is president of Quantic School of Business & Technology (which I had never heard of) and the founding CEO of Rosetta Stone. He wrote a piece for TechCrunch called "Why Hasn’t Digital Learning Lived Up to Its Promise?"

The column starts with the observation that “The fall semester is off to a rocky start.”

Is this true?

As evidence, Adams points to some universities starting with in-person courses and then being forced to pivot back online. Additionally, he points to some students (and parents) wanting tuition discounts for online courses.

When it comes to teaching and learning, we don’t know yet how the fall semester is going. Mostly what we hear locally, from professors and students at our institutions, is that things are going pretty good so far.

It may be too early to know how this semester of mostly mixed remote and in-person learning will play out.

Anyway, Adams then goes on to make an interesting observation.

If I were asked 20 years ago, as the founding CEO of Rosetta Stone, what digital learning would look like today, I would have imagined a very different future. Online learning was exploding. Teachers and faculty were experimenting with now commonplace consumer technologies like speech recognition and virtual reality to create immersive learning experiences.

This quote reminds me a bit of when Peter Thiel said, “We wanted flying cars; instead we got 140 characters.”

Twenty years ago, I was working in digital learning. Did we think back then that we would end up transitioning our courses and colleges into cyberspace?

Adams writes that “remote learners today are left with ed tech that feels like it is still trapped in the '90s.”

Is this true?

Here is where I think that Tom Adams, and many other observers of higher education change, are getting it wrong. They are looking for change in all the wrong places. Instead of looking at technology, they should be looking at the intersection of learning science and organizational development.

Making an argument that “ed tech is trapped in the '90s” is only possible if you have never spent time in a modern online, blended or residential course. By “modern,” I’m thinking of a course that was designed through a collaboration between a professor and a learning designer. Or a course that a professor put together on her own, but with the benefit of resources and assistance from a workshop or consulting help from a center for teaching and learning.

Nowadays, we have a critical mass of courses (and entire programs) that are designed around the science of learning. These courses are designed backward, starting with the learning goals. These courses are set up to support the construction of knowledge, rather than its transmission.

Active learning, where students participate as partners in the learning process, has become the acknowledged postsecondary education goal. This does not mean that every course and every program reaches the goal of alignment to learning science. Only that colleges and universities across the postsecondary ecosystem are working toward this broad goal.

Schools that have invested organizational structures to support the alignment of teaching with learning science have proven extraordinarily resilient during the pandemic. Research-based teaching strategies -- those informed by the science of how people learn -- can evolve to cope with the educational challenges imposed by COVID-19. Learner-centric courses are learner-centric (and effective), regardless if a course is residential, remote or some combination.

The reality, and the story that Tom Adams completely misses, is that teaching and learning has progressed enormously over these past two decades. While it has not been easy or even smooth, colleges and universities have almost universally maintained academic continuity throughout the pandemic. And the quality of education that students have access to is enormously richer and more effective than 20 years ago.

The reasons for these changes have very little to do with advances in technology and everything to do with college and university investments in translating learning science into teaching practice.


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