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Questions About Digital Learning

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I visited Wireless Generation, a leading education technology company, in Brooklyn this week. In a discussion about my new book, Getting Smart, a couple dozen employees including teachers and technologists asked great questions about the future of learning.

Your book includes a lot of "in 5-10 years" predictions, but online learning has been around for over 10 years and it still hasn't been widely adopted by schools. So why now? Why haven't we already seen the digital learning revolution, and what's different about today that makes schools ready to accept these new forms of learning?

Last year (2010) marked a world-changing inflection point in the sale of mobile devices and applications. For education, affordable access devices is the biggest new driver. It's now cheaper to give every student a tablet or eReader loaded with content (particularly if some of it is open) than to give them a backpack full of books.

Learning online has been growing by almost 50% annually as more students gain access to quality options. Informal learning opportunities like Khan Academy are also expanding. New free learning platforms like Edmodo, which tripled in size to 4.5 million users this year, are giving teachers great new opportunities to engage their students.

Add the fact that India and China are in the process of doubling education spending, and you have a global education revolution with an unprecedented level of interest, investment, and innovation.

Your book describes personalized learning environments where students progress at their own rate. I was educated in Russia where my age cohort provided positive peer pressure and support. How will schools replace these positive factors if everything is individualized?

Since Bismarck we've organized and managed schools by age cohort because we didn't have a better choice. Now that digital learning makes it possible for every student to vary rate, time, location, and even path, we can be intentional about when and why we introduce a learning cohort.

Some of my favorite schools -- High Tech High and Carpe Diem -- continue to use age cohorts to leverage peer learning in a diverse environment. The personalized Swedish network, Kunskapsskolan, uses competency-based groups in math and language and age cohorts in science and art. As schools shift to personal digital learning, a series of short- and longer-term social learning groups will become the basic building block of the day for many students.
Creating an environment of high expectations and high support (as described in this Carpe Diem blog) will continue to be as important as ever. Dynamic scheduling and personalized learning just give teacher more and better options than 25 students in a classroom all day.

As the digital learning revolution takes off, what do you think will be parents' most important role in cultivating and sustaining their children's growth?

The good news is that over the next few years we can narrow the digital divide by providing every student (and family) with his or her own personal learning device. That will extend access to quality content, courses, and teachers to every student (where state policy doesn't get in the way).

However, I think we can already see that technology amplifies parenting: good parents manage it and make the most of it, but less well supported students sit in front of screens in unsupervised and unproductive activities for far too long.

Like teachers, parents have great new tools to engage children and promote learning, but it's more important than every that parents set boundaries, manage time, and monitor activity.