Why “Digital” Learning Day?

NMAH 85 3335

Tomorrow is Digital Learning Day. The one day of the year that we celebrate “digital” learning. Differentiated, I guess, from the other 365 days1 of “non-digital” learning?

But what exactly are we “celebrating” on that day? According to the official website (or at least the site using that name with an .ORG domain), the explanation begins this way:

Continue reading

The Appearance of Digital Literacy

The title of a recent Wired article claims that Digital Literacy is the “key to the future” – even if we have no idea what that phrase means.

Here in the overly-large school district we talk a lot about “digital” literacy (with it’s interchangeable companion “digital learning”), although few of those using the phrase can offer a coherent definition for it, and often two people will have very different interpretations.

This particular story is based on discussions among “representatives of the tech industry… and academia” that took place at GitHub, one of the geekier places in Silicon Valley and the web. As you might expect, learning to code is a central tenet in this community, but even that idea is vaguely defined.

But “learning to code” is an exceedingly broad concept, and one which without more specifics risks oversimplifying conversations about what digital literacy really means. And how digital literacy is defined is important. This isn’t just about filling Silicon Valley jobs. It’s about educators, policy makers, and parents understanding how to give the rising generations of digital natives the tools they need to define the future of technology for themselves.

Let’s ignore the lame and outdated “digital natives” reference, and assume that we really do want our students, during their time in K12, to develop programming skills to help them define their “future of technology”. Where does that fit in our current concept of “school”? Or, to channel the thoughts of many students, will this be on the test?

Coding is one of those skills that are also puréed into STEM/STEAM/Maker, more ill-defined instructional concepts that in our schools are almost always welded on as before/after school, lunchtime, or pull-out enrichment activities, but rarely included as part of the “regular” curriculum. They are treated as events, rather than as an environment.

If STEAM is so important – and more than one school reformer has declared it to be vital to our national economic future – why isn’t it part of the core curriculum? Instead of a nice extra activity, great for photo ops, offered to a small segment of students, the ones we know will have no trouble passing the spring standardized tests?

As with the tendency to dump computers and other “high-tech” devices (tablets, “smart” boards, etc.) into classrooms with little or no change in instructional practice1, adding STEM and/or coding activities also provides schools – and district administrators, school board members, and other politicians – with “the appearance of teaching digital literacy without providing the actual substance”.

And without having to decide what in the hell “digital literacy” really means.

It Doesn’t Exist

Here in the overly-large school district, we’ve had lots of discussions around the term “digital learning”. It’s now part of vision statements and official plans, not to mention plenty of slides in presentations. We’ve ventured out into the community to ask parents, kids and others what the phase means to them. Digital Learning even has it’s own day, which I gather is today.

However, after all the conversations, articles, presentations, pronouncements, defining and redefining, the more I think about it, the closer I get to this conclusion:

There ain’t no such thing. “Digital Learning” is meaningless. It doesn’t exist.

Let’s face it, learning happened before so-called digital tools were created, before all of us were connected to multiple networks. Using non-digital artifacts like books, lectures, and even teachers. Scientists experimented, people explored, and kids came to understand what happens when they drop an analog brick on their brother’s head.2

Certainly learning is made better – easier, extended, enhanced in most cases – using connected devices. I can’t imagine not being able to use all the amazing resources available through the various screens I use. But that is not “digital” learning. That’s learning using the most effective tools I have available.

I understand the need to give the use of computers and other devices to improve the learning process a name, something short, catchy, ready for press releases, sound bites and tweets. Unfortunately, manufactured terms like “digital learning” often get in the way, with too many politicians, education “experts”, and even teachers emphasizing the tools over the desired outcomes.

Kids – people – do not “digitally” learn. They learn. Period. So what we need is to make the necessary tools of all kind available to all classrooms and then let the teacher and students decide which of them work best for the individual, subject and situation. On occasion, finger paints and chart paper can be more powerful to foster learning than a drawing program on a tablet.

We especially need to give students more options to choose their own approach to learning, the tools they will use, and the method of demonstrating the knowledge and skills they’ve acquired.

So, celebrate “Digital Learning Day” if you like. But as you do, remember that the Learning is far more important than the Digital. And “digital learning” is much more of a marketing concept than something that exists here in the real world.

Define Learning

Continuing the rant from last week about educliches, our department focus document1 also includes several instances of another vaguely defined phrase: “digital learning”.

In fact, our job is not to help teachers understand the concept or make it part of the curriculum. The task is to…

Develop a definition of Digital Learning in [the OLSD2], identify how it impacts teaching and learning, and articulate why it is important to students’ learning.

Interesting. From reading that charge, I would have to conclude that Digital Learning is a separate idea from the learning that students do, and apparently from the process of teaching as well.

It’s certainly possible to learn without the use of digital tools. But is learning with digital tools fundamentally different than without them? Do we need a discrete phrase like “digital learning”? Or is it in the same class as 21st century learning – an oft repeated cliche linked to a collection of vaguely defined ideas?

Anyway, we will not be working alone in the effort to develop that definition. Over the next few weeks the district is holding a series of public meetings asking parents, students and other members of the community to contribute their ideas to the mix.

It will be interesting to see who shows up and what they have to contribute. I don’t expect large numbers since community sessions like this only draw big crowds for issues like boundary changes but I’d love to be surprised by some enthusiasm for issues related directly to instruction.

Stay tuned while we solve the mysterious identity of Digital Learning.

1. I’d love to link to the page but it’s super secret and locked behind the district firewall.

2. OLSD is, of course, our beloved overly-large school district.