The digital revolution presents challenges and opportunities to the traditional learning delivery model.

By Amy W. Loomis and
Robert M. Burnside

In the university model that emerged in Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries, the professor faced the class and expounded wisdom. The class debated it. The professor summarized it. Done. Knowledge formed and agreed to by the community.

In the 21st century, nothing and everything has changed about the classroom learning experience.

Look around at the explosion of digital, mobile, cloud and AI technologies and it’s easy to think we have entered a completely new era of learning. And yet much of the behavioral mechanics remain the same. Is virtual learning different from face-to-face learning? Can digital learning at scale accomplish the same depth of learning that a classroom can provide?

The digital revolution presents challenges and opportunities to the traditional learning delivery model.

By Amy W. Loomis and
Robert M. Burnside

In the university model that emerged in Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries, the professor faced the class and expounded wisdom. The class debated it. The professor summarized it. Done. Knowledge formed and agreed to by the community.

In the 21st century, nothing and everything has changed about the classroom learning experience.

Look around at the explosion of digital, mobile, cloud and AI technologies and it’s easy to think we have entered a completely new era of learning. And yet much of the behavioral mechanics remain the same. Is virtual learning different from face-to-face learning? Can digital learning at scale accomplish the same depth of learning that a classroom can provide?

Digital learning did not turn out to be the panacea promised but neither has it gone away as detractors predicted. It has evolved alongside other technologies. Cloud computing allows for sharing and creating multimedia content at scale. Data analytics enable user experience tracking and personalization. The best MOOCs are socially interactive, track learning behaviors and offer incentives for completing courses. Artificial intelligence helps us understand learning behavior patterns and predict challenges.

In the traditional university classroom, the Socratic paradigm of eager learners receiving wisdom from seasoned professors has not changed much in the past eight centuries. Early digital and distance learning merely transferred the traditional lecture to a visual medium. The introduction of social media, mobile devices and new conventions for digital learning created in the era of cloud, data, analytics and AI — along with the cultural expectations of consumer culture they’ve built — have blown it apart.

The Digital Disruption

Digital learning challenges fundamental assumptions of intellectual authority in the classroom. Instant digital access offers students the opportunity to validate, expand, challenge or substitute for traditional classroom knowledge.

At the same time, the small-group experience of the classroom competes with broadly defined communities such as Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook and LinkedIn. But the echo chamber present in those communities threatens to replace the debate and discussion of contrary perspectives that happens in the classroom. False facts and suspect online news makes the job of teachers all the more critical as arbiters of the tools to critically analyze what counts as truth.

Information consumption at scale is endangering our ability to think, reason and learn about what we know and don’t know. In the digital learning era, much has been written about the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve — the notion that over time information is lost when there is no attempt to retrieve it. So what? We can just search the web.

Yet Google is both a tool that inspires curiosity and causes information retention to atrophy. Because we can so easily search for information, our quest to find truth through deductive reasoning or other thought experiments diminishes. The ready availability of answers on the web is causing passivity in our mental exploration. Digital and mobile tools provoke a laissez-faire approach to learning.

We’ve never had such immediate access to digital recordings of the most amazing phenomena — from 360-degree videos of remote and exotic global locations to reproductions of ancient artifacts indistinguishable from the originals. This poses both challenge and opportunity for traditional classroom experiences, inspiring curiosity and simultaneously satisfying it. Why travel 6,000 miles to Egypt when you can explore an ancient Egyptian room remotely?

Human-to-human interactions are decreasing while human-to-machine interactions are increasing. Of course, human-to-human relationships are also being created digitally yet those relationships are defined by a click, not face-to-face engagement.

The era of cloud, data, analytics and AI along with the cultural expectations of consumer culture they’ve built have blown digital learning apart.

These points have in common the variable of time: time contracted through immediate, immersive experiences that don’t require travel; time extended through online debate that offers pause between call and response. One might argue they also share a lack of depth — the picture is sufficient, the tweet tells all, the meme makes the point.

Where is the awkward silence, the opportunity for learning while in transit, the ancillary messy elements that come with often uncomfortable but rewarding experiences that happen in the hybrid live-digital world in which we live?

The good news is we can use the technology of digital learning to create a new university model informed by and intertwined with the tools and tropes of online engagement. Here are three examples:

Digital learning frees us from the constraints of physical space and time. The place of digital learning is free from the physical limitations of the classroom. People gather from wherever they are, meaning cross-pollination of ideas happens across the planet. It also gives us the ability to stop time and listen again to a key point in a presentation or jump ahead.

Digital learning offers an opportunity to gain knowledge through conversation within a broader community. Classrooms have always been about creating a context for shared conversation and learning. Digital learning offers an opening of that aperture and a means of documenting and codifying the collective knowledge the classroom is building together. Here the professor as class moderator over orator takes on new urgency and importance.

Digital learning has the potential to alter the power dynamics between the traditional knowledge giver (professor) and knowledge seeker (student). Digital learning platforms offer a more level playing field for conversation, shared understanding and the creation of shared experience. We can make use of the conversational conventions of online learning as an experience that is in itself a collective voice of authority.

The Evolving Practice of Digital Learning

To successfully create a digital learning community, you need more than a digital learning platform. Shaping a community of people interested in what is being discussed and who have a stake in the outcome of the conversation is hard work.

Traditionally, professors have offered the guidance and guidelines for learning. Digital learning can formalize the voice of the community to engage, digest and join with the knowledge leader. It also allows an audience to be broader and for knowledge to be made permanently available to all.

By building core knowledge from thought leaders and other experts alongside tools for discovery, the organic conversation can allow you to develop, inform and build on canonical knowledge. This is equal parts discovery, recovery and application of new knowledge.

In the new model, digital tools can be used to debate, probe, evolve and grow knowledge and allow for broader sharing across larger audiences, geographies and belief systems. The digital environment offers more opportunities for learners to ask questions, share opinions and get a sense of whether their ideas are resonating or not.

To be successful, though, requires building more than modes of collaboration and communication. It also requires modes of conclusion. Set timelines that allow for reasoned conclusion and closure to arguments. Establish end goals and purpose at the outset. Summarize, share and confirm the outcomes. Creating a collective artifact of learning documents reinforces the work of the class, and conclusions can be introduced into a conversation that extends beyond the lifetime of any one class or classroom environment.

Blended learning also increasingly bridges digital and in-person worlds of learning. Digital tools and classroom experiences easily embrace, engage and reference real world events and examples in ways that quickly reinforce learning through application. Mobile and digital recording devices bring parity between the text of formal content, the text of the class dynamic and the text of each individual’s experience. Real examples can be stress tested to see if they fit abstract principles and then absorbed or discarded for the next iteration of the teaching experience. By expanding the digital experience to reinforce core material with co-created content by design, digital learning builds a virtuous cycle of memory reinforcement.

AI extends personalized learning even further beyond any given class. With the help of analytics, digital learning experiences are personalized, from the duration of particular materials to the ways they are delivered to badges, credits or degrees awarded. Analytic tools offer students and teachers a bird’s-eye view on their learning journey.

AI can automatically answer routine questions and grade basic materials in order to free up time for professors to engage more deeply on a personal level. Gaming and leaderboard approaches can motivate students to seek out support and push performance to new levels. Technology can track completion, understanding and rating of ideas by others in the community — and improve the learning process.

The insights of one cohort become the curriculum of the next. Digital learning gives every cohort an opportunity to create new knowledge and share it — not only as validation of the work they have done but as a means to evolve and improve the materials and experience for the next cohort.

Effective digital learning builds in methods for students to co-create content by mining dialogue and soliciting examples or case studies. It is also an opportunity to expand the conversation beyond the classroom, college or work community, engage newcomers and continue the digital relationships forged in the original class itself.

Moving Toward a Model for Hybrid Digital Learning

When these thoughts come together, it’s clear digital learning must draw from the pedagogical core of traditional classroom learning. Similarly, traditional classroom curricula must critically apply digital learning.

Digital learning needs a surrounding structure that enables creation of shared meaning as well as a clear end goal. In the classroom, the university and the subject are the structure within which learning can occur, and a degree or certification the means of communicating learning.

Simply creating a digital version of a course as a substitute for in-person learning is not an end goal. This is merely an export of a traditional paradigm to a new medium rather than a new model of learning.

Digital learning needs an active facilitator who curates the conversation to provide high-quality interactions that can lead to new useful knowledge. The professor can guide this process in the classroom. Online conversations need the same attention to quality interaction. In small groups a human can act as a facilitator while in MOOCs with tens of thousands of participants an AI acting as an intermediary can take on this task.

Successful integration of digital and classroom learning requires a map that takes into consideration:

  • The stage of learning being pursued, from introductory to specialized learning, from learning known facts to co-creation of new knowledge.
  • The scale of the learning group, from small to massive.
  • The desired outcome of learning: personal or collective, project-based or organizational.

Digital learning is challenging everything from business models to the classroom dynamics of traditional higher education. But this challenge is an opportunity to benefit from the inevitable disruption. The technological advancements that are distracting from traditional classroom conversation, homework and retention of key information are also prime teaching resources.

Education, like most industries, will evolve to thrive in a digital age just as retail, entertainment, medicine and others are doing. In broadening the scope of our approaches, we have an opportunity to expand our definitions of the digital learning life cycle from an a la carte tool to an ecosystem for discovery.

We will always have the professor who lectures and the students who listen from their seats. But we also will have the ability to make that experience part of a digital metamorphosis and road map of lifelong learning that extends well beyond the classroom.

Amy W. Loomis is co-founder and former director at IBM’s Think Academy. Robert M. Burnside is former chief learning officer at Ketchum. They can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.