Debunking Popular Misconceptions about the Internet and Digital Learning

June 7, 2012 - 6 Comments

I just read an interesting article claiming that technology companies would like parents and government officials to believe that the internet can save education.  It would be nice if the internet alone could save education, but even those of us in technology know that it’s not that simple.

The author goes on to cite the joint Harvard-MIT project to offer free courses on line and content from the Khan Academy and acknowledges new flipped learning models as a way for students to consume digital content prior to attending live courses.  The author states, “I couldn’t shake the idea of why online video lessons won’t by themselves make us all smarter: There’s nothing like being there.”

I immediately realized that many well-meaning education opinionates are missing what it takes to design digital learning environments that leverage the internet and that work.  Digital learning and the internet are not just about one-way video or delivering courses on-line.  Digital learning is about creating individualized, anytime-anywhere learning experiences that are right-sized for students.

This blog will highlight popular misconceptions and describe key shifts that need to take place in schools, colleges, and universities for us to realize the full benefits of implementing technology.

Myth #1: You can add point products and applications without the right core infrastructure.

Robust, digital learning environments that are making a difference in student outcomes include synchronous and a-synchronous video, the ability to travel around the world virtually, and access resources anytime, anywhere from any device.  In order to create these environments, educational institutions must have the right core infrastructure, or none of these digital approaches will work.

Moorseville Graded School District (MGSD) in North Carolina has seen their infusion of technology return a dramatic impact to students, teachers, and the district overall.  Mark Edwards, Superintendent of Moorseville, said that the school’s network has enabled the shift in their academic environment. “Today,” he says, “teachers give projects that require the development of some sort of multimedia content. So at any given time, there are anywhere from 1200 to 1600 students making movies and podcasts, and accessing streaming video on the network. It’s really key to our culture here; it simply has to work. Having that kind of bandwidth is vitally important; you have to have a networking infrastructure that can support that type of usage.”

Myth #2: Digital Learning is about One-Way Video, and Faculty Members will Become Obsolete:
the US Department of Education released a limited study in 2010 (Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning), finding that students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction. Blended Learning (instruction combining online and face-to-face elements) had a greater effect relative to pure face-to-face instruction and pure online instruction.  And, larger student gains were seen when online instruction was collaborative or instructor-directed rather than in those studies where online learners worked independently.

Importantly, the teacher or faculty member will not go away; he or she becomes the lynchpin in helping students to understand content and concepts, carry on a robust dialogue around complex issues and topics, assess performance, and develop higher-order, critical thinking skills.  Some pre-suppose that online and digital learning, in general, will obsolete teachers.  Quite the contrary, the role of the faculty member becomes elevated to coach, academic guide, and mentor.

Myth #3: Digital Learning and the Internet are About Decreasing Cost vs. Personalizing and Improving Learning

The most wondrous aspect of digital learning is that it is based on digital assets, assets that present boundless flexibility and something that we never had before on such a significant scale:  the ability to mass- customize and personalize learning.  Flipped learning is one example of this ability to personalize learning.  Students can go on the web, listen to a Chemistry lecture ten times, prepare more effectively for exams, and explore academic topics beyond their core curriculum.  But, flipped learning also allows them to learn at their own pace.  They can move forward, or take more time to review and internalize concepts.

With digital learning, students can also customize and personalize their own content in a range of formats.  They can create web pages, make videos, and develop personal learning portfolios to follow them throughout their learning journeys.  Empowerment, ownership, and a greater sense of purpose skyrocket, enhancing motivation and cultivating greater creativity.

Most importantly, we’re being asked to think differently about how to deliver quality learning experiences to students, providing them with the core skill sets and competencies to succeed in an increasingly complex, diverse, and competitive global economy and workforce.  If we close our hearts and minds to the ability of technology to transform how we are delivering those learning experiences, we are doing our students and our society a disservice.

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  1. As a former teacher who is now involved in the technology industry I applaud you on a well-written article that has a refreshing point of view.
    When I taught I tried to implement technological benefits into my lessons, but they retained the classic brick-and-mortar classroom approach. However, my husband is now in college and he relies heavily on Kahn Academy for help. I have since seen that as you stated, the optimum classroom of the future is one that combines technology and interpersonal relationships.
    It is important for schools to understand that in order to offer students full use of internet resources an in building das solution or wireless network of some sort must be provided.

  2. Great blog Renee! As a Cisco certified Virtual Classroom Instructor AND product trainer for WebEx, I can attest to the efficacy of remote learning. I know it works, and I have trained many customers in the education sector who are using WebEx technology to reach remote learners. What many folks don’t realize is that there are keys to ensuring knowledge transfer online- they just aren’t the same as what we’d use in a traditional classroom. Using proper instructional design methods, and taking a blended learning approach (as you mentioned) are a few. Using existing “brick and mortar” classroom materials/approaches will not always work in a virtual classroom. This is where I see the biggest chance for online education to fail- and a big “AHA!” moment for educators when they realize that some adaptation is required. Cisco, through WebEx University, offers a program called Leading Virtual Classroom Instruction which acts as a boot camp for those who will be creating and leading online education programs. I highly recommend it!

  3. Many of the people who believe that internet based learning is the wave of the future are interested in the savings it might provide. Unfortunately these technologies can never replace in-room instruction. Their greatest impact will be when they supplement learning that has happened in the classroom or to help those who need more practice. It’s ok to move teachers away from the front of the classroom to the “guide on the side” but their presence is absolutely necessary

  4. Great article; very insightful. Too much debate seems to focus on the ‘automation’ of existing models of education rather than thinking again – as you do here – about how experienced educators can deploy technology to do things never possible before. And per Myth 1, infrastructrue isn’t bright and shiny but it is the core: as we know from school building themselves, reliability and functionality beats bling every time.

  5. Our local school district just introduced courses online for grades K-12!

  6. Great article! I agree with your point of view!