As we embark on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is clear that technology will play a central role in nearly all aspects of our lives. Research by the World Economic Forum estimates that 65% of children entering primary school will find themselves in occupations that today do not exist [1].

Additionally, by 2020, it is estimated there will be 1.5 million new digitization jobs across the globe [2]. At the same time, 90% of organizations currently have an IT skills shortage, while 75% of educators and students feel there is a gap in their ability to meet the skills needs of the IT workforce [3]. To prepare the talent needed for the digital economy, education must adapt as fast as the demand for IT skills is growing and evolving.

Recently, insights into the influence of psychological, social, cultural and environmental factors on how we learn are emerging from “the new science of learning” This approach to understanding education argues that in our complex and rapidly evolving world today, academic models based on interdisciplinary research are necessary to create effective teaching and learning environments.

Learning science’s expanded viewpoint is therefore uncovering new approaches to education. For example, research by professor and leading scientific expert on creativity and learning, R. Keith Sawyer, emphasizes the power of technology to influence and enhance academia by providing experiences that lead to deep learning, such as allowing students to learn collaboratively, test out and redesign models, and articulate their knowledge both visually and verbally [4].

Imagine a classroom infrastructure that includes wireless technologies, remotely accessible switches and routers, and collaboration tools to create an “intelligent” environment for the invention of real-world Internet of Things (IoT) products, services, and experiences by students.

Creation takes place in different venues, for example, in the classroom during project-based learning or alongside passionate technology peers via hackathons. Students model the networks they create in a simulator and prototype with cloud-based technology at home. Instructors are empowered with a customizable learning management platform while collaborating with peer instructors across the world.

Learning science’s interdisciplinary insights are uncovering new approaches to education. For example, the power of technology to influence and enhance academia by providing opportunities for students to learn collaboratively, test out and redesign models, and articulate their knowledge both visually and verbally. Learn more here.

The most exciting piece is, this is all achievable now. By applying learning science insights to IT education, we can create a dynamic, digital, and hands-on learning experience that is tailored, flexible, and relevant, developing the talent needed to power the digital economy.

Understanding Learning Science’s Impact on Education

To illustrate how the science of learning informs digitally enhanced education, we present three learning science concepts – distributed cognition (dCoG), the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), and formative assessment – all of which emphasize how humans learn through activity.

Distributed cognition (dCoG) is a theory introduced by Edwin Hutchins, who describes how people, their environment and artifacts (or tools) can be regarded as one cognitive system.  Educators can view human learning through the lens of dCoG to design digitally enhanced learning experiences that facilitate the interaction of people (e.g. students, teachers, mentors), their environment (e.g. classrooms, workplace learning, informal settings) and tools (e.g. hands-on activities, simulators, games).

For example, Cisco Networking Academy, a world-leading IT skills and career building program, applies dCog and learning via activity to develop deeper, transferrable problem-solving skills. Leveraging collaboration technology, students and teachers can interact face-to-face or virtually to strategize, create and test digital solutions. The learning environment is flexible and diverse, offering face-to-face instructor-led courses, online classes, in-person labs, and blended classroom experiences. The program utilizes various tools to support learning by doing such as Cisco’s Packet Tracer (PT), an innovative network simulation and visualization tool for the IoT era that offers a multitude of opportunities and applications for the teacher and learner. Packet Tracer is free to anyone in the world who registers and allows for student-directed, open-ended networking building and guided practice in designing, configuring, and troubleshooting networks.  Additionally, through hackathons, boot camps, and hands-on lab challenges Networking Academy students can collaborate, create, and problem solve in real time.

Distributed cognition (dCoG), a key science of learning theory, recognizes people, their environment and artifacts (or tools) as one cognitive system. Here an example of dGoG in action: an instructor from Cisco Networking Academy guides a student through Packet Tracer, an innovative simulation tool that provides guided practice in designing, configuring, and troubleshooting networks.

Another concept central to learning science is Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), and the related idea of scaffolding.  ZPD represents the skill level just outside a learner’s comfort and mastery, while scaffolding refers to any type of instructional support, such as quizzes, games, instructions, tutoring, that facilitate learning within the student’s ZPD. By building learning experiences that use scaffolding to adjust to a student’s ZPD, we can hone in on the activity that will optimize a student’s capability to learn new material, as well as the balance between their current ability and the challenge presented.

Adding digital tools expands the options and reach of personalized teaching and scaffolding. For example, complementing the power of in-person and online teachers, learning and assessment enhanced with networked digital tools can be very effective [5]. Applying frequent formative assessments (a formal and informal practice with continual and real-time feedback) the U.S. Navy’s Digital Tutor system demonstrates how digital solutions result in a scalable educational environment that has created IT experts in months rather than years. Through its Education Dominance pilot, the U.S. Navy developed an artificial intelligence based tutoring system to replicate the behaviors of exceptional tutors. Simulation technology and hands-on labs drive this system with student outcomes equivalent to, or surpassing, those using the human tutor. The platform is also scalable in a way not afforded by in-person tutors.

Additionally, digital-based assessments enable Cisco Networking Academy, and its global community of educators, to pursue an agile continuous improvement process that target a learner’s optimal pace and material. A spectrum of online quizzes, chapter and final exams, practice Certification experiences, and online skills exams, coupled with options for instructor customization, create a “digital ocean” of data on learning patterns and progress, for students, instructors, and the program. Cisco Packet Tracer also has a formative assessment mode with scaffolding enabled via instructions, timing, grading and feedback to allow student practice within their ZPD. To date, more than 170 million exams have been taken online through Networking Academy’s continuously refreshed assessment bank.

Applying learning science insights to IT education, educators can create a dynamic, digital, and hands-on learning experience that is tailored, flexible, and relevant, developing the talent needed to power the digital economy.

Fueling Educational Innovation Critical in the Digital Economy

While experts believe that the human psychology behind learning has not changed vastly over time, the external factors affecting how we comprehend, retain and receive new material are constantly evolving. As the digital revolution accelerates, technology provides us exciting opportunities to shape learning experiences and achieve learning goals.

For example, Networking Academy’s digital platform has enabled expansion into more countries than Cisco itself has operations. Additionally, the “learning science DNA” insights generated from Cisco’s design-based research, are being used to create a variety of learning tools, courses, bootcamps, and academic programs in IoT and big data.

At the same time, it is important to recognize the role that a human teacher will always play in the classroom. They have a unique and personal insight into each learner’s progress, serving as a role model and local expert, and providing inspiration in a way technology itself cannot.

Combining the learning sciences with digital innovation, we can leverage the best of what digitally enhanced and human-driven education have to offer, creating learning experiences that keep pace with the digital skills demanded by the market. In turn, affecting individual lives, supporting business and transforming global communities.

[1] The Future of Jobs – Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, World Economic Forum, 2016
[2] IoE / IoT Employment Opportunity Creation Analysis, Gartner, 2014
[3] Fast Track to the Future, IBM, 2012
[4] The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, R. Keith Sawyer, Cambridge University Press, 2006
[5] Activity Theory and Assessment Theory in the Design and Understanding of the Packet Tracer Ecosystem, International Journal of Learning and Media, 2009


Dennis C. Frezzo, PhD

Learning Scientist and Consulting Engineer

Learning R&D