Digital disruption in education, through a student lens

Search online for “digital disruption in education” and you’ll come up with a host of articles, most of which focus on the “what” of transformative technologies and techniques. Whatever new software, system or integrative approach is most exciting to educators and administrators typically gets the most attention. However, given the overwhelming wealth of transformative opportunities, and the rapidity of change, it’s time to focus on the essential “why” of digital transformation – why these innovations matter to students. With that in mind, take a look at the latest trends in education through four student-focused lenses: access, engagement, ownership and achievement.

“Let me in.” (How digital improves access.)

In a world where ever-higher levels of education are required for employment (or even positive participation in society), access to education remains a challenge. Traditional college is too expensive, or too difficult to fit in, especially for working adults. Similarly, those who have dropped out of the traditional education system often find it impossible to re-enter.

Online learning – such as distance learning via Skype or dedicated platforms for the virtual classroom – has already proven its ability to help fill the gap, with 14 years of consecutive growth. It now serves 6% of America’s total student population, with particular strength in higher education. The continued rise of mobile, the ubiquity of mobile devices, and the advent of 5G networks enabling virtually unlimited mobile interaction, will continue to expand access to education.

“Engage me.” (How technology increases student involvement.)

It’s an age-old truth: you can’t teach someone if you can’t get, and keep, them interested. Unfortunately, research shows that some 47% of students self-assess as either unengaged or actively disengaged at school, while teachers peg that number at closer to 60%.

While technology will never replace an engaging educator, it is already supporting and expanding their work in ways previously unimaginable:

  • Augmented and virtual realities are making the learning experience more immersive and easier to grasp than ever. Now lessons on Ancient Egypt may start in the textbook, and then continue with time travel directly to and through the pyramids. Learning anatomy can proceed from old acetate overlays of organ structure to an active experience of internal anatomy previously available only in the surgical theater.
  • Gamification, whether via video games or other technology, is also proving the benefits of greater engagement. In one university study, an engineering professor and a researcher teamed up to create a road race video game in which students were required to create their own cars, using the principals being taught in the course. Two classes were then created, one using the game, and a control class taught via a traditional combination of textbook study and lectures. Students in the gamified course where not only more engaged but were also better able to master the complex course work.

“Make it mine.” (How personalization improves effectiveness.)

Personalization is another key to engagement, as each student is unique, and one-size-fits-all courses can fail both avid learners and the learning-challenged.

  • Learning Management Systems (LMS) can provide important student personalization, in addition to their many administrative benefits. Imagine connecting student devices to an LMS so that, upon entry into the classroom, customized lesson-plans are served up, not simply providing the correct content, but also optimizing it per an individual’s progress through a specific section of the course. Students neither fall behind nor get bored, staying better engaged and on track. LMSs are even being used as closed social networks, for student-to-student interaction and empowerment.
  • Adaptive learning can be part of that customization, whether connected to an LMS or not. Here, artificial intelligence can play a role, as apps actively learn a student’s needs for pacing, their status of mastery, and even the types of lessons that will “click in” the best. Perhaps best of all, they can do this in real time, immediately enhancing lessons and assessments, and avoiding student frustration or inaccurate grading.
  • Blended learning ensures that both teacher and student maintain an active role in more personalized learning – and an active engagement with each other. This critical crossover of teacher and technology combines better student control and ownership (e.g., choosing speed of progress or type of assessment) with teacher involvement and relationship development. Teachers can also use technology, including LMSs, to empower student choice, as one English teacher did, by allowing students to either read a posted lesson text or watch a video of her discussing it. After giving students this choice, the failure rate in her class declined by 15%.

“Look at me learn!” (How technology can improve academic achievement.)

Improving student access, engagement and ownership doesn’t really matter unless it ultimately leads to better achievement – as research indicates that it does.

  • A study from Stanford University was one of the first to point to the promise of digitally-enhanced learning, concluding that “technology – when implemented properly – can produce significant gains in student achievement and boost engagement, particularly among students most at risk.”
  • More recently, a study of one school district, an early adopter of one-to-one technology programs (in which each student has a connected device), reported that one-to-one learning environments can improve academic scores, and also boost key factors which influence them, such as attendance. While the academic impact was only slight in the short term, more significant gains were realized in the medium term, particularly in math (there is no long term yet to study).

Amid all the excitement, and concern, about how technology is disrupting education, it remains imperative that we frame the discussion in such a way that we do not disrupt students. Evaluating our challenges and opportunities through a student lens, as above, should help us do exactly that.

Observer: A Year of Disruption: 7 Education Trends for 2018
Digitalist Magazine: Digital Transformation Trends in Education
Screenbeam: Digital Transformation Trends in Education
Forbes: Top 6 Digital Transformation Trends in Education
American Psychological Association: Grabbing students
Harvard University: Canvas LMS
EDWEEK: New Study Shows 1-to-1 Technology Improves Student Achievement
Stanford University Graduate School of Education: Technology Can Close Achievement Gaps