Providing Instructional Resources in a Digital Environment Does Not Constitute Learning

We obviously believe that digital resources, online learning environments, and data-enabled technologies can significantly increase the level of instructional materials, the universal availability of exceptional resources, and the opportunity for students from anywhere to see and experience what lies everywhere in the world far beyond the isolation of their own classrooms. Somewhere along the line though, many software and learning teams working on new tech-enabled learning tools and environments have disproportionately emphasized the discoverability and sequencing of resources over the creative formation of learning exchanges. This is typically pursued with talk of assessment instruments (quizzes) and achievement monitoring (badges) and reporting (integrating with existing school SIS). I do see these things as a part, a very small part, but yes a part of the educational process. Beyond that however, are many more wonderful and intricate processes that truly engender a rich learning experience when conducted at the hands of a master practitioner.

First, effective teachers take any and all instructional materials (Published, OER, Digital, or otherwise)

  • text books,
  • news articles,
  • activity guides,
  • worksheets,
  • experiments,
  • games,
  • art,
  • music,
  • gardens,
  • videos,
  • digital content,
  • field trips,
  • guests,
  • maps,
  • stories, etc.

and weave them together with activities designed to draw their students into authentic engagement with those resources in ways that build upon existing student knowledge, initiate intrigue, generate hypotheses, and move students through a process of exploration and discovery as part of skill-building and knowledge acquisition.

Second, good teachers know that students need opportunities to not just know materials and the concepts they convey through direct, basic consumption, but must also move to doing, showing, producing, and creating applications of their new knowledge. Learning experiences do not end with a quiz, or a battery of valid, calibrated test items, or scores, but should finish with students…

  • attending a museum of their choice,
  • participating in a community-event,
  • volunteering,
  • publishing a written piece,
  • publicly displaying or performing an art piece,
  • attending and speaking at a civic engagement,
  • interviewing family or community members,
  • building a bike, solar panel, water purifier, model home, engine
  • designing a garden,
  • planning, preparing and serving a meal,
  • programming a game,
  • creating a fictitious business, creating a real business,
  • arbitrating a grievance between peers,
  • designing and implementing their own personal health plan,
  • creating a public service announcement or making a documentary

Finally, strong learning provides students with deep opportunities and supporting structures and activities to reflect on their learning. Reflect on the changes that have occurred in their own knowledge, their perceptions, and their awareness of a world that inevitably grows to be more diverse, more complex, and more consequential as a part of the ongoing development of a growing, diverse, complex individual. Teachers aware of this ask students to write reflective pieces, keep a learning journal, map their progress in terms of self-discovery, share their experiences with their peers through debriefs, share their experiences with adults through writing groups, discussions, or structured defense of learning presentations that include experts, community members, parents, and educators.

These are not the conversations I hear as a central piece in the enthusiastic rush to generate “individualized online learning tools” and “data-aligned resource aggregators.” Instead, the tools I observe are largely tailored to generate student assessment scores as predictive and/or remediated elements for the eventual state assessments. These types of features and resources are easy to automate, easy to deploy, and unwittingly address the fear-based needs of schools and districts struggling to address large populations of historically disadvantaged learners that desperately seek a digital, if not mystic, panacea to low test performance. The more we engage and empower teachers with tools that help them engage and empower students, the more we will meet the needs of students natural instinct of inquiry and teachers innate ability to guide it.