Digital Learning Design Education Innovative Instruction Open Educational Resources

Shifting to Digital Learning Requires a Real Shift in Tools

Blended learning starts with moving learning activities into a digital environment where students can access independently from the regular classroom delivery process. But that’s just the beginning.

For years, we have been examining the steps by which effective teachers organize, construct, deliver, and support learning through the process of selecting viable learning objects, materials, creating supporting instruction, verbal guidance and clarifying expectations via formative and summative exchanges.

The lead image to this post is a series of activities I developed and used with students in 1997 (Arthurian Legends – English 12) and then published as part of a statewide online curriculum sharing program…yet, about every 3-5 years since then, a new band of EdTech Evangelists enter the scene declaring the dawn of online learning resources and need for sharing communities. Sadly their message, if not new, is almost entirely necessary.

What often goes unexamined in these reoccurring swells of interest in this space, is how teachers plan and design and how various models have learned to support that process in existing and ongoing online communities of practice. There are many pieces at play when a “good teacher” is spinning up his or her craft. There are just as many models that try to define or quantify what makes for effective instruction through a process of clock_worksdisaggregating, defining, and typically ranking or relationally justifying those pieces.

Having spent some time in the classroom myself, and experiencing the very “organic” flow of implementing a lesson or activity where kids are connecting, comprehending, and engaging, it has always been a curious exercise to watch that moment broken down into component parts and analyzed. It often feels like the process of marveling upon the mechanics of a spring-loaded watch, only to open it up and pull it apart into its most granular pieces and lay it all atop a table. At that level, it is easy to see all the pieces and to determine what goes where, but until you put the pieces back together and get them synchronized, the watch doesn’t work.

Of late, we have been testing, designing, and developing tools that better support an effective educator in finding, organizing, constructing, and delivering learning activities online to students. Typically, those engaged in the use of digital authoring tools that approach the process with a background in developing and/or delivering instruction directly to learners (teachers, curriculum designers, professional development specialists, museum educators, etc.) are not included or significantly considered in how the tools operate or work to create and orient instructional content, learning objects, or assessments, let alone, pacing, segmentation, layering, differentiation, or metacognitive cycling. In the EdTech space, most of the heralded technology and innovation being focused upon education has been primarily invested into refining and honing steps around searching and discovering resources, organizing and exposing machine-readable metadata, recording and analyzing paradata, collecting and reporting out student data. Everything EXCEPT the creation and orchestration of the learning exchange itself. And it makes sense, being that most of those people involved in creating these tools have not spent significant Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 12.17.52 PMamounts of their time teaching and reflecting on how to mix up the best learning concoctions through repeated trial and error as an average educator does hundreds of times a week. So people, teams, agencies, and companies unwittingly focus on tackling more tangible items like helping teachers find resources, save them, drop them into a display view,and solicit some direct student reflection about the items or respond to a simple-structure question. And yes, powerful learning can be aided by a well-developed and timely resource, but rarely do resources independently instigate and support a sustained learning experience that moves the learner through a series of inter-related cognitive cycles requisite to deep learning and connection with the content.

So in designing a new series of resource assembly and annotation tools, our focus has not been on the resources, but on the master watchmakers, the tinkerers. We have intensely paid attention to those with an intimate sense of how to precisely assemble learning exchanges that tick and tock in the ways that structure and support learning. The tools we are creating do not look like simple content management solutions that direct the educator to “build” out their content as a page or block of text. They do not exclusively refine a student response to a singular quiz-type application (Mult. Choice, T/F, Open Response, File Submission) as the method by which students “demonstrate” comprehension. Creating content and soliciting a simple response is not synonymous with creating learning and assessing understanding.

As is the case in many walks of life, the sciences, and human relationships, it is not the pieces that make up the whole of learning, but instead it lies in the assembly, sequencing, relational orientation, and synchronicity of those pieces as connected to a need to learn and grow. Subtle elements such as affording the learner a sense of progress and achievement visually, or creating intentional formative processing points that build upon each other cognitively, or lending differentiated learning pathways that affords the learners optional types of information or means of demonstration…assembling these types of exchanges do not come embedded in a Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 2.24.47 PMWYSIWYG editor tool bar and are not rendered as a playlist of slides. 

We will be doing more testing in the next few months, and a lot of building. We are excited to be in a position to apply much of what we are exploring as part of the soon to be launched Smithsonian Learning Lab (coming fall of 2015). Until then, feel free to get ahold of us if you are interested in this conversation or are working on similar fronts. We see this as a global need and one that affects learning and the potential of individuals whether they are 11year olds in the 5th grade at Copperopolis Elementary, or a 54 year old diversifying his career skills in Zakopane Poland.