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Opinion: Digital Education’s Revolution in Time and Space

Amid the pace and constancy of technological change, it’s easy to overlook how transformational the digital era has been — and how the ability to pause, rewind, record, search and share has revolutionized education.

A timeline of Roman numerals spirals into the distance in space
It is easy to talk about digital education and digital learning and how wonderful it is. We all know there are valid concerns and negatives to consider, but most ed-tech gadgets are wonderful, and useful educational apps and programs abound.

But some folks may have missed the biggest impact the digital revolution has had on the field of education and more broadly on life itself. It has enabled time travel and space travel in a very real way, and the rewind button may be the most powerful education tool in the entire world. Texas educator Jenny Arledge wrote, “Technology can become the ‘wings’ that will allow the educational world to fly farther and faster than ever before — if we will allow it.”

For this purpose, I think of digital education as the ability to view and experience educational material when and where the student desires, regardless of the student’s location, and in ways that are uniquely useful to the individual. Many ed-tech tools provide some form of reality check to ensure a step is understood or mastered before moving on. I always smile when I remember that computer scientist Alan Kay said, “Technology is anything invented after you were born, everything else is just stuff.”
I think of digital education as the ability to view and experience educational material when and where the student desires, regardless of the student’s location, and in ways that are uniquely useful to the individual.

Some examples will help here. A student who misses a live class lecture due to illness, injury or religious holiday can watch the recorded lecture anywhere and at any time, using a range of readily available devices. A student who wants to get another explanation of an academic topic can access resources such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) open courseware and watch a top college professor cover it. The student could access other explanations from school-approved and vetted materials, or an ever-expanding range of resources including Khan Academy and YouTube. Former professor Andrew Barras once wrote in a blog, “The goal is not to put technology into the classroom, the goal is to enable learning everywhere, including outside of the classroom.”

Back in the analog world when I went to high school in the ’60s, the school’s library was a place to study and access static material (books of poems, maps, encyclopedias) that were not up to date. It was closed after school, so I rode my bike to the local public library to find a book or magazine on an assigned research topic. Since a local public library has to meet the needs of many citizens on a wide range of subjects, my research topics usually had very little coverage, books and other resources were often checked out or missing, and most were out of date. There was rarely a range of viewpoints.

Going to the library to study or do research was embedded in our ’60’s culture. This was immortalized by the Beach Boys who sang about the girl who “forgot all about the library like she told her old man.” Students had to overcome logistical challenges to travel to the library, which was not always open when needed, and again may not have the desired resources. The advance of microfiche or microfilm gave us more material, but it was very cumbersome and time consuming to use.

The digital education revolution changed that. Any student can instantly access age-appropriate materials on any educational topic and any educational device. Topics can be demonstrated through a range of video resources, from lectures to full animation. Students can find ways to test their knowledge and learn to do or make useful things. In a book he co-authored with fellow Harvard professor Urs Gasser called Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, John Palfrey once wrote, “Television didn’t transform education. Neither will the Internet. However, it will be another tool for teachers to use in their effort to reach students in the classroom. It will also be a means by which students learn outside of the classroom.”

Time travel is also possible because students can travel to last week’s or last year’s lecture. They can hear and often see past presidents, world leaders and scientists. When I went to school, my fascination with current events led me to a teacher who loaned me recordings of Sunday morning news shows. To locate something I wanted to hear, I had to fast forward and use a number counter — very cumbersome and off-putting. Contrast that with the digital access tools we have available now to quickly locate exact video or audio information. Digital education tools allow us to locate material almost instantly, material that wasn’t even available when I went to school.

Space travel is possible because the student can travel to art galleries and museums of the world, and observe geographic and geological information via Google Maps and other similar resources. I recall my virtual visit to the Vatican and viewing the Sistine Chapel. In many ways, it was better than my actual visit many years later, because of my ability to take my time, zoom in, et cetera.

And the rewind button is the cherry on top! I can’t tell you how many times I missed something during a live lecture in high school and college. Taking the time to find out what I missed made me miss the next section. Trying to get it cleared up later was very difficult. When we don’t hear or understand what was said, we don’t know what we missed. We were often lost and confused, and “it may be on the test.” The video lecture rewind button handles that. Worse, when I went home after class, my notes were often unclear on certain points and all I could do was call friends to see if they got what I didn’t get or write down correctly. This is a major flaw of the lecture method pre-digital ed, because it was lost forever — never to be retrieved again. Everyone’s education had gaps due to the nature of the delivery system — once and done!

Today in many colleges, lectures are recorded for later viewing or reviewing by students. The ability to hear a concept, stop the playback, work it over and think about it is the most powerful digital tool we have. The ability to go over it as many times as necessary to fully understand and appreciate it can’t be underestimated. I use this when reviewing lectures, webinars and any form of DIY activity. It is so common that it often goes unnoticed for its power! (Of course there are many more benefits to digital learning and digital education tools, but they are beyond the scope of this short piece.)

So that’s my take on the power of one aspect of digital education and digital learning — space travel, time travel, and the power of the rewind button. All educators can hope for is to improve our educational tools and approaches to help more students get more of what we have to offer. Digital ed is an approach that continues to do just that!

On embracing the use of technology in education, educator David Warlick put it this way: “We need technology in every classroom and every student’s and teacher’s hand, because it is the pen and paper of our time, and it is the lens through which we experience much of our world.” Let’s appreciate its immense potential to improve education for everyone.
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.