This article is more than 1 year old

Digital learning is just learning

We can obsess about tools and technologies, but for Simon Thomson the critical questions are about how we design learning experiences to make best use of the opportunities we have
This article is more than 1 year old

Simon Thomson is Professor of Hybrid Learning at the University of Manchester.

There’s no such thing as digital learning.

Learning has always responded to the affordances offered by new technologies – and ever since the widespread adoption of personal computers and networks in the 1990s these have included digital resources and online collaboration.

Since then tools and materials have improved incrementally – roughly in line with the improvements we’ve seen in digital tools in other areas of our lives.

The “other” learning

In higher education we have tended, in the past, to “other” these technologies. “Digital learning” (or “online learning”, “e-learning”, “technology enhanced learning”, or whatever the next buzzword will be) has been seen as a specialist endeavour – something outside of what would generally be expected of staff who teach in higher education. We still tend to see lectures, seminars, and labs as the main job – with everything else over to one side.

This has been a positive development for those who have done the work and developed the expertise (and the tools) to deliver learning supported by technology. Learning technologists provide a service to mainstream academics, keeping the latter rooted in traditional modalities. Increasingly – in a world where online resources, virtual learning environments, and lecture capture are expected to happen every day – universities would not run without the work they do.

But in terms of the way teaching happens, this sells us short.

Four ways

I like to think of four main modalities of teaching in higher education:

  • In-person, on campus – everyone in a space on campus, learning together
  • In-person, off campus – everyone in another space, learning together
  • Online synchronous – everyone working together at the same time
  • Online asynchronous – experiencing learning in our own time

As we discovered in the sector’s response to the pandemic – these all have different strengths and weaknesses. Deep and meaningful learning can and does happen, to be clear, through all of these modalities, but it needs to be supported appropriately – both in terms of the choice of approaches and the choice of resources.

The return to campus has made it very clear what benefits in-person approaches bring. These are socially rich modalities, allowing students to learn with other people (be this the tutor or peers) in a responsive way. As we’ve all experienced this approach we know how effective it can be – but it can also be exclusive: students with specific needs or responsibilities beyond learning often don’t have the same opportunities to benefit as others.

If we compare online approaches (as we’ve all experienced in the last few years) we can immediately understand the difference as regards social interaction. It can be done – but it is difficult and requires a great deal of planning and expertises. But what online (especially online asynchronous) does really well is increase access to learning experiences. Suddenly, the fact that you are unable to physically be on campus does not stop you from learning.

Beyond the backlash

In 2021 we experienced something of an online backlash – with ministers and commentators arguing that online learning was necessarily of a lower quality or less effective (or even, mystifyingly for anyone who has ever run an online course, cheaper) and that students were getting, by default, a bad deal. I’d argue that this was not specific to a modality: it is possible to experience very good online learning, just as it is lamentably possible to experience very bad in person learning.

Again – this is separating out technology-supported approaches, and thinking about tools and spaces rather than actual teaching and learning. The consensus position remains a blend of approaches used appropriately and with high quality facilitation. Indeed, this has arguably been what we’ve all been trying to offer since the 1990s.

It’s also a fair way to understand the student response to the way approaches to learning have shifted – yes, many students are vocal about their on campus expectations, but there are also those who value the convenience of lecture capture and a library of online resources that can fit around work, caring, and commuting. The expectation is a blend – our challenge is to use the right pedagogy for each modality.

When I say there is no such thing as digital learning I am not ignoring the huge advances in what it is possible to do with computers and networks, or the way these approaches have enabled new approaches to learning just as calculators did in previous decades or artificial intelligence tools will do in the future. What I am saying is that we need to think about how we support learning, and individual tools and spaces are less important than the way we choose them to enable the learning we are looking for in the context of each mode.

Simon Thomson will be speaking at Kortext Live, in London on 25 April. Find out more and book your free ticket here.

4 responses to “Digital learning is just learning

  1. “Online asynchronous – experiencing learning in our own time”.

    On a specific element of that – already tools on market that will take your lecture and provide a summary. Thus tools that summarise the whole course are likely to be around the corner.

    Likely to see students who graduate without little to no access of course material but rather the mediated version.

    1. I think that having the flexibility of accessing a summary is a really useful value added feature and there may be some students who seek out lower engagement activities either strategically or due to personal circumstances. However, we should be designing learning so that it makes most of the value derived from the mode through which it is facilitated. So in the example the in-person “lecture” should be designed to maximise the value of that modality. Designing for modality is crucial in maximising the value and potential that each mode offers.

  2. yes agree, but does then assume 1. you understand the differences and potential of the modality and make good choices and 2. you have a vision, intent and purpose for the impact ( beyond the ‘outcome’ ) in the future of those who graduate from the experience.

    1. Gilly – with regards to 1. I think you are absolutely right and this is the bit that we should absolutely be trying to understand – the value and potential of each modality (this doesn’t just mean education as it could also mean, social, emotional, accessible etc), but there is a real knowledge gap here. With regards to 2 – again I couldn’t agree more, the impact of the experience should live beyond the activity itself, including the value and benefits in relation to longer term impacts.

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