Re-Imagining Learning: Digital and Physical Convergence

While some advocate for technology as the key to higher student engagement and achievement, others worry digital tools will replace the teacher or hands-on, in-person learning. It's a false dilemma.
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Vacant classroom.
Vacant classroom.

Strange as it may sound, we may be witnessing the death of "digital" -- at least as an adjective. We don't go "digital" shopping -- we shop, online, by phone and in stores. We don't read "digital" media -- we read, on the printed page and on screens of every size. And we are not building a "digital" future, but simply a future, enhanced by the (incredible) tools of our time.

And so I'm not sure what to make of the debate over "digital" learning. While some advocate for technology as the key to higher student engagement and achievement, others worry digital tools will replace the teacher or hands-on, in-person learning. It's a false dilemma. Today, students can learn from teachers in classrooms and at home on an iPad or Xbox. The two are not mutually exclusive, but in fact, this convergence of physical and digital makes for a potent combination.

Consider the potential in what some are now calling "blended learning." Digital devices give kids access to compelling educational content from just about anywhere. Technology solutions provide a real-time check on how kids are doing, prompting students to ask questions, or a parent or teacher to intervene where they're needed. The classroom becomes a place not just for lectures, but for practice, one-on-one work, and small group problem solving.

The blended model is a move away from one-size-fits-all to a more personalized and customized approach, with more control over the time, place, pace and path of learning. It also holds the potential to deliver a more engaging and relevant experience, planting the seeds that could lead to a lifelong love of learning.

There are parallels to what we've learned about the integration of digital tools in the private sector. In my business for example, we've seen the evolution of retailing from stores-only to a blended -- or "omni-channel" -- customer experience. We're working to integrate web, mobile and in-store experiences into a single and seamless whole, creating a more relevant customer experience, fully personalized around her own preferences, needs and desires. Like the bricks-and-mortar schoolhouse, physical stores and personal interactions remain vitally important, but now we're integrating them with all the ways a customer shops.

The change is ongoing, and so it requires an ongoing commitment to listen, test and learn. We make adjustments all the time based on feedback from our guests and good digital learning initiatives are constantly listening to the needs and feedback from students, teachers and parents.

This convergence of physical and digital is emerging in schools today. Teachers have started to "flip the classroom," assigning instructional videos from Khan Academy or other online resources as homework, then using classroom time for kids to practice and discuss what they've learned. Innovators are developing apps that lead to improved student outcomes -- and make learning more creative, interactive and fun. Schools and donors are working to get computers and tablets into the hands of kids who can't afford them. Districts are testing assessment tools that give teachers, parents and kids real-time feedback on progress.

That's not to say that all of this is going to work, or that any of it will be a panacea. But we are creating something new, and so we have to apply design thinking: listen, test, learn -- and then scale the best ideas and approaches. Too many of our students are not graduating from high school ready for a post-secondary education or a career in the 21st century economy. We know that, with the rate of technological change, those jobs will require a lifelong commitment to learning. And we know that digital tools are here to stay. Why wouldn't we harness the power of these tools to reimagine learning for a new generation?

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