Thursday, March 1, 2012

Digital Learning ? bringing technology into education

By Marichelle Rocha

I want all students to be able to learn from digital textbooks," President Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union Address. Working towards that goal, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has partnered with the Department of Education to create the Digital Textbook Collaborative. The group's mission is to discover best practices for transitioning schools to digital learning.

On Feb. 1, 39 states, 15,000 teachers, and nearly 2 million students participated in the first Digital Learning Day. The national awareness campaign, organized by the Alliance for Excellent Education, is intended to show how technology can advance learning in the United States and prepare students for high school, college, and future careers. The Washington meeting featured Education Secretary Arne Duncan and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who challenged schools and companies to put digital textbooks into K-12 students' hands by 2017.

Two weeks earlier, Apple announced that it would 'reinvent textbooks' by delivering digital versions on the iPad. Apple has sealed agreements with the major educational companies (McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin, and Pearson), who account for 90 percent of the K-12 textbook market.

As defined by the Alliance for Excellent Education, digital learning is "any instructional practice that is effectively using technology to strengthen the student learning experience."

"Digital textbooks are one of the cornerstones of digital learning," says Genachowski. "We're talking about students having interactive learning devices that can offer lessons personalized to their learning style and level, and enable real-time feedback to parents, teachers, or tutors."

How can digital learning help our children?

Digital learning means more than eliminating the heavy textbooks, notebooks and handouts that students carry around school. It also means potential textbook cost savings. More importantly, access to information would be available to students anywhere they have Internet connectivity.

One of the most essential benefits of digital learning is that it provides interactive learning for children. In addition, they'll have access to updated materials faster. As with anything printed, information becomes quickly outdated. Digital textbooks, such as Apple's iPad books, incorporate video, audio, interactive controls, as well as annotation tools.

"Although it depends on how people will use digital publishing tools (such as Apple's iBooks 2), the potential is great," says Chris Lehmann, the founding Principal of Science Leadership Academy (SLA), a partnership school of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. SLA high school, considered to be a nationally and internationally technology pioneer, has won Apple's Distinguished School Award several times.

"The new technology puts the power in the hands of teachers and students, and can radically change the ways they interact," Lehmann says.

Why is digital learning being adopted so slowly?

There are many reasons why schools have been slow to adopt digital learning. A huge concern is the lack of broadband capacity and equipment. Also, schools aren't equipped with the textbook readers needed for digital learning. The federal cuts in K-12 funding makes matters worse.

Besides funding, there are also decisions to be made with regards to which textbook reader to use. Unless the schools provide or clearly specify which readers to use, students could end up using different products. This could certainly create more issues, says Janice C. Sipior, Ph.D., Professor of Information Systems, Villanova School of Business. Sipior, who teaches sophomores, says the majority of her students feel that "digital textbooks are for the next generation. They say they prefer physical textbooks because they can visually see how many pages remain to be read for the chapter, and easily highlight and annotate anywhere on the page as they read."

Migrating from a printed to digital learning environment is no simple task. There are many decisions to be made and policies to be created, ranging from licensing, equipment issues (maintenance, replacement, warranty, damage) to student ethics (cheating on tests) and how to handle distractions (games or Facebook).

Current school curriculums and teaching methods need evaluation and must adapt to evolving technology. For digital learning to be effective, both teachers and students must be willing to accept methods that differ significantly from the existing teaching methods they've always used.

What has been learned so far?

Currently, more than 600 U.S. public school districts have already adopted Apple's iPad program. Some pilot programs indicate that technology is making a real impact in education.

"Technology-based teaching can reduce the time it takes for a student to learn a lesson by 30-80 percent," says FCC Genachowski. Students are more engaged after using digital textbooks as opposed to printed textbooks. Increased student participation and engagement, including more meaningful discussions between students and teachers, have been cited as the results of digital learning environments.

According to Wired, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and middle school students in California participated in a pilot study during the 2010-2011 school year. Students were taught Algebra 1 using a digital textbook on the iPad. The study showed that students connected better with the content when compared to students who used traditional printed textbooks; 20 percent more students who used a digital textbook scored 'Proficient' or 'Advanced' in Algebra 1 comprehension compared to those who did not.

Hopefully, with the help of the Digital Textbook Collaborative, who'll be meeting with CEOs of digital textbooks this month, our children and schools will be better prepared to meet the challenges of digital learning.

This article was originally posted at

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