Digital Learning: What exactly do you mean?

Black background with white dashes expanding from the lower left corner.

I’m Brendan Guenther, MSU’s first Chief Academic Digital Officer, and this is my first time writing for the Hub blog. Many of our colleagues in East Lansing know me as a technology leader for MSU IT. In this new role I will be working to realize MSU’s digital learning strategy. But, what does that mean? 

I’ve always been around technology, yet for my entire career I have been an educator. Most of my career focused on what technology, particularly digital technology, makes possible for learners, teachers, and universities. Often when I explain that I’m working on digital learning, the conversation turns to tensions inherent to these ideas. Digital learning is a broad frontier, so I’d like to take some time today to explore a few core allowances that make it so important. 

Brendan Guenther quote: Digital learning ought to be an expansive term. It should be hard to define.

Digital is a word with many possible meanings and assumptions. The literal meaning references technology or encoding information in ones and zeros. We live in the digital age, an era distinct because of ubiquitous networking and prolific use of technology in almost all aspects of daily human life (Wang, 2013). We have been living in this era since the Internet began to transform how we live, making digital interaction a primary characteristic of human activity (Beck & Hughes, 2013). Despite advances, the process of developing understanding remains a personal journey of experience. 


Digital learning ought to be an expansive term. It should be hard to define. The creativity of great teachers and the ways that learners employ technology continues to expand our sense of what digital learning includes. There are a variety of tools made possible by digital advances, and educational blogs often host lists of these, for example, “The Ultimate List – 65 Digital Tools and Apps to Support Formative Assessment Practices,” (Dyer, 2018). For every tool, there are many ways to use it, and many of our colleagues are innovating in their learning designs

Green person below a wave of code in zeros and ones

Photo credit: Smiciklas 2012

I want to stress something in this first post. Digital learning and educational technology are not synonymous. What is important is that digital makes new methods possible or practical in educational settings, and that opens our design options. The following paragraphs outline some attributes I think are exciting about digital learning. 

Digital allows us to blend learning experiences using partially online and partially in-person modes to design an experience. The spread of online learning in the digital era demonstrated the advantage digital has for providing access. Yet outcomes often lag if we use only online avenues (Garrett, 2018), and blended learning has demonstrated efficacy across numerous learning designs (Bernard et al, 2014; Means et al, 2013). Digital introduces new variables and possible combinations of people, process, and technology. One example we see in use at MSU is flipped classrooms, where teachers primarily focus on the use of time and place, allowing them to utilize digital for transmission away from class-room and class-time, and digital for facilitation of exercises in-class.

Picture showing the differences between teaching

(AJC1, 2013)

 Digital learning allows us to personalize and individualize education, creating designs that allow learners to progress as individuals independent of their peers. “The concept intersects—and overlaps—with notions including adaptive learning, differentiated instruction, competency-based education, and analytics.”  (EDUCAUSE, 2016). The latest ideas for adaptive learning allow pacing and support from tutors and peers to be included in designs that used to be solitary. Because of the immediacy of tracking progress, and the ability to diagnose which concepts an individual might struggle with, the teacher and the content can respond to the student. This has potential to avoid overwhelming or boring students who need to move at their own pace.

Digital learning provides better opportunities for feedback. Nothing is more important in learning than feedback. Laurillard (2002) reminded us that “for the learning process to be fully supported, students should receive meaningful intrinsic feedback on their actions that relate to the nature of the task goal.” Too often in formal education the feedback is far removed from the task and ends up being extrinsic and focused on impact to course grade, not the learning or performance of the student. Digital can shorten revision cycles, include more people in feedback, scaffold the feedback, and deliver it embedded within the performance of the task. While digital enables pedagogy that is feedback rich, these tools are just beginning to evolve towards using the rich data streams they contain to assist the people involved (Pardo, 2017).

Multiple stick figures with word bubbles above them

(, 2013)

Digital allows us to remix and create. “Remix means to take cultural artifacts and combine and manipulate them into new kinds of creative blends.” (Knobel & Lankshear, 2011) Digital advances in the form of broadly available content libraries, home-based editing tools, and publishing platforms make it easy for teachers and learners to make their own modifications to a wide range of cultural artifacts. Teachers might remix a content source for their students, while students might use remixing to build and demonstrate skills, or while becoming participants in sustaining culture (Ladson-Billings, 2014).

Four people on a gold background

(Bali, 2017)

Educators strive to help a wide variety of individuals develop skills, attitudes, and behaviors that we believe hold value. An educator designs learning environments and experiences with intent and purpose. Digital opens new possibilities for learning experiences. Even so, rarely is the technology the interesting part. I know this may surprise you, if you believe the marketing created for educational technology. Educational practice ought to be at the forefront of a learning experience design. It is the combination of learners, teachers, content, activities, and motivational forces that make a learning experience. Technology is a tool to achieve our design.  

I look forward to working with my colleagues on future posts in this series on digital learning. I will be engaging with the social media audience of this blog. I hope you reflect on how digital has changed your learning experience and share your thoughts. What do you think are the greatest digital options in your learning experience? What has been made possible for you by digital learning? 


 Beck, D., & Hughes, C. (2013). Engaging Adult Learners with Innovative Technologies. In V. X. Wang (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Technologies for Improving 21st Century Workforce: Tools for Lifelong Learning (pp. 26–41). IGI Global. 

Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Schmid, R. F., Tamim, R. M., & Abrami, P. C. (2014). A meta-analysis of blended learning and technology use in higher education: from the general to the applied. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 26(1), 87–122. 

Digital Learning. (2018.). Retrieved November 1, 2018, from 

Dyer, K. (2018, January 9). The Ultimate List – 65 Digital Tools and Apps to Support Formative Assessment Practices. Retrieved November 19, 2018, from

Knobel, M., & Lankshear, C. (2008). Remix: The Art and Craft of Endless Hybridization. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(1), 22–33. 

Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally Relevant Pedagogy 2.0: a.k.a. the Remix. Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 74–84. 

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R. F., & Baki, M. (2013). The Effectiveness of Online and Blended Learning: A Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Literature. Teachers College Record, 115(3).  

Pardo, A. (2018). A feedback model for data-rich learning experiences. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43(3), 428–438. 


Wang, V. X. (2013). Reflective Learning in the Digital Age: Insights from Confucius and Mezirow. In V. X. Wang (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Technologies for Improving 21st Century Workforce: Tools for Lifelong Learning (pp. 421–440). IGI Global. 


Image Citations (Used under CC-BY license) 

AJC1. (2013). Español: Clase tradicional vs Flipped Classroom. Retrieved from 

Bali, M. (2017). Digital gold. Remixing cogdog photo Virtually Connecting is Fun [Photo]. Retrieved from 

Smiciklas, M. (2012). Social Media Information Overload [Photo]. Retrieved from (2013). Learning to See: Feedback will hurt you when you understand it’s true [Photo]. Retrieved from


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