Ideas on Digital Learning: Reflections on our colleagues’ thoughts from the Future of Digital Learning Event

light blue corridor with white lines and black entrance at the end.

Earlier this semester, 134 faculty and staff from Michigan State University gathered at the Hub for six lightning talks from faculty representing the Colleges of Education, Music, Arts and Letters, Natural Science, and Communication Arts and Sciences. As participant, I enjoyed the faculty-focused, generative conversation about the future of digital learning at MSU. Dialogues like this are critical to MSU’s digital transformation. 

  • Saleem Alhabash, Associate Professor, Advertising and Public Relations, College of Communication Arts and Sciences: Fragmented Attention: Fragmented Learning? 
  • Ryan Stowe, Research Associate, Chemistry and the CREATE for STEM Institute: Skeptical by Default, but Open to Evidence 
  • Bill Hart-Davidson, Associate Professor, Associate Dean of Graduate Education, College of Arts and Letters: Reducing the Cost of Instruction is a Bad Reason to Adopt Digital Technology, or Putting Learning First When Adopting Digital Technology 
  • Steve Weiland, Professor, Educational Administration, College of Education: Teach the Conflicts, Once More 
  • Alexis Bacon, Assistant Professor of Composition, College of Music: How the Digital Age is Changing, and Will Continue to Change the Practice of Composition and Teaching 
  • Danielle DeVoss, Professor, Associate Chair, Director of the Graduate Program, Writing, Rhetoric, and American Culture, College of Arts and Letters: Digital Writing is Important 

Dr. Danielle DeVoss of the College of Arts and Letters facilitated the conversation during the event and there was an active twitter back channel at the hashtag #FutureOfDigitalLearning. As I began writing this series, I reviewed my notes and discussed some of the talks with colleagues in the Hub. I’d like to use this written forum to introduce some of the ideas raised by campus colleagues in order to give them life beyond the in-person boundaries event. In review, there are a few questions the talks collectively raised. 


Learning requires effort and working with ideas, putting them to use. - Quote by Brendan Guenther

Question 1: How do we incentivize concentration and deep thinking? 

Learning requires effort and working with ideas, putting them to use. Our access to the trove of human knowledge has never been greater, thanks to digitization efforts, research libraries have exceptional shared assets. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and the accumulated knowledge of human-kind comes to life in multimedia presentations. Physical phenomena can be demonstrated physically, on video, and in virtual simulation. Yet eventually the learner must choose their own path and really exert effort making something of the knowledge they have acquired. It is in synthesis and application that the learner joins the chain of civilization. Sometimes this means feedback, revise, resubmit, revise. We should use our digital learning environments to help students dig in and dig deep, to put their minds to work. 

Question 2: How do we engage students in meaningful practice? 

Often this means setting students up with a practice environment that simulates the stimuli and allows the responses they need to test and try. Our digital content and tools can help teachers introduce practice spaces into learning. It makes it easier to replicate cases, scenarios, and simulations. Digital can reduce replication costs, allows for multiple attempts, and restarts. By varying instances of a pattern, and altering variables in a digital representation, learners can sense the pattern behind a variety of forms. Ideally digital learning environments should make practice easier to deliver and better for the learner to devise a path to mastery. To do so we need learning environments that give the instructor visibility into the student’s practice sessions. 

Question 3: What learning strategies are inherent to our digital tools? 

When we make use of pre-built educational technology, there are always embedded values and educational philosophies embedded by the creator of the tool. Sometimes these are very upfront and a part of the marketing, training, and implementation of the digital environment. Teachers and perhaps even students could be informed of the reasoning for the environment in which they are learning. At other times it lurks beneath the surface, understated, or invisible. Take for instance the dominant learning management systems in higher education. These are best generalized as tools for the instructor, made to ease the burdens of publishing content, assessing, and communicating with large numbers of students. To the extent they contain educational values, they tend towards those most friendly to mass scale education, and the recovery of instructor’s valuable time. 

Question 4: How do we identify tools beyond ed-tech and put them to use in learning? 

Often the richest tools learners have are not provided by the institution. Sometimes we sense a disconnect between teachers and how digital natives as learners approach their tools. What expectations do students have about the technology we see them use every day, and how it aids their learning. What shared values and conflicts might educators and students have around digital learning? I wonder if we have enough learners in the conversation about digital learning to inform our evolution of teaching. The best way to develop a lifelong learner is to equip them with a digital toolset for finding, consuming, organizing, and making use of information. A personal digital learning environment. Maybe this means going back to basics, as many of our colleagues have. Teaching and having students work individually and in groups in quite simple tools, like cloud document editing, shared folders, and newsreaders. 

Question 5: How much time do we spend getting digital to do what analog already does well? 

This pain point always stands out most conspicuously when we consider fully-online education. This is possibly the greatest argument for considering a blended-learning design. My kids always say “Dad, don’t force it.” Usually this happens right before I break something in frustration. Teachers need not give up something they consider critical to see firsthand, such as practice of bedside manner. Learners need not give up everything they value, such as a truly-hands-on experience. When it feels like something is reaching a breaking point, and the digital experience isn’t good enough, find an opportunity to leverage face time you have in the program.

You can view the first post in the Future of Digital Learning series, here.

On Tuesday, December 4, 2018, Brendan will be hosting an Ed Chat on the Future of Digital Learning at 3:30 pm – 4:30 pm, live from the Hub’s official Twitter account.


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