Digital changes learning.

With digital - connectivity and digital tools - every learning activity except touch can become more powerful.

Think through the activities you do to learn, or that you ask or suggest pupils do. Every one of them except touching things can be undertaken more powerfully with digital available to help. The is if the teacher and learner have a digital mindset and the skills and maturity of learning to do so.

What do you do if you want to learn something? Well first you have to be stimulated to want to learn this thing. You need to be introduced to it. Information has to be found, ‘read’ and understood. There are questions to be asked and discussion to clarify your thoughts and conceptual understanding. There are things to be done, to organise this new learning and to link it to things you know and can do already. There are exercises, to practice using this new knowledge or skills. There are presentations to be made, to demonstrate to yourself and others what you have gained. And the learning you have gained needs to be used creatively, or you will forget it remarkably quickly. In following this learning journey you bring all your senses to bear; you look and listen, touch and move, talk and do, create and play.

It is a very big claim that digital enables you to do all these except touch more powerfully. It is such a big claim that it is hard to know where to start in justifying it. But big things are always made of little things and everyone knows that the best way to eat an elephant is one bit at a time.

What learning activity do you want to start with? - being stimulated to learn this new thing? Another human being is often the best stimulus, but do you have the opportunity to be with this person or can you only reach them over the Internet? Can they show you things with a computer that they could not otherwise show you? - you need information and resources to learn from. Can you get these? How rapidly? How can you interact with them? Are these just the resources in your home, local library and classroom, or the whole resource of the world wide web? - you get stuck and need to ask questions. Who is available to answer? Can you get to them to pose your question? Can you ask the question now, while it is burning in your mind? - you need people to listen to you and to provide you with feedback. Can you reach such an audience? How big an audience? What mechanisms can they use to feed their comments back to you. - you need to play with your new knowledge and skills. Are there creative tools and environments available to you in which to do this?

Since the very early days of microcomputers there has been a belief amongst those using them well in education, that they aid learning. We have chased the question of how much impact they have on learning in all sorts of ways. There are many, many examples to show that effective use of digital correlates well with successful learning and raised achievement. But there is not yet anything like a full acceptance outside those involved with digital in education, that learning in digital-rich environments can be practised so much more powerfully than without it. There is as yet no imperative in the minds of education policy makers and most school leaders that we must help all our young people (and the adults in the country) to be able to take advantage of digital. The pandemic has made them realise young people need to be connected and have a computer, but there is as yet little understanding of how to use these for good learning. Their current perception seems limited to young people using them to receive information and exercisers pushed at them by teachers or centralised online systems.

As the causal link showing digital creates better learning has not been proven in over 20 years of looking for it, I suggest it is time to take a different approach. There is a case to be made that there isn’t a causal link. Digital does not create learning, people do. And people do not just use digital to learn, they do all sorts of things to learn, with and without using digital.

The way that digital catalyses and enables better learning is a two-stage process. The two stages are only linked by the fact that it is a human being who is learning. - digital enables people to do the things they want to do to learn more, better and differently. - It is because the learner does these things more, better and differently that their achievement in learning is much greater.

We have schools, curriculum and assessment designed to get young people to undertake the range of learning activities that best produced learning in a pre-computer, pre-Internet world. The question we must be asking is what range of learning activity is best now that we do have computers and the Internet. How are learning activities changing and why is the changed balance of learning activities producing better learning. Understand this and you will understand what the impact of digital in education is.

And once we understand the changed learning activities we can observe, we can perhaps start looking at those happening inside pupils’ brains. What new ways of thinking have become possible now that computers are moving from the abstract to the concrete aspects of learning such as
visualisation, data handling and analysis, and the hyper-linking of information?