Digital Learning: Metaphor and Meaning

I just started a new job in a new country at a new school. A week ago I began work as Director of Digital Learning at Stamford American International School in Singapore. My first task was to do a short, 30 minute intro to Digital Learning during orientation for the new faculty. Following the advice of Simon Sinek, I initially started my presentation with the ‘Why?’

My mother was staying with us to help with the transition to Singapore, and while I was practicing my presentation she pointed out that there may be some teachers there who don’t really know what Digital Learning is. Her observation made me realize that 1) Digital Learning is harder to define than I had initially thought, and 2) I needed to clarify my own thinking on it before I could articulate that meaning to the rest of the school.

I think a helpful starting place is to compare the terms ‘digital learning’ and ‘educational technology’. For the most part, these terms are used synonymously and deal with the relationship between technology and learning in schools. Yet the core nouns are different: ‘learning’ versus ‘technology’.

One of the common mistakes in education is to focus on the devices or apps themselves rather than on ways in which those tools are used to structure learning. You can hear this in conversation when teachers talk about “doing a Flipgrid”, or administrators focus on getting the latest devices without a clear pedagogical purpose. Because of this common mistake, I like the term ‘digital learning’ because the focus is on the learning rather than the technology.

But what about the modifier? How is ‘digital learning’ different from just learning? When we discuss digital learning, are we implicitly comparing it with some sort of analog learning? Are we referring only to learning that happens on digital devices? Does all learning on digital devices count as digital learning?

I believe that we should be thinking of ‘digital’ metaphorically rather than literally. When someone talks about the ‘digital world’, they are talking about the ways in which the modern world has been transformed by digital technologies. We hear people talking about exponential change, digital transformation, and even the technological singularity. On the other hand, we sometimes hear teachers, parents, or administrators lamenting the fact that many schools have not changed much physically or pedagogically in the last fifty years.

Digital learning is about bridging this gap. It is when we focus on the educational possibilities in a digital world, not on the ways that we always used to do things. It is when we take our best understanding of how we learn and enable it with skilled teachers and appropriate technologies. It is when technology works to enable transformative teaching and learning.

Digital learning is not about the latest fad, gimmick, or initiative; it is what we owe to our students. John Dewey once wrote, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” This is the ‘Why’ and the ‘What’. Our challenge as educators now is the ‘How?’