Schools Out How Digital is Changing the Student Experience

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Remember when the end of the formal school year signaled the excitement of summer vacation? Whether you relate to the Glee performance or Alice Cooper's rendition of “School’s Out,” there was always a certain element of freedom imagined in leaving the walls of the schoolhouse behind. But it's starting to look as though digital has changed that dynamic -- for better or for worse -- forever.

With a bit of a twist on my usual customer experience focus, here’s my take on how digital is impacting the student experience.

Digital technologies and access have changed education, altering how students learn in our schools, increasing opportunities for learning even when the teacher isn't there and morphing what we do during our time honored tradition of summer break.

Learning in a Digital World

In his seminal 1995 book "Being Digital," Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman emeritus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, made some fascinating predictions for our digital future. He famously forecasted that the interactive world, the entertainment world and the information world would eventually merge. Many of his predictions -- like his "Daily Me" concept of a virtual daily newspaper customized for an individaul's tastes -- have come true.

Unfortunately, one prediction has struggled to come to fruition. For education, Negroponte predicted that "schools will change to become more like museums and playgrounds for children to assemble ideas and socialize with other children all over the world.”

Negroponte envisioned schools becoming collaborative environments where innovation would roam freely. Much has happened with the digital student experience since James Pillans, headmaster at the Old High School in Edinburgh, Scotland, hung his students’ individual slates together on the wall, making a large "slate board" that all could see and collaborate with. Despite all the changes, however, some might say that digital has not substantially furthered the journey toward Negroponte’s vision for our schools.

While the in school core education experience may be disappointing, there have been bright spots of innovation. A colleague of mine coaches an awesome Odyssey of the Mind team. OotM is a creative, international problem solving competition involving students from kindergarten through college. Team members work together at length to solve a predetermined problem, and then present their solution. They also participate in a spontaneous competition at the OotM event by finding solutions to a problem they have not seen before. Of course, digital is only one aspect of this program, but it does seem to embody Negroponte’s vision. But what is most unique in this example is where the learning takes place -- and it is NOT in the formal school curriculum.

Perhaps then, digital can best contribute to the student experience by expanding the walls of the classroom and the possibilities and opportunities for learning.

Digital Education is Expanding Horizons

Students are becoming used to living in a digital world. In fact, a survey on how US teens are spending their summer found that they tend to park themselves in front of various media screens. “Technology has effectively become a ‘sixth sense’ for many of them.” In a report from McCann Worldgroup, teens were given a list of items, including their car, passport, phone or laptop and sense of smell, and were told they could save only two. More than half (53 percent) said they would give up the sense of smell if it meant they could keep an item of technology.

Eric Pakurar of G2 concluded that “while parents might perceive the increased amount of time their teens spend in front of media screens during the summer months as a waste of time, it might be better to think of it as a way for teens to stay connected with their friends and do some exploring beyond their own backyards.”

So how can digital help to increase knowledge exploration and improve learning outcomes? This infographic calls out digital content, mass distribution, and personalized learning as three new trends that are making a difference and driving the classroom of the future. In addition, I am seeing that technology that enables digital collaboration can extend and enhance interaction between students and teachers.

I recently received an email for a post graduate distance learning course which highlighted the instructor's qualifications, including their role as an associate professor at the renowned Thunderbird Global School of International Management. It went on to note that, “those who interact with him on the course's online forum get even more than those who just study his detailed units.” Without digital, the access to this kind of class and caliber of professor would be limited.

There are other examples where digital is increasing opportunities for a better student experience. Virginia's Chesterfield County Schools recently announced that it would launch the largest education deployment of Chromebooks to date for blended learning. “Blended learning is a teaching practice that combines online instruction with face to face instruction where students have more opportunities to direct their own learning through the availability of interactive web based applications.” This initiative uses technology not for the sake of technology but to naturally blend digital with the learning environment, enabling learning even when the teacher isn't there.

It’s important, however, to be mindful that student digital access, and access in to education in general, is not created equal across the globe. To that end, Negroponte supported the concept of The Childen’s Machine, an "affordable" laptop computer designed for students in the developing world. The project is part of a broader program by One Laptop Per Child, a non profit organization started by Negroponte and other Media Lab faculty, to extend digital access in developing countries.

While there are continuing challenges with access, I see that digital has changed how our children learn both in and out of the classroom, and indeed how we adults learn as well.

Digital is Diversifying Education

In a number of ways, education is a business and, as such, presents the possibility of being disrupted. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are an emerging phenomenon focused on executive education. Exec education is a crucial source of revenue for business schools. At Wharton, nearly 20 percent of annual revenue comes from executive education, while at Harvard Business School 26 percent does. Many believe that executive education programs are likely to be disrupted, as companies weigh the savings they could achieve by directing executives to MOOCs instead. However, recent analysis published by Havard Business Review’s blog looked at data on students enrolled in nine MOOCs offered by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and found that digital may actually be diversifying, not threatening, business schools.

MOOCs are undoubtedly disrupting higher education. Business schools, like other university institutions, will need to strategically adapt to changing circumstances. But the MOOC disruption may not necessarily be the threat everyone is worried about. In fact, it looks more like an opportunity.”

The post goes on to suggest, that at least at present, MOOCs run by elite business schools do not appear to threaten existing programs, but seem to attract students for whom traditional business school offerings are out of reach.

While debate continues around the impact digital courses will have on the business of education, there is also discussion about which technological approach should be taken. Interestingly, two of Harvard’s most famous and venerable business professors are at (extremely polite) odds over how that institution is planning to use a proprietary platform to offer online MBA courses. Clayton Christensen, author of "The Innovator’s Dilemma" and the originator of the now ubiquitous idea of “disruptive innovation,” thinks that the school’s approach is completely off base. He dismisses it as an extremely expensive system that could potentially be upended by a cheaper technology option.

Harvard is following a strategy closer to one espoused by the long-time professor Michael Porter, who has argued in the past that “one of the consequences of the rapid rise internet is that companies will rush to offer cheaper and more widely available products, sacrificing profit for customer gain, and ignoring their competitive advantage.” For Harvard, following Porter means creating online courses in a way that uses its strengths without hurting its current business.

Whether Porter's or Christensen's views will ultimately prevail in this case, the important factor is that digital is changing education as we know it: diversifying the student population and extending beyond the walls of classrooms.

School’s Out Forever

So, in effect, “school” is where you find it and digital technology can fulfill its educational purpose with the tremendous potential to increase access to learning and enriching the student experience.

As we embark on summer break, I hope we never lose the excitement and anticipation that comes along with the end of the school year. And I trust that we keep in mind what education is all about, summed up nicely by Phi Beta Kappa society's John Churchill in his recent comments in the New York Times:

education should also enlarge capacities for civic participation, enrich personal life and expand abilities for leadership and ingenuity across all of life.”

Title image by Mark Bonham / Shutterstock.com