The shift online could set digital learning back by years

The digital tools used during the pandemic may help address access and scale, but they do little to help students actually learn, says Tom Adams

Tom Adams's avatar
23 September 2021
Online learning in its current form is not good at engaging learners, or even at teaching them
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The year 2020 should have been a watershed for online learning. With the pandemic sending tens of millions of students online, it was poised to be a breakout moment. But it may have had just the opposite effect. 

Our schools and HEIs have struggled to provide a digital learning experience that lives up to the hype − and students are falling behind. Rather than finally selling the masses on the potential of digital learning, the Covid crisis may have soured countless students, teachers and universities against it, potentially setting the field back years. 

And for good reason. Remote and online learning isn’t the same thing, and the jury-rigged version of digital learning that most students and families are experiencing is far from what modern technology can enable. Many students’ first taste of online learning has done little to inspire faith or appreciation of it as a form. 

The digital learning tools used by many teachers during the pandemic may help address challenges around access and scale, but they do little to help students actually learn. We are starting with technology and working backwards toward learning design. Instead, learning must be our starting point, not the finish line, with advancements in technology stemming from a deep understanding of today’s best pedagogical practices. 

Over the past two decades, we have learned much about how the brain works and how learning happens. Educational technology can and should reflect that. Learning is at its best when it is about doing, not just listening. It should be hands on, practical and interactive. It should be individualised, adaptive and flexible. And it should be rooted in peer-based collaboration and discussion. If one starts designing a digital learning experience with these learning principles in mind, they do not end up with a tool as rigid, static and ineffective as Zoom. 

While the strongest teachers and professors are great at facilitating this kind of hands-on learning in classrooms every day, few widely available digital learning tools foster similar experiences online. Existing technologies that can provide some level of interaction, namely virtual reality simulations and other immersive learning software, are built more for practice than learning.

Digital learning tools made specifically for classrooms, on the other hand, often mistake video or audio components for interactivity when it’s ostensibly just a broadcast. Students who watch a short video and then take a quiz are not interacting with the material or their instructor in any meaningful way. The quizzes are largely functioning as a way-stop to the next video, testing for comprehension rather than practical ability. Videos might do a fine job disseminating cold facts, but they don’t develop skills, which is where career readiness lies.

At the root of the challenge is the fact that many of today’s tools are still built to mimic the antiquated sage-on-a-stage lecture model. Instead, they should mimic mentors or tutors that work in a much more interactive manner with their students.

Whether on a screen or in person, a good tutor does not simply speak at a student and then leave them with a quiz to answer. They provide their students with a relevant practical problem, allow the students to attempt to solve it and then provide clear feedback, discussion and guidance before moving on to the next challenge together. Progress is dictated by the student’s mastery of each new skill. 

Digital learning tools should function in a similar way, providing students with personalised, feedback-driven study coupled with peer-based stimulus. Every time a prospective student contemplates a learning opportunity, she or he ought to ask: how does this claim to teach me the skills that I’m hoping to learn? Will this be learning by doing, or by listening and reading? 

When students look back at their favourite and strongest teachers, they tend to recall those who provided constant encouragement and feedback, who made learning interesting and engaging even when a student isn’t so interested in the subject. Digital learning should help all educators step into the role of a favourite teacher, not relegate them to being a “video professor”.

Nearly 40 years ago, education psychologist Benjamin Bloom first detailed his Two Sigma Problem: while research demonstrated one-to-one tutoring based on mastery learning techniques dramatically improved student outcomes by two standard deviations, the methods were deemed too costly to bring to scale.

Educational technology designers can, at last, solve this problem. But this requires educators to not only embrace interactivity but demand it. After the learning challenges of the pandemic, the need to finally bring mastery learning to scale has never been more urgent. 

If teachers do not have access to the kinds of tools they need to truly help their students learn, the academic losses sustained during the past 18 months will continue to deepen. And a generation of learners will lose faith in the power of digital learning.

Tom Adams is chairman and co-founder of Quantic School of Business & Technology and the former CEO of Rosetta Stone.

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