Digital learning’s golden era

If you can recall the Golden Era of comic books or remember a time before anti-smoking laws all but obliterated matchbook advertising, you may have been tempted to learn to draw at home.

The Famous Artists School was, perhaps, the most well known of all the correspondence schools. It offered an art and illustration course that anyone, anywhere could take through the mail. Quaint and even quirky in retrospect, it was, essentially, distance learning, a way to reach students regardless of their location or access to a campus.

Now, the sweeping availability and ever-decreasing cost of technology has revolutionized many arenas, from how we communicate, to how we work, to how we spend our leisure time. How we learn and how we teach is being transformed, too.

And while the digital learning trend has been evolving for many years, 2014 will see some resilient stigmas about digital learning dissipate, paving the way for new educational platforms and applications to emerge across a wide range of fields.

The most critical stigma to sunset is the belief, in some sectors, that the quality of digital learning is appreciably sub par. Many traditional educators have been making that argument for years while largely ignoring the fact that their students have spent their entire young lives connected to and intimately merged with digital life experiences on all levels — educational, social, cultural, etc. Even while in class being lectured to, they were likely digitally connected and engaged.

In higher education circles, the long-held belief that digital learning has significant limitations will also fade. Being compelled to find more cost-effective ways to educate college students, educators will more easily turn to digital models and, in the process, develop innovative ways to blend traditional classroom knowledge with life experience.

The foundation is in place

According to the Federal Communications Commission, a whopping 97 percent of U.S. elementary, middle and high schools supplied connectivity to students in 2012. The pervasiveness of its use may vary widely from school to school, community to community, with some simply providing online homework help and others offering fully virtual courses. But its advantages are undeniable, and its value is increasingly documented.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Education found that students who did at least some of their course work online did better than those who received all their instruction in a classroom — ranking in the 59th percentile compared to the 50th — and the digital learning trend is poised to expand across the total education spectrum.

“The study’s major significance lies in demonstrating that online learning today is not just better than nothing — it actually tends to be better than conventional instruction,” educational psychologist Barbara Means, the study’s lead author, told the New York Times.

Even the Library of Congress, which boasts a collection of 32 million old-fashioned paper-and-ink books, endorses digital learning. Later this winter, the Library, along with the Alliance for Excellent Education, will co-host “Digital Learning Day,” touted as a “nationwide celebration of innovative teaching and common-sense, effective applications of digital learning in America’s schools that support teachers, improve learning and help students achieve at their highest potential.”

Most markedly, online education enables educators in the K-12 arena to personalize learning in ways that would otherwise be impossible: The pace of instruction can be precisely matched to a student’s progress; niche and highly specialized classes can be offered by even the smallest of schools. And students in need of extra help, along with those who outpace their classmates, can access just the right coursework, tutoring, or expert to serve them best. Collaboration among students — made increasingly possible as iPads, smart phones and tablets become available to those of even the most modest means — is yet another emerging development within the digital trend.

Some innovative educators, meanwhile, were among the first to recognize the benefits of digital learning for their own scholarship and professional development.

Donald Odom Jr., program assistant for the New York State Department of Education’s Hudson Valley Regional Bi-Lingual Education Resource Network, is part of a small but efficient team responsible for bringing training to 144 school districts in his region. There are four full-time staffers and one part-timer on the team, he says, and their task would be near impossible without the use of digital tools.

Digital learning on fire

Technology has completely changed the paradigm. We’ve been able to leverage technology to the point where we can have literally quadrupled the number of people we can serve in a year,” Odom says, adding that his team uses a range of technologies, including podcasts, self-contained modules called “webinettes,” and synchronized sessions in which the teacher and the student are online together, interacting in real time.

Digital learning, Odom says, also saves the exorbitant cost of travel, lodging and meals for instructors to visit individual schools, often just to meet with a handful of teachers. And, he said, they don’t even have to worry about snowstorms, which can wreak havoc on schedules in many areas.

“It’s made it possible that even with a few people we can deliver courses that offer the same depth and quality, and we can also be so much more flexible with scheduling. It allows us to really focus on the training, to get right into it,” Odom says.

Adults seeking to hone very specific skills will discover digital education options growing at a feverish pace. Entrepreneurs and small business owners will use the Internet to learn bookkeeping, tax preparation, accounting, retirement planning and the like in even higher numbers. Some of them will even create second careers for themselves by creating the modules themselves and providing the training.

Online vocational training courses and certificate programs are in particular demand, especially among non-traditional students who find it impossible to maintain a conventional class schedule. Adults with jobs and families, those lacking reliable transportation, even incarcerated students, can “earn their degree!” in a myriad of trades. The choices seem endless — hospitality, travel and tourism, interior decorating, fashion design, paralegal, firefighting, construction, medical transcription, automotive repair, web design, floral design and culinary arts — and, when offered by a trustworthy institution, can move the graduate to an improved livelihood.

Take, for example, the State University of New York College of Technology at Delhi, which offers its increasingly popular RN and BSN online programs, along with associate degrees in electrical construction and a bachelor’s in criminal justice.

Why 2014 is a turning point

There are pitfalls, clearly, and online schools with dubious credentials continue to exploit consumers and reinforce old stereotypes. But as established education “brands” continue to embrace and offer online courses, the stain of charlatan schools will continue to fade. Even Harvard, Yale and Oxford offer non-residential, online programs, lending their irrefutable pedigrees to the digital trend.

And while online education will have fewer naysayers in 2014, it wasn’t long ago that employers assumed that an online vocational or professional education was a second-rate one, a default for students who lacked the commitment, wherewithal or the smarts to succeed in a “real” school. But the stigma that an online education is inferior to a traditional classroom environment will all but disappear during the year ahead.

This holds true in some field more than others. It’s likely that we will continue to insist that our hairdresser, our surgeon and our airline pilot
have spent a good amount of time in the same room with real-life instructors. But it’s also likely that students currently training for those professions will take some online courses, attend a virtual lecture, or e-mail a final.

The year ahead will cement the credibility of digital learning in virtually every arena that requires a general or specific educational/training background. That means opportunity that might have evaded online-educated individuals in previous years, is now worth a second shot.

In 2014, you’ll find wider and more immediate acceptance of online degrees and certificates among prospective employers. You’ll find new opportunities to share your expertise as a trainer or instructor on emerging platforms that provide specialized learning. You’ll be able to enhance a traditional educational background with specialized online training. Even community- and volunteer-based organizations will be able to use digital platforms to enhance efficiency and productivity.

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