OPINION: Ban "Digital" Learning

Mary Cullinane Mary Cullinane

It’s time to ban “digital” learning.

For 20 years I have dedicated my career to understanding and demonstrating the value of technology in the teaching and learning process. I once held a job where my title was “School of the Future Technology Architect.” I’m a believer in instruction that is, as the buzzwords go, data driven, adaptive, personalized, one-to-one, online, blended, flipped, and gamified.

I am, put simply, bought in. But we’ve lost our way. We’ve elevated the digital conversation to levels that represent reform-celebrityism.  We have forgotten to read the “under-promise and over-deliver” section of the handbook on effective reform. We’ve amplified the virtues, necessity, promise, and potential of technology so much that we are perilously close to forgetting what it was all about in the first place: helping teachers to teach and students to learn.

I know what many technology advocates are probably now thinking: “Not me! When I talk about our technology, I say loud and clear that I believe technology is just another tool.” I put that phrase in the binder labeled “the top 10 things to say if you are trying to demonstrate your familiarity with the K-12 education sector.”  Yet a search of the agenda for the annual conference of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development yields 28 records when the search term is “digital”, and just 16 when the search term is “brain.”

This is not a knock on the conference – it is an outstanding convening – but rather a reflection of the broader conversation happening in education today. The problem with digital saturation is that people stop listening. Proponents of digital tools do themselves a disservice by overemphasizing the medium. We risk coming across as biased advocates – even zealots – and we are perceived to lack the knowledge or ability to engage in a debate about learning, because all we want to talk about is technology.

In some instances this criticism is accurate. Yet like many education professionals, I have seen firsthand the power and promise of a learning environment fortified with the effective use of technology. Katie Salen and her work with the Institute of Play have demonstrated the true value of gamification. Rather than focusing solely on games, she argues that we ought to focus more on the theory of game design and apply those principles more broadly to the teaching and learning process.

We should ask ourselves why kids will fail within a digital game almost 80 percent of the time, yet continue to try. We don’t see such determination in our classrooms. Salen’s work has focused on creating entire ecosystems that benefit from the lessons and practice found in game development. Her work to create schools such as Quest to Learn in New York City built around this theory of action reflects a learning transformation – not a digital initiative.

Schools in California’s Pajaro Valley are beginning to demonstrate that when you think more about implementation than you do about procurement, you have a greater chance of success. Recently students in one eighth-grade class at Pajaro Middle School saw a significant increase in their math proficiency levels after they began using an algebra app accessed on iPads. But technology adoption in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District is marked by the tremendous amount of time and resources spent thinking through implementation of the curriculum, including extensive teacher training and technical support. School leaders recognized that a product only takes you so far; the hard work happens before and after you open the box or download the software.

Every day I aim to ensure we recognize and demonstrate the power of technology in our work with schools – not because it’s an end in itself, but a means to reaching one. The goal for educators, curriculum experts, and content providers should always be clear: a learning transformation, not a digital transformation.

It's time for the Department of Education to invest in using the research available on brain science to improve the teaching and learning process. It’s time we talked about increasing the ratios of heros to students rather than tablets to students. Let’s make sure that the quality of the content we put in front of our kids is measured by research rather than by “likes.”  

Mary Cullinane, a former teacher, is the chief content officer for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, one of the world’s largest providers of pre-K–12 education solutions.



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