How to Move From Digital Substitution to ‘Deeper Learning’

column | EdSurge Podcast

How to Move From Digital Substitution to ‘Deeper Learning’

By Betsy Corcoran (Columnist)     Jan 1, 2019

How to Move From Digital Substitution to ‘Deeper Learning’

This article is part of the collection: The EdSurge Podcast.

Replacing VHS tapes with YouTube clips is probably not the ideal version of moving a classroom into the 21st century.

While that type of digital substitution may tick the boxes of education technology frameworks like SAMR, it doesn’t always provide an opportunity for deep thinking and real-world learning.

So how do teachers actually create meaningful work and allow students real agency in a 21st century classroom?

EdSurge talked with Scott McLeod, associate professor of education leadership at the University of Colorado in Denver. He’s the author of “Harnessing Technology for Deeper Learning,” which explores how his “four shifts” protocol can help educators test whether their practices and pedagogies support the goals of learning in the digital age.

Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you listen.

The highlights below have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity (the best experience is the audio, so subscribe to the EdSurge On Air podcast wherever you listen).

EdSurge: Why did you write this book, and what did you learn from it?

McLeod: One of the things we’re seeing is that a number of school systems now have these lofty 21st-century learning mission and vision statements and initiatives. They want their students to be critical thinkers, problem solvers,communicators, collaborators and globally fluent.

And then we start mixing in some of the social and emotional learning and all kinds of newer conversations and desired outcomes. The challenge is translating that into day-to-day practice. So I do a lot of work with schools all around the world and I see numerous places where they have these wonderful, visionary, forward-thinking mission statements and visions and then you walk in the classroom and it looks pretty much like it did 15, 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

Take me into a school that you’ve seen and describe that distance—between what leaders hope to do, and what the practice actually is.

We still see a lot of traditional practice. You’re walking down the halls of the school, and you’ll see a lot of teacher up front driving the learning, rather than student-directed learning. There might be teacher lecture, might be textbook-driven work. We do a lot of digital substitutions, so a lot of schools think they are doing more future-ready work simply because they insert technology into their process, but it’s basically just the digital counterparts to the analog work. So the teacher used to lecture up front with a chalkboard; now it happens with a $3,000 interactive whiteboard. You used to hand out a paper worksheet; now you’re downloading a document in Google docs and typing into it and submitting it back to your teacher in Google Classroom.

We used to watch VHS tapes on the television. Now we are watching a YouTube video, so the pedagogy hasn’t changed that much. The technologies that we see taking off in most schools are the ones that closely replicate traditional institutional practice because they are the ones we can latch on to the most easily. They are the ones that disrupt our teaching and learning the least.

So there’s this theory called SAMR, which is substitution, augmentation, modification and then finally redefinition.

Basically replication and transformation.

There is this idea that we have to climb up a scale. But isn’t it hard to climb up that scale? Do people know how to move from, “Okay, I’m using my whiteboard just like that chalkboard” to being more thoughtful about what this means?

Well the challenge with SAMR, which is sort of the dominant framework for K-12 schools right now, is that it’s a technology continuum, not a learning continuum.

In other words, the highest level of SAMR means that you’re using technology to do things you couldn’t otherwise do before. But you can do that, and it’d still be low-level learning. So take an activity like Mystery Skype for example. Mystery Skype is an activity where two classrooms try to guess each others’ location within 20 questions. So that’s actually not very deep learning.

It’s fun, and it’s engaging, and the technology allows you to connect to that other classroom somewhere else in real-time, which you couldn’t do before. So it’s high on the SAMR. But ultimately you just spent 50 minutes and you spent 50 to 60 kids’ time guessing each other’s location.

So let’s take that activity. Can we make that activity a deeper learning experience, or is that one a bit of a dead end?

No, we can. That’s what the book is all about. So the book introduces our “four shifts” protocol, and the idea is that if you want deeper learning to happen, if you want student agency to happen, if you want authentic work to happen, and if you want rich technology and infusion to happen as a lever to make those first three things occur, then the protocol can maybe help us accomplish that.

So we would take the Mystery Skype, for example, and we would look at the deeper-learning section, and we would ask the questions as diagnostics and we would say, for example, what evidence do we have? We always focus on claims and evidence. So if you’re going to say critical thinking is present in this activity, where is it? If you’re going to say that metacognition is present in this activity, where is it?

So the deeper learning section of the protocol has a collection of questions that you can ask yourself as diagnostics and then say, if we’re trying to make deeper learning happen in this activity, where is it? And if it’s not there, can we start redesigning toward those?

And hopefully with some colleagues, or an instructional coach, principal or tech integrationist, or somebody who can bounce some ideas around. So the idea is that we run down this set of questions in the deeper-learning section about Mystery Skype and see that most of our questions are answered “no.”

What if we want a couple of those answers to be yes? How can we redesign this activity to get there? So now all of a sudden, we’d do things like, instead of them asking each other yes or no questions, we would maybe have them collaborate on shared issues in their communities. So now all of a sudden they’re doing collaborative problem solving rather than merely guessing each others’ location.

So, in other words where Mystery Skype is entirely focused on yes-or-no questions, I might be asking a series of questions, maybe around, what’s the water like in your community?

No, so we would actually have an authentic, meaningful dialogue with the other class. Instead of asking just yes-or-no questions, and we would identify some shared problems that both of our communities have and then we would get to work on those. Maybe collaborative work teams that spanned both classrooms. So now I’ve got two kids in classroom A working with two kids in classroom B and they’re working on, say, how can we address water quality issues in our community? And then two other kids in classroom A are working with three other kids in classroom B and their issue is, how do we decrease the number of people who are hungry in our community. It’s meaningful work.

So the transformation, in this example, would not be just guess your location. Let’s actually work together on meaningful work. So we transform the task to something that’s more authentic.

You said there were four shifts. Can you tell us quickly what those shifts are?

Yes, so one of them is the shift from recall and regurgitation to deeper learning or higher-level learning.

So that’s what we were just talking about.

Yeah. The second shift would be the shift from teacher- and system-directed work to more student agency, where students have the opportunity to have more control and ownership of their own learning path so they really become those lifelong learners we say we want.

The third shift is around authenticity of the work, so that instead of being isolated, disconnected classrooms, how do we connect kids to the real world around them—locally, globally, digitally—so that they stop asking us why they need to know things and why they need to care about things that we ask them to do. Because now they see those connections, meaning and relevance.

Then the fourth shift is the shift from analog to digital, and that’s important because the information landscape is so different these days. But it’s also important because you can do deeper and more authentic work and give kids agency with tech in ways that you simply can’t with analog spaces.

You’ve developed these ideas through your work with schools. How many schools have you been in?

Hundreds, thousands.

Tell me one story that you’ve seen, perhaps one school that you’ve worked with that has made this journey. What were they like and where did they go?

So one of my favorite schools is called Iowa Big. It’s in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.Students spend half their day at Iowa Big and half the day at their mothership high school. When they’re at Iowa Big, they’re working on projects that come from their community, such as local nonprofits, government agencies or local companies that basically say, we have things that we want to get done. Projects that we want to accomplish. They then put some high school youth on these tasks. . And it’s in this amazing place where kids are redesigning schools with local architects. They’re building aquatic drones. They’re creating utensils for amputees. They’re creating the community’s first entrepreneurship conference for girls and women. I mean, just all these sorts of authentic community projects where the kids get a chance to do real-world work, side by side, with people in the community, as a complement to their more ordinary school experiences at their mothership high school.

Last question: How does this work from a teacher’s point of view? We’ve heard a lot of talk recently about there are teachers that jump into this and they can’t wait to do this. Then there are teachers who think, “Oh, my God. This is a lot of work. I’m changing all my practices. Do I really need to go down this path?” Tell me a little bit about the spectrum of teachers.

I think we always have a few teachers who are ready to jump in immediately and go. I think you have that next group of teachers who might be interested but doesn’t know how. And of course you have the small group of skeptics who aren’t very interested at all.

The biggest challenge for teachers is really around the dynamics of agency. More than anything else, that seems to be the sticking point—whether or not we want to give up control and hand it over to our students. It’s sort of about control and ownership and agency over what you do, and we violate that on an hourly basis in every school, everywhere. And so it’s about this idea that we have to turn things over to kids and let them drive their learning and make mistakes because it’s part of the process, instead of controlling everything so tightly [because] we just have these freakish control needs where we’re unwilling to let our students actually drive their own learning process.

But when we do, it’s always, always amazing.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

Next Up

The EdSurge Podcast

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up