Transition to a Digital Classroom

The traditional education model is being disrupted by a new technology laden model. In the few books I have read on the future of education, every expert predicts this transformation – where technology delivers personalized and adaptive learning, levels educational gaps, and centers on reaching competencies. In Getting Smart, Tom Vander Ark summaries the advice of a public school CEO:

A perfect storm of reform… abandon seat-time requirements, stop buying textbooks, use open education resources on inexpensive tablet computers, and stretch staffing by moving students online for at least part of the day.[i]

Digital Classroom
Digital Classroom

Funding for education comes largely from property taxes, so wealthier communities have significant advantages over poorer communities; some of them include: scope of extracurricular activities, quality of teachers, and availability of learning resources. (As a high school soccer official, I have learned you can tell a lot about a community by the state of the school building and facilities and a general vibe from team members and the coach.) Vander Ark suggests considering funding education on a ‘per student’ versus ‘per community’ basis to address an achievement gap. Online learning is scalable and cost-effective so might help make education more egalitarian. Moreover, online and blended learning programs translates to less time sitting in a classroom at a school; therefore, some of the expense associated with maintaining a ‘brick-and-mortar’ facility goes away.

Vader Ark talks about the ability for students to learn at their own pace. Students who get bored in the traditional, sit at a desk for eight hours a day might get more stimulated by using online learning resources. Perhaps it becomes easier for students to graduate high school earlier; once students satisfy the required competencies they get a high school degree. Students might also take AP courses to satisfy college electives, which results in saving a couple of years of tuition. Other students might travel, intern, or participate in the community to learn more about themselves. (This extra time for self-exploration might be an effective way to address many students being immature and lacking focus with what they want to accomplish in college.)

Applying the Skills-Based Approach methodology in education makes sense for a number of reasons:

  • Vander Ark talks about ‘playlists’ in a curriculum. Students, teachers and parents participate in planning what skills a student needs and how to build them to reach a desired competency. The end result is a ‘playlist’ – a sequential, personalized, and adaptive learning approach.
  • Self-guided learning. There are no boundaries in building an expertise with a skill set. If a student identifies a core-competency or passion, he or she continues to build necessary skills online. The rigid, time sapping structure of subjects tied to grades is less relevant.
  • Competency based learning. Teaching experts all talk about the need to move away from learning based on grade levels where students are largely grouped based on age. Rather, students should learn based on how they learn best and what motivates them. It is more effective to tie competencies to the building and validating of a skill set – especially as students learn at varying rates and levels.
  • Gamification. It does not matter how students build skills, so learning through games is an exciting way to introduce intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Badges are an excellent ways to present and validate an expertise with particular skills. (Vander Ark discusses Tony Roland’s, CEO of Mangahigh, realization that “gaming was really luring kids into skills-based learning”.)
  • Plethora of online learning resources. Students might learn from online courses, games, social media communities, video tutorials, and digital media (e-books, whitepapers, blogs, articles, and slideshows). It is practical and efficient to think in terms of skills when you are building skills from many different sources.
  • Threads education and career planning. Skills are tangible, something you can continue to build and validate after you graduate from high school and college. Think skill sets throughout your life – education, employment, and other experiences.


[i] Tom Vander Ark (2014). Getting Smart: How Digital Learning Is Changing the World. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Moving Towards Personalized Learning

Utilizing personalized learning is more realistic with online learning platforms. Personalized learning can be broken down in two ways. First, there is learning on a course level where a teacher or system responds to the learning aptitude of its students as they teach them. For example, a teacher assigns each student a problem set based on their skill level. With testing, a platform uses question prompting like the GMAT:  a correctly answered question is always followed by a more difficult one. This keeps students actively engaged and challenged, the lack of which a reason why students are not performing in college classrooms. Derek Bok says:

Undergraduates who are more engaged in active learning – applying knowledge to solve problems, discussing ideas in and out of class, integrating insights from various sources, and examining their own methods of thinking – spend more time than their classmates preparing for their courses.[i]

Second, there is learning based on a sequence of courses (and often other learning channels) where a student builds an expertise with skills and acquires domain knowledge. Sometimes the sequence is structured in the form of a degree or certification, sometimes the sequence is freeform based on the specific needs of the professional; the latter is becoming more common because online learning makes self-guided learning more affordable and accessible. It is more efficient and practical to think building skills rather than degrees.

Personalized Learning
Personalized Learning

Here are some benefits of having both kinds of personalized learning in higher education.

Being able to learn at your own pace is a compelling reason to adopt online learning and having the resources to allow you to dedicate as much time as you want towards learning is powerful. I do not advocate rushing a learning process and I know a lot of learning is sequential; (there are usually pre-requisites when taking advanced courses). However, I believe it is possible to concentrate your efforts where you spend the same amount of time learning but do it faster by dedicating more hours a week.

It was shocking to learn full-time students on average spend twenty-seven hours a week towards academics.[ii] In my opinion, the baseline should be at least forty hours a week (a typical work week), and could be as much as sixty to eighty hours a week (which some students spend in business, law, and med graduate programs). (One student spent this upper threshold of time on his coursework and completed an associate degree in 3 months and 5 days.) To conclude, students can accelerate the time it takes to complete course requirements by utilizing online learning.

Some students simply learn quicker than others so why hold them back. The notion of a competency based model (versus the traditional credit hour model) is gaining headway for this reason. With a competency model, students are awarded degrees based on tests, papers and projects rather than class time.  And some colleges have adopted this model where students are charged a fee for the term and can take as many courses and assessments they want to fit into the term.[iii]

Professionals benefit from continuing education where they keep their skills sharp by staying abreast of new technologies, applications, and/or methods. Technology and globalization is transforming the typical work environment, so it is logical for professionals to utilize online learning to understand where the landscape is moving. For example, say you manage a web hosting company, you better have a deep understanding of cloud computing so you can respond to customers who ask you about it. Cloud computing is sophisticated enough where reading a few articles is not sufficient learning.

There are a lot of ways personalized learning works with a Skills-Based Approach. First and foremost, the central premise of a Skills-Based Approach is developing a skill set throughout a career. You create a plan to build required skills using all available learning channels and, in this way, it becomes extremely personalized. Second, a competency model of learning fits with the building and validating stages of a Skills-Based Approach where you assess the progress of building skills and later find ways to validate them. (So the time it takes to get a degree and the accumulation of credit hours becomes irrelevant.) Third, with personalized learning you present your skills and knowledge as you learn them. There are various ways to present a skill, which makes it easier to express what you have learned.

[i] Derek Bok. Higher Education in America. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013)

[ii] Jeffrey J. Selingo. College (UN) Bound: The Future of Higher Education And What it Means For Students, (Boston: New Harvest, 2013)

[iii] Anya Kamenetz. “Are You Competent? Prove It.” NY Times, October 29th, 2013.

Advantages of Online Learning

I took a MOOC (free online course) and was impressed with the whole experience. The lecture was intriguing and lively, and delivered by a world-renowned MIT professor.  The platform was effective. (I wrote a blog about my experience Free Online Courses.)  The move to online courses is driven by not only cutting per student instruction costs and reaching a larger audience, but also creating a whole new learning environment.  (In this blog, I will draw insights from Mr. Bowen’s book Higher Education in the Digital Age[1].)

Online Learning
Online Learning

It is difficult to forecast where education will be in a few years because new technologies are evolving so fast. Online education platforms are being constructed to maximize learning potential; each of the MOOC consortiums has built an online course platform and expressed  a willingness to share it (page 59). Here are some advantages of an online learning experience:

  • Immediate feedback loops (page 73). Course instructors and designers have a significant amount of data collected from a system that they can use to make conclusions on the effectiveness of the course. For example, professors get immediate cues regarding how students understand key concepts from a fifteen minute lecture segment (where students are prompted with questions). Immediate feedback and the collection of data related to students’ interactions might revolutionize the higher education learning experience.
    • Students get feedback from the system. They have to answer questions correctly before moving on in lectures.
    • Teachers get feedback from the system. They learn the proportion of students answering question correctly the first time, and how much time it took them to get the right answer,
    • Course designers from the system.  They can understand what is working and not working with an online course, so improvements can be made.
  • Supporting content. As a student watches a course, they can mine information – articles, blogs, and definitions – related to what is being talked about in the lecture.
  • Global community. Most online courses are available to anyone with an internet connection and computer, so foreign students are welcome. Diversity enriches the learning experience for everyone.
  • Finely tuned, consistent lecture. Professors concentrate on delivering the best possible lecture for active learning. (They are not encumbered by giving the same lecture over and over again.)
  • Team of experts. Most online courses have a team of experts – a professor, guest speakers, and professionals – who work together to give the best instruction.
  • Continual learning opportunity. Professionals take online courses to continue building skills and knowledge, and are not necessarily earning a degree – “an education equivalent to booster shots” (page 44).
  • Personalized learning experience (only when there is a limited class size).  Based on feedback from the system, a professor tailors specific lesson plans to individual students. Personalized learning plans are making headway in early education.

One thing I like about online courses with a Skills-Based Approach is students take courses that relate to particular skills and knowledge related to their career. Students also have flexibility to take courses on their own schedule. And as mentioned above, professionals can take online courses throughout their career to continue building expertise with skills. Online learning promotes thinking skills rather than degrees.

[1] William G. Bowen (2013). Higher Education in the Digital Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press.