The New and Old of Digital Learning

Did you know that students today “learn in at least four ways that are very different than pre-digital era students”?  Because of their facility with digital media and the Internet, young people have the capacity to think, inquire, explore, communicate, and participate in ways that make the Old Days—say, pre-1995—look downright backward.

That’s the contention of Connie Yowell, Director of Education Grantmaking at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, in a piece at the Huffington Post last week.

Here are the four ways:

“1) They can pursue interest-driven learning at a tantalizing pace and to fascinating degrees;
2) They readily collaborate and learn from their peers, across geography and cultures;
3) They are participating and producing in learning, skill-building, and knowledge-sharing, as opposed to just being receptacles for information;
4) They can communicate directly with knowledge-giving institutions and individuals all over the world.”

Yowell gives examples.  She notes that

“a student in the Gulf can produce a video or a blog on the environmental crisis there, and publish it to the Internet for the world to see.  A classroom of students in Ohio studying apartheid can use Skype to have a video conversation with a classroom of students in South Africa.  A youth in Iran can post a blog or use social networking to talk about the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution of 2009 and receive encouraging messages from students all over the world.”

Yowell offers these observations as patent facts.  Her real contention is that schools have failed to keep up with the innovative learning strategies of digital natives.  Our schools have “proven highly resistant to change, when it comes to technology and learning,” she claims.  Among other things, they are still stuck on the idea of the teacher as “the anointed expert in the classroom.”  Indeed, the whole system remains “rooted in late 19th century ideals mostly driven by industrialization” which “treats children and students as a massive group.”  The digital environment, on the other hand, “maximizes individual talents.”

Of course, one could charge Yowell with cherry-picking a few rare instances of young people using digital media for extraordinary intellectual purposes, or with idealizing social networks well beyond their reality.  One could also ask why, with so much brilliance happening in digital spaces, we don’t seem to see any impact on test scores.  One could also ask how, when asked to study mid-20th-century anti-communism, digital tools improve upon a student at a desk poring page-by-page over Witness (Whittaker Chambers), issues of Partisan Review, and The Road to Serfdom (Hayek).

But what stands out in this rendition of recent digital breakthroughs in learning is that it relies on some of the most routine progressivist assumptions about learning.  Here we have century-old child-centered premises at the root of the techno-pedagogy vision, premises that displace the authority of the teacher and individualize instruction.  That’s what Yowell finds most distinctive about digital learning: its empowerment of the students, its conversion of them from ‘receptacles of information’ into ‘participants’ in and ‘producers’ of the flow of knowledge.  It’s a strange connection between 21st-century technology and early-20th-century education ideas.  Perhaps Yowell does not realize that the 19th-century model she disparages is only a couple decades older than the model she acclaims.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College