Digital Learning

Stefan Schustereder

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The ongoing, pandemic-induced discourses about digital learning and online classrooms have more often than not circled around questions of technical equipment of schools and learners’ and teachers’ ICT skills. Amounts of funding that were unthinkable years ago have recently been mobilized to purchase all sorts of equipment for schools and universities in many countries. But what about pedagogy?

With the beginning of the Covid pandemic early in 2020 many education professionals all over the world experienced a change in their everyday teaching practices. With the pandemic-induced closing of child care facilities, schools and higher learning institutions, learners and instructors in many countries began to engage in different forms of synchronous and asynchronous digital education to varying degrees.

Naturally, the consequences differ greatly depending on where people live and how they learn: countries with a tradition of digital education faced the changes much smoother than countries or regions with only little or no experience in digital learning.

The first and foremost reason for this difference in making a change from classroom learning to the learning and teaching in a digital environment that was brought forward in many media and public discourses was focused on the role of technology. Writing from a relatively advanced country like Germany, I was surprised how diverse the situation here actually was: from schools equipped with Wi-Fi and classroom tablets and laptops to schools and other learning institutions with green or black boards (yes, the ones with the chalk) and decade-broken overhead projectors.

However, the reactions of teachers, learners, parents and policy-makers towards the new learning in pandemic times appeared more unified: what was needed was more money in order to equip schools and everybody with new technology and applications. For a period of five years, the German government pledged the sum of about five billion Euros to equip everyone, including the more than eight million pupils and about 800.000 teachers, with everything necessary to modernize learning in the country. During the pandemic, teachers were promised computers and tablets to do their jobs from home, and so were the students. One year after the pandemic started, the majority is still waiting for these devices.

The discussions about this impressive effort of policy-makers and education professionals alike, however, remained largely silent about one factor: pedagogy. Giving a laptop and a camera to a teacher and providing a student with a free iPad will not equip either with the skills and competences needed to use these devices for teaching and learning purposes. From the perspective of a teacher, researcher, and teacher trainer, this reminds me of the following analogy: if we had treated school education in the past years similarly to the discussions that we are experiencing today, becoming a teacher would have meant receiving a key to the school, a black board and a piece of chalk. From a student perspective, likewise a notebook and a pencil would have sufficed. We are all aware that these conditions, albeit required, would never be enough to achieve successful teaching and learning. But why do the discussions about the purchasing of technology for digital learning often fail to go beyond the question of equipment?

It could be argued that the key term here is instrumentalization. Failing to see and discuss social and affective dimensions of teaching and learning, the cognitive level becomes not only the primary but, it may seem, the exclusive focus. The ongoing discussion about the necessity of technology in classrooms, and with the pandemic now more than ever before, emphasizes the view that learning is more and more seen as the instrumentalization of knowledge. Knowledge, and learning, thus become instruments to be used and employed both in the short term to be applied and, in the long run, to be capitalized. This understanding, however, falls short for two reasons: firstly, having a technological device neither prepares teachers to encourage and realize successful learning in any form in a (virtual) classroom nor does it support learners to achieve the same. Secondly, both teachers and learners need to be prepared to achieve a successful learning outcome on all levels, including those that appear to be more and more neglected, since teaching and learning in all environments, analog or digital, requires more than the equipment.

The past months have provided us with many lessons learned. Among them is the understanding that teaching in a digital environment is very different from teaching in a traditional classroom. Working with students on the screen provides different opportunities and challenges than when they are sitting in front of their teachers.

Learning at home with a smartphone is different from sitting in a classroom with your peers and an instructor who is always available for questions and support.

It is more than time to address these opportunities, to face the challenges and to broaden our own and our learners´ knowledge about how successful learning can be achieved in digital learning environments.

There can be no doubt: having a laptop does not make a great teacher. Naturally, learners with no access to digital infrastructures need all the help and support a society can give them to keep up with their education during the pandemic. However, education and learning go far beyond the technological equipment. It would help if the public and our political decision-makers strived to keep this idea on the agenda in their discourse over the coming months. There is much to do.

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