A deep dive into the current state of digital learningRISE Spotlight: Harness The Power of Digital Learning

Focus on the ‘why’ of digital learning rather than the tool; trust teachers to innovate; and adapt your content to local preferences. Those were among the messages from the ISE Reporter Roundtable at the RISE Spotlight on digital learning, which discussed the state of the art and expected developments.

Moderated by Callum Booth, Editor at TNW, the expert panel included:

  • Varun Sawhney, director of global learning and development at Netflix
  • Elizabeth Lembke, chief talent navigator at Transforming Talent
  • Robin Støckert, project manager for SALTO, NTNU in Norway, and
  • Diana Laurillard, professor of learning with digital technology, UCL Knowledge Lab

Watch the full session here

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Digital learning and the transformative power of technology has become vital for the provision of education during the pandemic. The enormous impact on academia during the past 12 months, with home-schooling affecting millions, has resulted in a seismic shift in how education is delivered across the world. As such, the subject has been propelled into the spotlight, making global headlines as schools, universities, businesses, parents and children all try to navigate a new way of learning.

“Last year we unleashed the power and potential of digital learning, we saw more facets and attributes to digital learning than ever before,” began Varun Sawhney. “Every crisis brings new opportunities. When it came to new tools, technologies, consistent platforms…this pandemic has given rise to a lot more access than ever before.”

But how successful has the rollout of these technologies been? Robin Støckert explained some of the challenges experienced in higher education: “Universities are like supertankers; it’s really hard to change direction and it requires planning ahead. Everything is interconnected with mutual dependencies across systems, so there will be resistance to any change of course”.

The pace of change within academia can be slow due to barriers including cost, training and existing technical infrastructure. He continued: “Administratively, there is the reallocation of rooms, schedules, resources and people. For the technical part we need to consider infrastructure to support more streaming and recording, increased security, and bandwidth of the wireless network. We planned to refurbish classrooms to make everything scalable for Zoom, Teams, Skype and so on. The challenge is that these platforms are designed for small rooms. To deliver from classrooms we need cameras and microphones connected to a PC. We need to use an extender that costs more than the camera. Then of course, we need to ensure the professors feel safe and can control this technology with one button.”

With an increasing use of UC platforms, professors and teachers now have many new interfaces to navigate. One of the key challenges raised by the panel is how to train staff to use new technology and, more importantly, find the benefits.

“The impetus has to be on ‘why’ and what we will get out of it”, explained Elizabeth Lembke. “Working from home made the impetus very clear, but it’s not so easy to see what this will be outside of the pandemic.”

Elizabeth explained that for digital learning to be successful, we need to think beyond the technology and change the narrative to what it will solve or improve for teachers and students in the long term. “Make it less about the tool,” she said. “One of the biggest challenges is that there is so much technical training and focus on the tool, it creates a fear factor.”

She believes that the key to success is curious learning. Rather than telling teachers how to use a tool, allow them to explore and decide how it could work for them. “The tool is an enabler, not the delivery,” she added.

So, what tech will be making an impact in 2021? According to Diana Laurillard, teachers need to be more involved in guiding the direction of technological innovation: “Teachers have stepped up and got on with making the 180˚ shift from conventional to wholly online, in the most difficult situation. What we should learn from this is to trust teachers to innovate.”

Diana pointed out that tools and resources need to be curated for digital learning  to make it work. Currently, digital learning resources for teachers are limited, so there is an opportunity for them to collaborate, share experiences and plan for the future. She also discussed the potential of massive online open courses (MOOCs) for professional development and to garner real change, not just in education but also for other global issues like tackling the climate crisis.

If large-scale learning is part of our future, how can international organisations maintain uniformity while still addressing regional requirements? Varun explained how Netflix approaches this when training its global external network of professionals. The Netflix product is primarily the same around the world and consistency is important to the identity of the brand. To maintain this, the global training team produces programmes that deliver a uniform experience, but with regionalised content.

He explained: “Regional teams customise content to include a local flavour and suit regional preferences – one size does not fit all. To achieve uniformity across regions and cultures, it’s important to invest in great tools to deliver a consistent experience – reporting, dashboarding, operating platform – if these are consistent throughout you get a stronger global flavour and then content can be regionalised as the icing on top.”

With the landscape changing at such a rapid rate, what does the future of digital learning look like? Elizabeth predicts that a hybrid approach is the most likely outcome for the future of learning, a combination of both in-person and online. In academia, Robin acknowledged the significance of AV over IP solutions for a seamless transition. Systems need to talk effectively to each other, and easily integrate with PC and online conferencing platforms. The first step would be a common language to connect these technologies together to minimise hardware expenditure.

For business, Varun thinks there will be more emphasis on internal learning. At Netflix it is a big topic of discussion and for the first time, the company has adopted an organisation-wide learning platform to deliver consistent, but non-traditional, training to its 6000+ employees.

The difference between the speed of technology development and implementation is huge. Diana warned that while there is a plethora of new tools available, we need to remain pragmatic about the timescales for realisation. Rollout and training of new technologies can take up to year in universities.

While we know the revolution is here, there is no substitute for the social aspect of learning. Seeing people face-to-face is still an important factor – perhaps becoming more so after the pandemic – it’s part of the experience and shapes who we become. However, as we grow to be more dependent on virtual learning, will students become disconnected with the classroom? Only time will tell.