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The Future of Digital Learning

The future of education isn’t what we have imagined, “Space Camp” as we know it, is no longer a movie and tomorrow it may no longer be a weeklong experience for students at Kennedy Space Center but rather a field trip out to a distant plant in space, said Dr. Kumar who presented at this year Global STEM Leadership Alliance Virtual Summit. Dr. Kumar is Executive Director of the MIT J-WEL (Jamil World Education Lab), an initiative of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that focuses on education innovations to transform education at MIT and worldwide. Dr. Kumar, who completed his doctoral work in future studies in education and through his 25 years with MIT focused on education curriculum innovation with the use of technology to support students regardless of whether they are in the classroom or working remotely. Technology innovation is causing a transformation in education around the globe called digital learning. But digital learning is not the use of these innovations, digital learning is the research and practice through these innovations that are bringing communities to work together to co-construct and co-create possible futures that is transforming education creating opportunities for quality learning.

So how do we bring quality learning opportunities to students?

MIT has created an open learning courseware available not just to MIT students but to educators and students across the globe from pre-k to higher education. Dr. Kumar stated, that when we think about STEM, what we’re really talking about is the kinds of tendencies that create different learning behaviors and pathways that we want to provide to children and adults. What we actually see is STEM as a proxy term for these kinds of competencies and skills referred to as problem solving skills, collaboration, risk taking, finding different pathways into new knowledge. This is the bundle of competencies we see as STEM education.

Dr. Kumar used a project done with Professor Dava Newman as an example, who at the time was assistant director of NASA, to create an interactive visualization. Professor Newman’s research included an advanced spacesuit design called the BIOSUIT to improve the functionality of the spacesuit and adaptable to both man and women.  Students who participated in her project touched on the many elements that were STEM related; they looked at how microgravity influenced body movements, mass movements, and so on. All these competencies and skills that are attributed to STEM education that Dr Kumar referenced as higher quality learning.  To learn more about Professor Newman’s project you can see her presentation on her research here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hkzvoOJA5E

So, when you think about the future of education, it’s about being able to do these kinds of collaborative activities and conjure up situations, creating new learners. Today’s new learners are already discovering new information on the internet, they are discovering communities with whom they are collaborating with, they are looking at an abundance of information, trying to synthesize this information, they engage in creative thinking, critical thinking, problem solving behavior, they think about the many elements to problem solving, systemic thinking, all these interrelated parts working towards a goal. Take for example the space suit project, students were given a sense of themselves which helped them relate and create a connection with the project.  Digital learning is not about coding, students already have computational fluency but when we think about the new learner, these are the kinds of competencies and skills we often imagine.

With new learners, there are new teachers, but how do we imagine the new teacher?  When we envision the new teacher Dr. Kumar uses a modern day pilot as a metaphor. A modern day pilot sits in the cockpit receiving all kinds of data. They will interpret and analyze this data bringing the tools to their disposal. Likewise, the teacher will utilize these tools to interpret the data and take action based on student’s needs. This is to acknowledge the fact that different students encounter different learning experiences. They have different aspirations. They have different motivations, and the intent of the teacher is to land each one of these student learners successfully to have the experience to be successful. So, when you imagine a new teacher, it’s someone who interprets his data analytics and acts on this data.  The new teacher can bring the tools, whether they are technology tools or actions based on learning sciences or both and act as a coach or learning engineer, to provide successful learning experience for the students.

In many cases, we leverage technology for the kinds of richness that opportunities create. Technology is leveling many new competencies when you think about the new learner, the network’s new teacher are also changing because the landscape around of the labor market skills is also changing. But there’s also a new generation of learners, the non-traditional learners: people who are working from home, workers needing to be retrained, etc. So our notion of changing our teaching practice, has suddenly shifted because of forces like the COVID pandemic that forced schools to switch to remote learning if they were to continue educating students. All the innovations we had such as virtual communication and online courses were no longer a commodity but a necessity.  It became a critical dimension of what learning needed to be, a new urgency in order to provide a kind of learning opportunity, but it also brought up new challenges.

It opened our eyes to some realities such as the digital gap, creating new landscape of new opportunities, teachers, learners, and so on. So the innovative possibilities created by digital learning is not about the inventions or the technology, but the applications that bring different kinds of possibilities. But how can we bring these experiences to audiences who are remote? How do we not compromise the level of education? How do we use technology innovatively enough to not sacrifice but amplify those value items, and offer it remotely?

At MIT, we launched the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative, which does research that informs the practice of new kinds of learning experiences. This kind of attention to the science of learning allows combing on site and online learning for different kinds of situations. This allows us to apply technology that balance both on site and online lessons to deliver or create the new kind of learner and provide data to the new teacher.

So, what are some of the driving forces?  Digital learning innovation such as App Inventor and Scratch, already used by many students around the world, engage in constructive learning experience creating what we called the new network learner. In MIT’s Open Courseware there is an AI education site, which looks at AI literacy in K through 12, as well as a variety of AI based applications there for social learning, and to scaffold learning practices in schools for more engaged math teaching; all in the MITx MICROMASTERS Learning program. It is important for us to just reflect on the past year, and to recognize the things that we saw as challenges and that need modifying to better our future. What we learned was that access and equity are not interchangeable terms, that access is not about creating online opportunities, it’s about learners and teachers not being equally prepared to take advantage of online or remote learning for a variety of reasons. And so, access and equity cannot be confused. On the positive side, we did see a digital change, flexibility and improvement switching from onsite to online.