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On digital education

No matter which publications you read, you’ve probably come across a fair number of articles expounding the virtues of online and computer-based education, and probably just as many bemoaning the ineffectiveness of digital education. Since I started homeschooling, I’ve had the opportunity to work with kids both in real world classes and online, and it occurs to me that neither side is right.

The Arguments

Proponents of digital education make some very good points about what the medium offers:

  • The ability for anyone, anywhere to access high-quality education
  • The ability for students to be able to move at their own pace rather than being hampered by slower learners
  • The availability of esoteric learning to anyone who wants to access it

From the perspective of enrolling my own homeschooled children in online courses, I would add:

  • Freedom for unusual learners to take part in classrooms that require fewer real-world social skills
  • Ability for children to connect with non-local children who have similar interests

Digital education doubters also make good points:

  • The best, deepest educational experiences stem from social connections as well as access to information
  • There is no quality control online so much of what passes as education doesn’t meet the barest minimum standards
  • Automated digital learning often passes children to the next level when they haven’t achieved mastery of the previous level
  • Education can’t be quantified
Athena's logo

I have been enjoying teaching literature and etymology at Athena’s, an online school for gifted homeschoolers. I’d never be able to put together enough students in my town to carry a multi-age class in etymology, but online, I meet weekly with a pack of enthusiastic, word-crazy kids.

Digital education won’t save us, but…

I actually agree completely with the digital education doubters: Digital education is not the answer to all of our educational woes. We need well-educated, well-respected teachers who are paid well and given ample opportunity to continue their education throughout their careers. We need a variety of types of schools for different types of learners, and these schools need to be clean, well-stocked, happy places where everyone actually wants to be. Human beings are social animals, and we need education to reflect that part of our nature.

On the other hand, digital education is, in fact, filling needs that real-world education has not fulfilled, especially for children. First of all, our education system—not just public schools but also private—tends to focus on the broad middle of the spectrum. Educational institutions can’t serve every child’s needs; they are designed to fit some chunk of the spectrum. Private schools, at least, can admit this fact and cater to certain types of learners, or certain types of families. But we have charged our public schools with the seemingly unattainable goal of serving every child’s needs.

Digital education helps to make that goal a bit more attainable. Children who are advanced in a subject can take online classes to learn more advanced material than their physical world teachers are able to teach. They can also find communities of learners who are like them—each child is unusual in his or her own environment, but on the Internet, just one of a crowd.

Children who are struggling also benefit from digital education. Children who require more repetition in math, for example, can get that repetition in a math program geared toward their needs. Children who need more instruction in reading can practice with modern tools that help them progress more quickly.

Digital education also democratizes education. It used to be that your zip code pretty much determined your prospects. It is still the case that your zip code pretty much determines the test scores at your physical world school, but it doesn’t have to hold back a student who wants to access higher learning anymore. Digital education has made learning available to all, even the many who don’t yet know it exists.

Change can be uncomfortable

kid with computer

Kids anywhere can come together to learn subjects they choose from enthusiastic teachers.

Digital education does the same thing for learning as digital media has done for information. Digital media took the power from the large media power brokers and gave it to everyone. Your blog could end up being as influential as a city newspaper. Digital education has similarly spread education to the many. Where before you had to have the connections and the money to access education in esoteric subjects, now you can interact with others across the world and learn about subjects that used to be obscure.

None of this means that the digital education doubters are wrong. Digital education is not going to solve the fact that a high school in Oakland has no toilet paper, or that an elementary school in Mobile is staffed by teachers who don’t know its from it’s. I like to think of digital education as filling in gaps rather than replacing the structure. If our brick and mortar education system is the structure of the log cabin, digital education is the mud we use to make sure that a cold wind doesn’t come in through the cracks.

We’re in an exciting period of infancy in education, and no one promised that rebirth would be comfortable.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

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