A learning revolution — or digital hype?

“The learning revolution is underway,” writes Tom Vander Ark in Getting Smart: How Digital Learning Is Changing the World.

“There is good reason for optimism,” but beware of Hyper Hype, responds Mark Bauerlein in an Education Next review.

. . . digital technology can customize learning and dismantle the old calendars and spaces of schooling. Extraordinary innovations have arrived—online curricula, learning games, customized play-lists—and they are ready for implementation across the land if only educators and public officials break with standard procedure and embrace them.

. . . Every few pages Vander Ark adds a bold prediction sidebar: “In five years…Information from keystroke data will unlock the new field of motivation research…,” “In five years…Most learning platforms will feature a smart recommendation engine, similar to iTunes Genius…,” and “In five years…Science will confirm the obvious about how most boys learn and active learning models will be developed in response using expeditions, playlists, and projects.”

In his enthusiasm, Vander Ark ignores the disappointments (laptops for all had little impact) and the dangers (social media can fuel gossip, bullying and cheating), Bauerlein writes.

All this hype and prophecy is unnecessary. The digital future is here, and its main educational advantage, the individualization of learning, is recognized by everyone. At this point, the pressing questions are practical: how much it costs, how to overcome bureaucracy, for example. Vander Ark does include an appendix of concrete advice, such as urging state leaders to allow students to personalize their learning and base matriculation on demonstrated competency, not on seat time, but these are precisely the points to expound in the main text, not stick in an appendix. . . .  What we need is sound evidence, presented without hyperbole, of scalable and cost-effective digital programs that yield higher reading, writing, and math achievement.

Utah’s digital learning law lets districts and charter schools offer online courses to students throughout the state “and pocket a reasonable share of the state aid that comes with every student enrolled,” writes Paul Peterson. In theory, providers will compete for students by offering high-quality courses. “But that dream may not come true unless various aspects of the law are re-thought,” Peterson writes.

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