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Learning in the Digital Age

A version of this post also appeared on GrantCraft’s blog.

Elementary students using iPads at school.

Photos of elementary students using iPads at school. Photo taken by Lexie Flickinger via Flickr user Brad Flickinger

“Digital learning tools are thought to reduce costs, broaden reach, and deepen engagement. But are these innovations succeeding?”

According to the Foundation Center’s 2013 Key Facts on U.S. Foundations report, the education sector received 20 percent of U.S. foundation grant dollars, or $5 billion—the second highest funded issue area behind health. Education is also one place where technology is rapidly innovating the experience, shaking up traditional models at all levels. Digital learning tools—how The Rockefeller Foundation refers to technology that facilitates learning—are thought to reduce costs, broaden reach, and deepen engagement. But are these innovations succeeding?

At The Rockefeller Foundation, we’re asking ourselves that question by exploring how digital learning tools can decrease logistical barriers and increase engagement for our Social Innovation Fellows, and discovering how to support our grantees incorporating them into systems-based solutions. We’re looking at how technology works with their solution, not how technology is the solution.

Changing ‘when’ and ‘where’ learning happens

By taking advantage of modern communications infrastructure, education is increasingly more accessible to more students in more places. Rockefeller Foundation grantee African Management Initiative (AMI) is using a combination of digital learning tools to deliver education at the time and place their students—African impact enterprise entrepreneurs—need it. The Initiative’s program is designed specifically for the African context, developing management skills in impact enterprises that serve vulnerable populations by providing affordable, easily accessed, online classes—including on mobile, which is often considered the most accessible medium on the continent.

To ensure engagement of the entrepreneurs, AMI creates a social connection to and between the students. Beyond just discussion boards, AMI will be curating a dynamic online community by offering networking and career support. More features are being designed to enrich the networking experience, connect others and support their students’ career growth to deepen the engagement.

Delivering education through digital learning tools broadens access if a learner has access to the right technology. Though AMI ensures their products can be delivered over low bandwidth connections, that still doesn’t enable them to reach everyone. To bridge the digital divide, AMI takes their courses into on-site, off-line settings called ‘Learning Labs’. Through local partners they broaden access and deepen engagement in a more traditional, facilitated way, using the same digital content available through their distance learning solutions.

Let’s Play!

Playtime is something all kids (and let’s face it, adults, too) love. Taking a video of a lecture and posting it online may broaden access to knowledge, but organizations like GlassLAB and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education are getting more creative to ensure that student’s are learning. GlassLAB develops games and simulations that track student learning, including skills extremely difficult to quantify, like reason and argumentation. They don’t try to “gamify” current curriculum, rather, they reimagine how you teach a skill by building a game based on it. They intend to show that games equal learning, which equals fun.

The team at Harvard is exploring how to creatively incorporate mobile phones to teach ecosystems science where it happens—outdoors. Building on their current EcoMUVE simulations, they plan to change how old-fashioned field trips are facilitated with experiential learning components augmented by mobile phones. Students test, examine, and learn on-the-spot. Although learning through play is nothing new, teachers now have a plethora of data to analyze and demonstrate skill building. Immediate feedback to lessons gives teachers a higher degree of insight on their students’ learning, allowing them to more rapidly adjust their tactics toward greater outcomes.

Both GlassLAB and Harvard bring together experts in education, assessment and game design to create instructional materials from the “bottom up”. Like any great game or app, it requires significant time and effort to design, develop, and test. Then there’s the cost to purchase or license, as well as training the teachers in its use and interpretation of the feedback analytics.

Whether it’s K-12, post-secondary, or continuing education, technology is being incorporated into the learning experience in exciting ways, reframing the delivery of education. The lure of decreasing costs and increasing outcomes through digital learning tools is significant, but they don’t enhance learning by themselves. Digital learning tools are just that—tools. As funders evaluate digital learning tools to deepen impact, they should follow the advice of Mark Milliron, CEO of Civitas Learning, and not ask how the new tool is better, but rather, how the learning experience is better with it. It’s easy to be “wowed” by the possibilities technology offers in broadening reach, deepening engagement, and even reducing costs, but before jumping in, we need answers to two critical questions: will it fit the learners and can it be supported by the ecosystem around it?

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