Viewpoint: Digital learning tools fulfilling their promise

College students are more easily able to communicate with young professors accustomed to technology.
College students are more easily able to communicate with young professors accustomed to technology.

A recent Student Watch survey conducted by the National Association of College Stores (NACS) found that while most students still prefer textbooks to eBooks, sales of digital learning products are expected to quadruple by 2012 “if content is made more interactive and faculty become more comfortable using it.”

That first condition has already been met; the most recent digital products on the market have become far more interactive, customizable, and engaging in just the past year.

New learning platforms are not just more interactive or intuitive, they also provide a pedagogical road map that allows instructors to tailor their assignments and exams while giving individual students more options in how they approach and pace their own learning.

The second factor deemed necessary for the rapid adoption of digital products—faculty becoming more comfortable with technology—is already a rapidly growing trend.

It’s not surprising that professors are adopting digital technology quickly, when you consider that the current generation of new college instructors has grown up using the internet, and that this year’s incoming college freshmen share their birth year with the World Wide Web.

These young instructors and students speak the same language, which is increasingly the more visual and kinesthetic language of the internet as opposed to the primarily verbal and static communication found in textbooks. They are eager to adopt the more engaging and multimedia educational options that digital technology can provide—now that digital is finally catching up with the most important capabilities inherent in textbooks.

The reason textbooks have remained popular—even in the face of a world that has otherwise migrated to digital and internet-based forms of communication—is because textbooks are pedagogically sound.

Textbooks are designed according to education principles such as those found in Bloom’s taxonomy of learning. Textbooks lead students from the most basic underlying facts of a new discipline to higher levels of thinking, one level at a time—taking them from rote memorization of facts to the ability to analyze, synthesize, and apply sophisticated concepts creatively.

Until recently, web-based educational tools were incapable of retracing this route. Now they can. The new generation of products coming to market has finally succeeded in addressing many of the issues that once made eBooks and other digital tools so frustrating for both instructors and students to use.

One of the drawbacks that have heretofore hindered greater adoption of digital learning platforms has been product incompatibility.

The past decade has seen many exciting new computer-based educational products come to market, each of which performed some essential task well—assigning homework, tracking individual student progress, creating quizzes and exams.

Few of them, however, worked together, and none seamlessly. Each required navigation to a different URL and a separate password for access. And you could not migrate data from one to the other; each was its own separate and walled-off domain.

Even instructors like myself, who are familiar and comfortable with digital technology, found this intensely frustrating. I had to maintain a detailed list just to keep track of all of the different web sites and log-in passwords I and my students needed to access the different tools at my disposal.

I typically teach as many as 300 students in six classes, plus adjunct courses. Every assignment requiring access to an internet site would generate dozens of panicky eMails from students who had experienced difficulty logging in. Now, programs exist that make everything available in one place—one site, one password: one-stop shopping.

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