There is 'high interest in the use of relevant digital tools but lower individual understanding of how they might improve learning'

Posted on: 02 Aug 2016

Sean Dagony-Clark, Director of Academic Technology at Riverdale Country School in New York, discusses the future of digital learning, following his exchange trip as a Zagat Global Fellow to Bryanston School in Dorset.

My whirlwind 12 day tour of England as Riverdale Country School’s second Zagat Global Fellow gave me the good fortune of speaking with a myriad of pupils, teachers, and school leaders about the UK and US independent educational systems.

It seems we face many of the same challenges, in particular concerns about the value of educational innovations and the constant tension of external accountability (e.g. testing, admission to higher education) versus our exceptional ability to create effective and, when appropriate, radically new learning opportunities for our pupils.

I believe digital learning tools can assist with both by improving and extending classroom learning beyond what has ever been possible before.

Learning is active. A pupil learns through engagement and struggles with new ideas that challenge or expand old ones. Teachers guide pupils by assessing their unique frames of reference, eliciting misunderstandings, and helping to correct these as new information is encountered. If such struggle and guidance are missing, the learning is flawed: new information gets packed in alongside conflicting (or just plain wrong) understandings, building more misunderstandings and naïve connections, ad infinitum.

Unpacking learners’ misconceptions, empowering them to individually wrestle with new ideas, and allowing teachers to assess their understandings are three things digital tools do exceptionally well. I would never argue that traditional pedagogies and face-to-face interaction should be abandoned; as a mentor of mine loves to say, a teacher who could be replaced by a computer should immediately be replaced by a better teacher! However, I would argue that some digital tools provide affordances for learning that are impossible to match with traditional pedagogies.

Anonymity and full participation (the latter meaning all pupils simultaneously sharing their understandings) improve classroom learning: the former through reduced reluctance to be wrong (Learning and Instruction: Anonymity in classroom voting and debating) and increased overall class productivity (Effects of Anonymity and Evaluative Tone on Idea Generation in Computer-Mediated Groups); the latter by increasing pupils’ active engagement and their teacher’s ability to assess their understanding. These can be difficult to achieve in a live setting and are seemingly at odds with each other, but digital polls make both simultaneously possible: all pupils respond at once, with no fear of embarrassment, in a medium that allows the teacher (if desired) to privately assess individual responses or publicly analyze class trends. And all of these methods are free and very easy to utilize with such tools as Plickers, Poll Everywhere, Socrative, or one of many other digital polling options.

Polling is just one of many ways in which digital tools can improve pupils’ classroom experience. Others involve unleashing the individual creativity of pupils and allowing them to express their understanding in non-traditional methods (Aurasma: Augmented Reality for Your Classroom); improving differentiation of instruction to target individual learners’ gaps in understanding; allowing for improved analysis of performance (Schoology) against teacher, state, and national learning goals; and the list goes on. Again, this is not an argument for replacing teachers with technology: all of these examples require wise application of these tools, and there is no one more appropriate to determine such application than a dedicated teacher.

In my (admittedly limited) visits to several UK schools, and across multiple conversations with UK teachers, I saw high interest in the use of relevant digital tools but lower individual understanding of how they might improve learning and which tools to use. This is much like the US: our teachers are expected to be classroom experts and lack the time to become academic technology experts as well (which is fine, as I enjoy having a job!). The greatest difference I’ve seen between our educational systems is the way the UK’s emphasis on high stakes testing (in particular, GCSE and A Levels) dictates much of the curriculum in all UK secondary schools; state testing and national standards exist in the US but our independent schools are typically exempt from them.

Despite our differences, and because of our similarities, academic technology can improve learning in both our countries. Most great digital tools do not replace curriculum; they enhance it. These technologies exist outside the curriculum, just like pencil and paper, and await judicious application that will improve pupil outcomes. Curriculum restrictions or not, high stakes testing or not, teachers need time to work in depth with academic technology experts: people who specialize in the convergence of learning and technology, who can recommend and integrate the modern tools that will push digital learning – and just plain learning – far into the 21st century.


To read about David James' experience as Zagat Global Fellow at Riverdale School, read his blog for ISC here.


About Sean Dagony-Clark

Sean Dagony-Clark is Director of Academic Technology at Riverdale Country School in New York. Sean is the second Zagat Global Fellow from his school and has recently spent time at Bryanston School in Dorset.