Digital Learning Experiences

By Steven Mintz from Inside Higher ED

Textbooks evoke a great deal of ambivalence among instructors.  Their expense and back-breaking heft are two sources of concern. More troubling is their tone – too often bland and tedious; their use of language – generally dreary and uninspired; and their content – frequently generic and excessively detailed. These are not books to be read for pleasure. They do not provoke, delight, or inspire.

One unsettling fact about textbooks is that they often structure the course that they are supposed to supplement.  Instructors often feel compelled to follow the textbook’s organization. At the same time, textbooks force students to learn along a single, prescribed pathway.

And yet, textbooks serve a function. They reinforce lessons taught in class. They provide practice questions. Students rely on textbooks for reference as they study for exams.

What, then, is the alternative? What might the textbook of the future be like?

One possibility is a digitized version of existing textbooks, supplemented with a wide array of ancillaries – videos, glossaries, quizzes, and links to web resources. These e-textbooks feature highlighting and note-taking tools.

Another possibility is the customized textbook in which instructors draw content from a publisher’s asset vault. A growing number of publishers are unbundling their preexisting textbooks to create self-contained modules.

But there is another possibility, offering far greater potential for enhancing outside the classroom learning: A next generation digital learning experience. It is a learning ecosystem rather than an e-book plus supplements. It will offer:

  • A rich range of multimedia content.
    This content will include not only text and short videos, but animations, apps, interactive diagrams, simulations, virtual laboratories, and an array of immersive learning opportunities.
  • Personalized learning pathways.
    Embedded diagnostics will identify student learning needs.  Intelligent, adaptive tools will respond by providing interactive tutorials. Capable of assessing a student’s prior knowledge, processing speed, and retention level, the adaptive tools will use predictive algorithms to create an individualized instructional path. A modular design will make it easy to customize students’ learning trajectories.
  • Substantial opportunities for interactivity.
    Interactivity need not be limited to the opportunity to respond to a quiz, an exercise, or a self-test. Interaction can be much more immersive, involving data analysis, design projects, virtual explorations, and other hands on activities.
  • Powerful social and collaborative experiences.
    Nor does the social dimension need to be confined to a discussion forum. Hangouts allow students to connect with classmates and permit teams to work together in a collaborative space virtually.
  • Performance-based assessments.
    An alternative to multiple-choice or open-ended questions, performance assessments involve the practical application of skills and knowledge to a real-world challenge. To assess their learning, students typically undertake a project or seek to solve a problem.
  • A gamified user experience to enhance student engagement.
    In 1775, Francis Hopkinson – a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a designer of the flag of the United States, and a composer, journalist, playwright, and poet – proposed that all academic subjects be taught “through games” “lightening the labor of both pupils and teachers.” Like a video game, a gamified approach divides the learning experience into a series of levels and awards students points as they demonstrate mastery.

Such a next generation learning experience is not a dream. It is becoming a reality at the new University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. For its B.S. in Biomedical Sciences, part of a broader “Middle School to Medical School” pathway, the faculty, in conjunction with the UT System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, are creating a next generation integrated learning experience. It will serve as the online portion of a hybrid program that will launch in Fall 2015.

A guiding coalition of faculty members has collaboratively blueprinted the learning experience. Using a process of backward design, they specify learning objectives and create a knowledge map down to the competency and sub-competency level. A design team consisting of instructional designers, librarians, and content and assessment specialists curate and integrate materials. Where appropriate content is unavailable, new interactive instructional materials are developed.

The learning experience will be delivered on iPads. Because of Internet connectivity challengers in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, this experience must be fully accessible without an Internet connection. Whenever students are on campus, content will be downloaded and student projects will be uploaded.

Students will establish learning goals, and dashboards will register the number of points students acquire as they move toward goal.

Students will work individually and collaboratively on a variety of projects and problem-solving activities.

Student support is an essential aspect of this next generation learning experience.  Diagnostics will alert instructors and advisors when students are confused.  Students themselves will be able to contact instructional facilitators with a finger tap.

The outside-of-class component of hybrid courses needs to be as actively engaging and intellectually stimulating as what goes on in class. Next generation digital learning environments offer an attractive model of how institutions might achieve these objectives.

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