Realizing the Learning in Digital Learning

by: Nancy Butler Songer, School of Education, The University of Michigan

In this short essay I argue that while many of us are beginning to understand some of the affordances of digital learning, we are not systematically realizing these in undergraduate SMET environments because of an overemphasis on the design of the digital resources themselves, rather than a focus on the design of digital learning. How do we begin the transformation from digital resources to digital learning?

What are the Affordances of Digital Learning?

A recent report from the CEO Forum on Education and Technology [www.ceoforum.org] identifies the following affordances of digital resources:

Digital Resources can be

  • Randomly accessed information
  • Relevant, up-to-date and authentic information
  • Explored on many levels
  • Interactive and engaging
  • Manipulatable
  • Instantaneous
  • Creative

In addition, we believe that digital resources can provide

  • Multiple representations of a given phenomena with transitions or links between these representations (Songer and Samson, 2000)
  • Multiple and various simultaneous interactions with phenomena, such as data manipulation and synchronized threaded discussions with others (Lee and Songer, 2000)

This CEO Forum report also identifies what learning can become when digital content takes advantage of these affordances. They report that Learning becomes

  • Problem and project-centered
  • Student centered
  • Collaborative
  • Customized
  • Communicative
  • Productive
  • Lifelong at anytime, from anywhere

While many projects have substantial evidence of realizing these affordances (see for example Model-It: Jackson, Stratford, Krajcik and Soloway, 1996; CoVis: Gordin and Pea, 1995; Kids as Global Scientists: Songer, 1996), we believe a fundamental shift in focus might improve our ability to more effectively realize the potential of digital learning. To date, many creators and users of digital resources are forced to place an overemphasis on hardware and connectivity; support and training that must focus on basic technological skills; and a lack of adequate funding and support for instructors and teachers (President's Committee of Advisors in Science and Technology, 1997).

What is needed is more discussion, in forums such as this workshop, to articulate how we begin a transformation from an emphasis on powerful resources to powerful learning. Unfortunately even the exemplary K-12 cases above seldom discuss this transformation. Many current policy documents also gloss over this transition implying that how one gets from powerful resources to powerful learning is straightforward or understood. To discuss one recent example, a recent report from the Department of Education implies that providing technological infrastructure and support is sufficient for the transformation from powerful resources to powerful learning when they state,

"with sufficient access and support, teachers will be better able to help their students comprehend difficult-to-understand concepts and engage in learning, provide their students with access to information and resources, and better meet their students' individual needs."
(U.S. Department of Education.2000, P. 11).

How do we shift our thinking from hardware, networks, the creation of "cool" web pages towards the transformation to characterization and understanding digital learning? I think we begin with a fundamental shift towards deep rethinking of the learning that both occurs, and that we want to occur within our own SMET disciplines. I propose thinking that involves an examination of the following questions as an essential driving force behind the design of our IT resources:

  • What constitutes scientific reasoning in my area of SMET? What kinds of thinking do I want to foster in my content area?
  • How could/do learners interact with my tool? Which of the affordances listed above might enhance the learning experience in my content area?
  • What kind of transformations(in the tool, in the activities, in my role, in the role of learners) do I need to make towards a natural resource for scientific inquiry or other forms of higher-order thinking?
  • What have I learned about moving from the creation of digital learning resources to the creation of digital learning itself?

I provide the following example from the BioKIDS research project [www.onesky.umich.edu] to chronicle this process in the design of our new digital learning resource in biodiversity. BioKIDS is an interdisciplinary research project N.B. Songer Realizing Digital Learning -3- funded by the Interagency Educational Research Initiative (IERI) to a) reconceptualize the representation of animal species accounts created by and for undergraduates, and b) transform digital learning in evolution and biodiversity for both undergraduates and urban middle school students.

Asking Learning Questions in the Rethinking of The Animal Diversity Web (ADW)

The Animal Diversity Web (ADW) [animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu] is a database created largely by undergraduate students nationwide on the natural history, distribution, classification, and conservation biology of animals. With approximately 10,000 current species accounts that are easily searchable by a complex search tool, the resource is most widely used as an online encyclopedia of the natural history of animals. In addition the site is used as a virtual museum for many users, providing unique contents of research museums available globally for teaching and research including QuickTime Virtual Reality Object Movies. Currently the group is providing 10-16,000 pages of information to 4-5000 visitors daily.

  • What constitutes scientific reasoning in my area of SMET? What kinds of thinking do I want to foster in my content area?

We envision a learning resource that would foster aspects of scientific inquiry as students explore controversies related to the disciplines of diversity and adaptation. We wanted to support students' ability to engage in scientifically orientated questions, provide evidence either for or against these scientific controversies, formulate explanations related to evidence and patterns of data, and connect explanations to additional scientific knowledge, theories, and conjectures.

  • How could/do learners interact with my tool? Which of the affordances listed above might enhance the learning experience in my content area?

The current tool is encyclopedic in nature, allowing users to search thousands of species accounts for particular kinds of information, such as what can be learned about animals' diet through an examination of their teeth. We discovered that the current encyclopedia resource largely promotes the learning of facts, not the exploration of questions, data interpretation or the formulation of explanations as we desired.

  • What kind of transformations (in the tool, in the activities, in my role, in the role of learners) do I need to make towards a natural resource for scientific inquiry or other forms of higher-order thinking?

We are now exploring the transformation from an encyclopedic tool to a set of smaller sets of interactive species accounts focused around a given controversy to more easily "naturally" foster the kinds of thinking we envision. We will couple these species accounts with Palm Pilot, student-collected species data from their local schoolgrounds, and threaded web boards for cross-region conversations among students and scientists. An example of a program that has similarly used controversies to foster natural inquiry is the Deformed Frogs project from Marcia Linn's group at U.C. Berkeley (http://wise.berkeley.edu/WISE/demos/frog-activity/).

  • What have I learned about moving from the creation of digital learning resources to the creation of digital learning itself?

In summary, we have learned that the design of digital resources that are interactive and engaging, utilize multiple representations of information, and lead to customized and collaborative student-centered learning must begin with an in-depth rethinking of the content and the learning goals as a part of the design process, rather than after design has occurred. Only through discussions with biologists, educators and software designers might such conversations occur.

References

Gordin, D. and Pea, R. (1995) Prospects for scientific visualization as an educational technology. The Journal of the Learning Sciences 4(3), 249-279.

Jackson, S., Stratford,S., Krajcik, J., and Soloway, E. (1996) Making system dynamics modeling accessible to pre-college science students. Interactive Learning Environments 4, 233-257.

Lee, S.Y. and Songer, N.B. (under review) Promoting Scientific Understanding Through Electronic Discourse. Journal of the Learning Sciences.

President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, Panel on Educational Technology (1997) Report to the President on the Use of Technology to Strengthen K-12 Education in the United States. http://www.whitehouse.gov/WH/EOP/OSTP/NSTC/PCAST/k-12ed.html.

Songer, N.B. (1996) Exploring Learning Opportunities in Coordinated Network-Enhanced Classrooms: A case of kids as global scientists. The Journal of the Learning Sciences 5(4), 297-327.

Songer, N.B. and Samson, P. (2001) Internet-Enabled Multimedia: Research-Driven Designs for A Learning Tool Created Within and For Classrooms.

U.S. Department of Education.(2000) e-Learning : Putting a World-Class Education at the Fingertips of All Children. http://ww.ed.gov/Technology/elearning/index.html.

Web Resources

Marcia Linn's WISE Project at U.C. Berkeley (http://wise.berkeley.edu/WISE/demos/frogactivity/).

Nancy Songer's One Sky, Many Voices Project at the University of Michigan (http://www.onesky.umich.edu)

Phil Myers's Animal Diversity Web at the University of Michigan. (http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu)