Defining the Undefinable

The term "digital learning" seems to be taking hold as a catchall for innovative techniques influenced by digital tools. Will the term last or grow outdated?

June 6, 2018
 
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Here at “Inside Digital Learning,” we use the term in our name to describe the complex landscape of education options enhanced, influenced or enabled by digital technology tools.

Our definition of “digital learning” contains within it numerous similar phrases: Distance learning. Online learning. Blended learning. Hybrid learning. Multimodal learning. Mixed-mode learning. Distributed learning. Technology-enabled learning. Technology-enhanced learning. Elearning.

That’s a lot of overlapping terms. When “Inside Digital Learning” asked James Wiley, principal analyst at the research and advisory firm Eduventures, for help getting to the bottom of this categorization conundrum, he replied with a note of caution about the nuances that awaited.

“I do not envy you writing this piece,” Wiley said.

Indeed, this one was tough and hit close to home. Some institutions use “digital learning” interchangeably with “online learning.” But not everyone likes the term or agrees on what it means -- some think it’s too broad, others too limiting. Assigning concrete terminology to an increasingly complex ecosystem has never been more challenging.

Still, most observers believe the term is better positioned than some others for longevity. In the face of rapid technological evolution, some terms become irrelevant seemingly right after entering the lexicon. "Distance learning," for instance, means less now that many residential students (at a very short “distance”) mix in online courses to better accommodate their busy schedules. "Online learning" doesn't account for students using internet-based or software tools in a classroom setting.

“Digital learning,” its proponents say, won’t be outmoded so easily -- unless it already has been.

The Term's Origins

“Digital learning” entered mainstream discourse in higher education sometime in the last five to seven years, most observers agree.

Ken Hartman, former president of Drexel University Online, believes its roots stretch to the advent of personal computers in the 1980s, when software programs like Reader Rabbit purported to transform the learning experience for young children.

Anthony Picciano, professor and executive officer of the Ph.D. program in urban education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, first recalls seeing the modern context for the term in the 2013 book The Idea of the Digital University: Ancient Traditions, Disruptive Technologies and the Battle for the Soul of Higher Education, by Frank McCluskey and Melanie Lynn Winter. Though most people interviewed for this article couldn’t pinpoint how “digital learning” grew prominent in the higher education discourse, several pointed to grants a few years ago from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that catalyzed numerous projects under the digital learning umbrella.

“It represents a broad set of possibilities in terms of approaches and methods and resources that enable innovative approaches to instruction and facilitate learning,” said Eric Fredericksen, associate vice president of online learning at the University of Rochester.

Most people interviewed for this article said they like the term "digital learning" to encompass the disparate areas of innovation happening over all in the higher education classroom. Those who take issue with the term haven't identified an obvious successor, though they think eventually the reference to "digital" will be too narrow.

Thomas Cavanagh, vice provost for digital learning at the University of Central Florida, sees the term as a foundation upon which national momentum around new forms of learning can develop -- "a recognition that the boundaries between online and classroom learning environments are blurring."

Limitations

Fredericksen’s research indicates that institutions are investing with increasing frequency in top-level administrators whose titles include phrases like “digital learning.” Matthew Rascoff, associate vice provost for digital education and innovation at Duke University, is one of the administrators who fits that bill. But he avoids saying the “digital education” part of his title except when pressed.

To him, technology gets too much emphasis in discussions over improving the learning experience. He’d also prefer not to have to change his title every two years to keep up.

“Learning innovation to me captures what we’re trying to do here at Duke more effectively than digital or analog,” Rascoff said. “Technology is just the delivery method. A blackboard is also a technology -- it’s an analog technology.”

Although the term is broad, it means different things to different people, according to Wiley (who didn't let the complexity of the assignment stop him from offering insights). Vendors often assume digital learning refers to students accessing online course content, or to a form of personalized learning, according to Wiley, while some university technologists think of the learning management system as the sole vessel for digital learning.

Bob Ubell, vice dean emeritus of online learning at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, believes some institutions hedge their bets by collecting their efforts toward innovation under the umbrella term “digital learning.”

“It’s used sometimes for universities who are very skittish about going online,” Ubell said. “They use other terms, like 'technology-enhanced learning' and 'digital education,' to avoid actually biting the bullet and going online seriously.”

Jill Buban, senior director for research and innovation at the Online Learning Consortium, recently gave a talk to a higher education group based in Ireland. She found that most people in the audience hadn’t internalized the term “digital learning,” so she connected it when speaking to “educational technology,” which was more recognizable.

Her organization changed its name from the Sloan Consortium in 2014 to more clearly announce its focus area. In the years since, increasing awareness of learning that’s not strictly “online” prompted the consortium to establish the Research Center for Digital Learning and Leadership, which opened last fall. Buban also hopes one day to create some recommendations for defining terms in the space.

“I can read six different articles in a day and innovation can mean something different in each of them,” Buban said. “We have to norm what we’re talking about.”

Longevity

Even terms that seem comprehensive at the moment can become dated quickly. Fredericksen recalls two decades ago the ubiquity of Asynchronous Learning Networks (ALN), which have faded into the background.

“I think over time, terms and how we look through things with a historical lens can evolve, but as long as we’re always focusing on learning, that’s probably most important,” Fredericksen said.

Rascoff thinks the term “digital learning” is already on the verge of being outdated, given that most traditional classrooms use some form of digital technology.

“How are we using these tools to enhance the things that we care about? How are we reducing inequities? How are we improving success and outcomes?” Rascoff said. “We’ll figure out what the right tools are as a second-order question for how to solve those problems.”

Elizabeth Ciabocchi, vice provost for digital learning and executive director of online learning and services at St. John’s University, in New York, sees some room to grow before erasing “digital” from the vocabulary is feasible. More traditional institutions like hers are still adjusting to new and shifting paradigms, she said.

“I would say there’s still a lot of skepticism on the part of faculty to embrace technology and use it even a little bit,” Ciabocchi said.

Picciano, meanwhile, wonders whether the term is simply too broad to last as anything more than a vague allusion to an abstract phenomenon. He thinks "online learning" and "blended learning" have attained a foothold in the discourse that "digital learning" hasn't yet reached.

The term’s fate rests in part on its frequent users, like Ciabocchi, who sees explaining the meaning behind her job title as part of her duties in the years to come.

“It isn’t as if this term has been in our vernacular for very long. With the pace of change it feels longer, but it really isn’t in the scope of things,” Ciabocchi said. “I continue to work with our constituents to help them understand what that means.”

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