Digital education revolution? A call to shape the digital transformation

For many years it has been said that we are on the verge of a revolution in digital education. Media didactics point towards the potential for a ‘different’, but not necessarily better learning experience.

Author: Professor Dr. Michael Kerres, University of Duisburg-Essen, Learning Lab.

For many years it has been said that we are on the verge of a revolution in digital education. Media didactics point towards the potential for a ‘different’, but not necessarily better learning experience.

Regularly, we hear that digital media could fundamentally change education and teaching in the future. In actual fact, there are already a number of digital learning opportunities available in different sectors of education, some of which are also combined with traditional forms of learning. We could say that digital education has already become established in many fields. However, the widely used talk about the ‘effect’ of digital media on education also conceals a certain understanding of these media, which has continually been criticised by research into media didactics and which can be very misleading.

Thus the question still remains: does digital technology actually ‘effect’ a change in social practices in education? Does digital technology motivate pupils to achieve better results and create new teacher-pupil relationships? We must consider that digital technology does not inevitably lead to one type of change in education or another – whether positive or negative. Technological determinism of this type would mislead us into believing that we are dependent upon the stakeholders to induce changes in educational activities and a transformation of our culture of learning.

On the basis of past experience, it would actually appear more plausible that digital media or tools used in a classroom for the time being have no effect on how teachers organise or plan their lessons. Likewise, we can assume that these media also do not have any direct effect on learning intensity or success. This sobering statement can be drawn from the numerous scientific studies that have already been published on the respective ‘new’ digital media of recent decades. We need to state that digital media do not a priori make for improvements in teaching and learning.

Given the overwhelming number of individual studies available that have been carried out over the last three decades, looking at the effects of digital media on learning, these have been used to conduct a meta-analysis, which uses statistical processes to aggregate the multitude of research results. We have now reached a stage where meta-meta-analyses of such evaluations are already available. Dating back to the first meta-analysis by the Kulik husband and wife team, carried out in 1980 – thus making the results independent from technological developments – they indicate a remarkable level of consistency, showing a comparatively small effect of the use of digital media on educational success.

The potential of new teacher and learning structures

Even though these media do not lead to ‘better’ learning results, from a media didactic point of view, they do have the potential to create different teaching methods and organise learning processes in new ways. This potential to transform educational activities is not to be underestimated and points towards the stakeholder’s responsibility in educational work. Media-supported learning structures can support student’s self-monitoring skills; they can provide substantial support for cooperative learning scenarios and organise learning opportunities in a flexible manner so as to cater to the diversity of learners. Media-supported learning structures strengthen didactic methods that focus on activities and problems by integrating authentic materials and simulating learning processes for the (inter)active analysis of content presented via digital media and for the production (e.g. for group project work) or cooperative treatment of cases. Other than that, this ‘different’ type of learning is also linked to other educational achievements. We anticipate that the use of digital media in such learning structures will not simply lead to a high level of success (a rare occurrence), they also support ‘other learning objectives’ – away from the ability to recall learned material (the focus of most studies), as well as promoting problem-solving skills, the transfer of learning or self-learning skills and team-working abilities. 

Brainstorming im Team.
Junger Mann mit Tablet auf einer Wiese.
 Learning is organized in new ways with digital media, both within work processes as well as across distance.

Therefore, the impact and efficacy of digital media in education does not lie in the media or technology itself; the causal relations and interdependencies between media and learning are considerably more complex. Ultimately, it depends on how the media are designed and constructed and their respective implementation within an educational context as to how certain expectations, which are linked to these media, can be met. This shifts the spotlight onto the potential of digital media to intensify learning processes in a targeted manner and improve educational achievements by means of better student engagement. Research in media didactics therefore increasingly looks at the question of when and how such activation can succeed with digital media and the internet.

The internet as a social learning environment

The internet is rapidly developing into a space that is an obvious resource for learning and educational purposes; not necessarily as a replacement for traditional face-to-face learning environments for training workshops and courses, but in combination with these, supplementary to traditional methods. On the one hand, this applies to formal (but also non-formal) learning as part of organised learning opportunities, but noticeably also informal learning, which takes place parenthetically (whether intentionally or not) within the workplace, during our spare time or in other places and this is increasingly becoming talked about within the discussion surrounding further education.

In doing so, our view of the internet has changed significantly. If we primarily think of the internet as a place for providing learners with the content they need, the importance of the internet as a social setting is increasingly becoming the focus of today’s discussions; the internet is a place where people can exchange ideas, build new relationships and share their knowledge with others. They do this with high levels of participation and engagement, particularly in social networks such as Facebook or Twitter. The observation of how willing at least a portion of internet users are to share their knowledge with others online has made it clear what opportunities these platforms represent for informal learning – a type of learning that occurs incidentally in peer-to-peer exchange, despite the fact that the participants would not describe this exercise as a learning activity.

Learning can also be delivered in organised online courses and seminars as a social process of exchanging knowledge and ideas, whether it be specifically planned by the teaching staff or as part of the accompanying online communication between participants. An interesting question in this respect is to what extent the approaches to knowledge exchange on online platforms can also be made usable for online courses, in order to make the most of the positive effects of social learning.

Many stakeholders must be involved in processes of change

Our perspective is changing – it is not the technology that changes education, but people who can change education, with digital technology as an effective tool that helps us to implement certain scenarios more successfully. As already suggested, this applies to teaching and learning scenarios with digital media that pursue a culture of learning which focuses on both autodidactic learning and cooperative learning or problem-based learning equally with a diverse range of different materials available.

Many projects conducted in recent years have taught us that it is often difficult to achieve such a big change of learning culture. In practice, there may be many hurdles and hindrances that cause this approach to fail, not least because teaching and learning are deeply rooted features within our biographies and institutions of education. However, the outlined ‘digital transformation’ of education is certain to fail if we assume that this change will be self-effecting simply through the use of digital technology. If types of learning are to be introduced that contain a different culture of learning, then this is to be understood as a more comprehensive change process which requires the involvement of multiple stakeholders within the field and which we should reflect upon and construct as a joint learning process of all stakeholders.

Prof. Dr. Michael Kerres helds the Chair of Media Didactics and Knowledge Management and is Director of the Learning Lab at the University of Duisburg Essen. During the earliy 90ies, he created together with colleagues the study programme Media Informatics which was offered for the first time in Germany. In 2001, his team moved to the University of Essen and started establishing up the Learning Lab with the online study programmes „Educational Media“ and „Educational Leadership“


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