My own experience indicates that, properly conducted, digital learning can be beneficial. Essentially similar machine-based instruction certainly proved to be an improvement nearly half a century ago when I was an Air Force Instructor Pilot programming the first generation of automated teaching technology to go operational in that service’s pilot training program. Student pilots picked up a number of skills more quickly and instructors could move immediately to more advanced discussions in their pre- and post-flight briefings because the students were getting basic introduction to new material in the learning center setting.
When I retired and went to work for a major US airline, that company’s annual recurrent and initial pilot training programs came to increasingly rely on significant amounts of digital learning approaches, as well. Again, this suited me and a lot of other pilots well.
But, technology isn’t always a magic silver bullet. If the instructional materials are not high quality and are not employed with skill, the old computer term “Garbage in, garbage out” can take hold quickly.
Obviously, if kids are playing video games instead of looking at the day’s instructional modules or listening to the classroom lecture, learning isn’t happening.
Thus, it wasn’t a real surprise when I heard about a new study about digital learning from the West Point Military Academy. Researchers split over 700 cadets into three separate sample groups to explore how varying amounts of technology impacted performance in a lecture-based sophomore level economics course.
“On the three-and-a-half-hour final exam—which included multiple-choice, short-answer, and essay questions—students in the technology-free group fared best.”
On the other hand, students who were allowed to use technology in or out of the classroom as they desired scored lower by “a statically significant and pretty meaningful difference” according to Hess.
There are some important limitations to the West Point study. It appears that no lessons were designed to be taught on the computer, so the technology was only being used as an aid in traditionally taught classes.
Thus, the jury is still out on the real impacts of using digital devices in the instructional setting. However, the West Point study shows that caution is advised when digital learning is involved and more research is badly needed.
Along those lines, I have been looking at the first year’s test results for a very extensive digital learning effort that started in several Boone County schools in the 2016-17 school term. This one encompassed massive use of digitally based instruction as well as the use of digital devices as support elements. I’ll have more to say about that Boone County effort soon, so stay tuned.