Archives For digital age

Never been a better time to be a learner
We live in an amazing time. The advancement of technology and innovation is moving at an unprecedented pace and we are starting to see some pivotal changes. For example, the World Economic Forum (WEC) estimated that in 2016 more than 30 countries electricity production from solar panels has reached grid parity with coal and natural gas (Bleich & Guimaraes, 2016). The WEC report also pointed to technological advances and falling costs in batteries and storage technology to the point where expanded production and use of electric vehicles is expected in the near future. We have reached an inflection point with renewable-energy cost-effectiveness and future advances will rapidly accelerate. Another example of amazing life changing advances comes from research at the University of Minnesota. Researchers at the University’s College of Science and Engineering developed a noninvasive brain-computer interface (BCI) using electroencephalography (EEG) that allows people to control a robotic arm in three dimensions, using only their minds (Meng et al., 2016). This research reveals the viability of controlling prosthetic limbs using only one’s mind which has the potential to help millions of people. Scientist are making amazing progress with this breakthrough technology and we may soon see the restoration of movement for those inhibited with spinal cord injuries (Regalado, 2017)

Another way we are seeing millions of people’s lives being changed is through connectivity. Diamandis (2016), a futurist, points to the wiring of the planet as one of the four primary driving forces that will transform our planet. He believes that we are less than a decade from every person having multi-megabit connectivity to the world’s information. Countries like Canada have recently declared high-speed internet an essential service so we are beginning to see a major commitment to these ideals (Kupfer, 2016). Fortunately, like most people in urban North America, I do not have to wait for this connectivity and have access to all the world’s information in the palm of my hand; therefore, I can easily state that it has never been a better time to be a learner.

I do need to qualify my optimism for learning by sharing that I have been proclaiming that it has never been a better time to be a learner since the early 1990s. As an undergraduate student in the late 1980s and graduate student in early 1990s, I had been using bulletin board systems (BBS) and campus mainframes through programs like Kermit and Telnet as well as campus-wide information systems (CWIS) through Gopher and Archie. When the first world wide web (WWW) browser, Mosaic, came out in November of 1993 and then Netscape was released in October of 1994, I knew that the world was rapidly changing and I could see that we were on the cusp of making all the world’s information easily and readily available. In the fall of 1995 when I created my first online course, I encouraged my students to embrace the belief that it has never been a better time to be a learner.

Seeing the rapid growth of internet connectivity from the late 1980s to mid-90s, I assumed that by the late 1990s or early 2000s that our education systems would rapidly move online and we would see a radical transformation in the way that we used technology to enhance learning. By the late 1990s, I had been teaching fully online for several years and developed several online courses, conducted workshops, professional development sessions, and shared my online teaching and learning insights through articles and conferences. However, I started to see that most of my colleagues were not as quick as I was to move to teaching online.

In my doctoral research, I developed Inquisitivism, which is an approach to designing and delivering web-based instruction. This approach shares many of the same active learning principles found in minimalism and other constructivist approaches. I believed that if you created an environment where you used active learning principles like guided discovery, collaboration, and real-world assignments you could help adult learners deal with the fear of technology and change, and encouraged them to use of the Inquisitivist mindset of “HHHMMM??? What does this button do?” moving to online learning would be much easier (Harapnuik, 2004).

By the early 2000s when I completed my graduate studies, I started to see that the move to using technology to enhance the learning environment and the move to online learning was not going as quickly as I hoped, so I started to look for reasons why the uptake was so slow. Even though I lived in Canada, one of the most connected countries in the world, in the early 2000s I realized that the notion that “all the time and anywhere connectivity” really was not the norm for most people. Despite the fact that I had been using a BlackBerry since 1999 most people viewed connectivity to the world wide web or the internet as more of a challenge than a convenience. By the early to mid-2000s, I realized that we needed a simple, convenient, and mobile way to access the internet if we wanted to see a major shift in the way we were using technology to enhance learning. This idea might enable more people to move to online learning. So, when Apple released the first iPhone in mid-2007 and then the iPhone 3G in the fall of 2008, I knew that mobile learning was going to change everything, and once again, I optimistically believed that it was the most amazing time to be a learner.

It has been over 10 years since Apple introduced the iPhone that really put the mobile into mobile learning and since that time Google’s Android has outpaced the iPhone to really make mobile computing ubiquitous. In the past decade, the growth of Apps on both the IOS and Android platform have enabled mobile phone and tablet users to switch between, Kindle, Audible, Evernote, DropBox, Google Drive, Google & Apple Maps and SOOOO many other apps on all types of mobile devices. With the growth of the cloud and Google Drive and some many other cloud-based services, one can hardly imagine why we relied on digital media like CD and DVD drives a mere decade ago. I am writing this post on my MacBook air but am also looking at books and articles on my iPad all the while I am getting text message and twitter feeds on my iPhone. I can’t recall the last time I actually purchased a paper-based book. It doesn’t make sense to purchase a hard copy when you can carry your entire library on your iPad. I have always been a big reader but I have been reading and listening to more books than I ever have. When you factor in all the digital journals that are now accessible online and the significant move toward open sources journals and the power of Google Scholar research has never been easier. When you factor in the convenience of listening to podcasts on every imaginable topic and watching videos on YouTube by some of the most renowned experts in the world I think I can once again say that there has never been a better time to be a learner.


Bleich, K., & Guimaraes, R. D. (2016). World Economic Forum renewable infrastructure 
investment handbook: A guide for institutional investors. Retrieved from

Diamandis, P. (2016, December). Tech Blog [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Gartner. (2017). Hype Cycle Research Methodology | Gartner Inc. Retrieved from

Kupfer, M. (2016, December 22). Canada’s telecom regulator declares broadband 
internet access a basic service. CBC News. Retrieved from

Meng, J., Zhang, S., Bekyo, A., Olsoe, J., Baxter, B., & He, B. (2016). Noninvasive 
electroencephalogram based control of a robotic arm for reach and grasp tasks. 
Scientific Reports, (6)38565, 1-15.

Regalado, A. (2017) Reversing paralysis. MIT Technology Review. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. (2007). Effectiveness of reading and mathematics software products findings from the first student cohort (Report p. 140). Retrieved from

dweck mindset

If we really want to take advantage of all the opportunities that the digital information age offers, we need to move away from fixed mindset to growth mindset thinking. Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Random House, 2006) and the article Even Geniuses Work Hard posits that if students with a Fixed Mindset believe that intelligence is an inborn trait and is essentially fixed they:

  • Tend to view looking smart above all else;
  • May sacrifice important opportunities to learn—even those that are important to their future academic success—if those opportunities require them to risk performing poorly or admitting deficiencies;
  • Believe that if you have ability, everything should come naturally;
  • Tell us that when they have to work hard, they feel dumb;
  • Believe that setbacks call their intelligence into question, they become discouraged or defensive when they don’t succeed right away;
  • May quickly withdraw their effort, blame others, lie about their scores, or consider cheating.

In contrast Dweck explains that students with a Growth Mindset believe that they can develop their intelligence over time and subsequently will:

  • View challenging work as an opportunity to learn and grow;
  • Meet difficult problems, ones they could not solve yet, with great relish;
  • Say things like “I love a challenge,” “Mistakes are our friends,” and “I was hoping this would be informative!”
  • Value effort; they realize that even geniuses have to work hard to develop their abilities and make their contributions;
  • More likely to respond to initial obstacles by remaining involved, trying new strategies, and using all the resources at their disposal for learning.

The fixed mindset, or as it is more often referred to as innate intelligence, was the widely accepted theory of cognitive development until 60’s when UC Berkley professor Mark Rosenzweig replicable studies made the case for the environmental impact on brain development and plasticity. It is now widely accepted that the brain remains plastic and adapts to our constantly changing environment which is foundational to Dweck’s argument for the growth mindset.

This notion of adapting to a constantly changing environment is also important when we consider our move from a static print information age to the dynamic digital information age.

The emphases of the print information age and print culture include:

  • development of systems of cataloging and retrieval
  • emphasis on memorization
  • information as primary, analysis as secondary
  • centralization of instructional space
  • learning as hierarchical, “objective,” and categorized
  • standardization paramount

Therefore, the greatest challenge of the print information age is finding existing or fixed information. A learning environment that is based on the print culture will emphasize memorization and regurgitation of standardized information.

In contrast the emphasis of the digital information age and digital culture include:

  • systems of communication & interconnection
  • emphasis on participation
  • analysis, critique & “remixing” as primary
  • information as a “commodity”
  • centralization of creation & production
  • emphasis on community & social interaction

The greatest challenge of the digital information age will be assessing Information and making meaningful connections between existing information and new information that is developed. A learning environment that is based on digital culture will emphasize, creation, communication, and participation as primary and hold information simply as a commodity or a product of interconnected human endeavours.

Considering that we have moved into and have been in the digital information age for at least the past two decades we need to consider our roles as educators and look long and hard at the changes we need to make to our learning systems. The following questions are central to how I will be responding to how I see my role as an educator in the 21st Century:

  • If I imagine my primary job as a teacher is to serve information, am I helping solve the current informational problem or make it worse?
  • And given the vast complexity of the informational network, if I insist on my centrality, does that establish or harm my credibility as a teacher?
  • If assessing information – and the wisdom & experience that requires – is the central challenge of the current informational age, are teachers more or less necessary?

Helping learners assess the vast amounts of information that is available and giving them necessary skills and abilities that they need to make meaningful and useful connections is more important than it has ever been. Learning is an active and dynamic process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge. The making of meaningful connections in the digital information age is key to the learning and knowing. 

We need to move from fixed mindset thinking and the passive educational environment of main lecture points, rubrics, individual competition and standardized testing to growth mindset thinking of active learning, dynamic interactivity, critical and analytical thinking, collaboration and meaningful projects.

In the Business Insider Post Apple’s iPhone Business Alone Is Now Bigger Than All Of Microsoft Henry Blodget points out that:

In the December quarter, Apple’s iPhone business generated $24.4 billion of revenue. Microsoft’s whole company, meanwhile, from Windows to Office to servers to XBox, generated $20.9 billion.

And if you are really counting just how far Apple is ahead of Microsoft then you appreciate knowing that:

Apple’s business (in Q4) is more than twice the size of Microsoft’s–$46 billion to $21 billion–and more than twice as profitable: $17 billion to $8 billion.

Perhaps the following clip of Steve Balmer “dissing” the iPhone in 2007 will clearly demonstrate just how wrong Microsoft has been when it comes to the Internet…which is obviously a lot more than just email:

What does Apple excelling and Microsoft have to do with Education? A great deal if you consider why Apple has been so successful. Apple’s success isn’t attributed to a just an efficient user interface it can be attributed to the fact that they understand that people want to be able to access EVERYTHING all the time and from everywhere and the iPhone, and now the iPad allow one to do this. All the world’s information can be accessed from the palm of your hand. Microsoft isn’t the only business to miss this point. Research in Motion (RIM) the makers of the Blackberry also missed this point and back in 2008 they release a direct competitor to the iPhone 3G which was a complete miss because it didn’t even have wifi. Back in 2008 I wrote a blog post which pointed out that RIM assumed that Apple’s success was attributed to the touch interface and not seamless web access so they copied that functionality and offered the Blackberry Storm…which failed horribly. It looks like I was right…RIM’s global market share has dropped from around 87% in 2007 to 14% by the end of 2011.

Since some of the world’s most successful technology companies have missed the power of mobile and ubiquitous access to all things digital, there should be no surprise that Academia for the most part is slow to embrace this opportunity as well. Fortunately, there are some academics who see this exciting opportunity to prepare their students for the future. Bill Rankin the Director of Educational Innovation at Abilene Christian University offers the following line of thinking to encourage us to seize the opportunity that we now have before us.

With ubiquitous access to information the greatest challenge of the digital information age is assessing information. A google search of the term “digital age” yields just over 56 million hits. Looking at the 56 million results spending just 5 seconds on each and reading for 16 hours a day, 365 days a year, it would take a person approximately 76 years to look at each of result. This is an overwhelming amount of information is much than a person would have encountered in an entire career 50 years ago. We also know that much of this information will not even be valid or useful. So to reiterate the challenge we face in the digital information age is accessing information.

Then if we imagine our primary jobs as a professors is to serve information, are we helping solve the current informational problem or make it worse?

And given the vast complexity of the informational network, if we insist on our centrality, does that establish or harm our credibility as professors?

If assessing information – and the wisdom & experience that requires – is the central challenge of the current informational age, are professors more or less necessary?

The direction, guidance and mentoring of a caring professor has never been more important. We live in a world filled with so much information and so much of it comes at us noise. Helping our learners filter out the noise and helping them make meaningful connection that lead to learning and growth has never been more important. It has also never been easier to do this.

In the report, The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg posit:

that the single most important characteristic of the Internet is its capacity to allow for a worldwide community and its endlessly myriad subsets to exchange ideas, to learn from one another in a way not previously available. We contend that the future of learning institutions demands a deep, epistemological appreciation of the profundity of what the Internet offers humanity as a model of a learning institution.

This argument is made on the presupposition that learning itself is the most dramatic medium of change and that technology is merely the conduit or catalyst that helps facilitate this change.

The report is part of a series published by MIT Press and funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation that examines the findings from current research on how young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life. While the report is packed with valuable information, The Pillars of Institutional Pedagogy: Ten Principles for the Future of Learning section offers a summary of the challenges we face as we rethink the future of our learning institutions.

(The principles and  corresponding quotes were extracted directly from their explanation of the principles.)

1. Self Learning

Self-learning has bloomed; discovering online possibilities is a skill now developed from early childhood through advanced adult life. . . It is not for nothing that the Internet is called the “Web,” sometimes resembling a maze but more often than not serving as a productive if complex and challenging switchboard.

2. Horizontal Structures

Given the range and volume of information available and the ubiquity of access to information sources and resources, learning strategy shifts from a focus on information as such to judgment concerning reliable information, from memorizing information to how to find reliable sources. In short, from learning that to learning how, from content to process.

3. From Presumed Authority to Collective Credibility

Learning is shifting from issues of authoritativeness to issues of credibility. A major part of the future of learning is in developing methods, often communal, for distinguishing good knowledge sources from those that are questionable . . . We find ourselves increasingly being moved to interdisciplinary and collaborative knowledge-creating and learning environments in order to address objects of analysis and research problems that are multidimensional and complex, and the resolution of which cannot be fashioned by any single discipline. . . If older, more traditional learning environments were about trusting knowledge authorities or certified experts, that model can no longer withstand the growing complexities—the relational constitution of knowledge domains and the problems they pose.

4. A De-Centered Pedagogy

In secondary schools and higher education, many administrators and individual teachers have been moved to limit use of collectively and collaboratively crafted knowledge sources, most notably Wikipedia, for course assignments or to issue quite stringent guidelines for their consultation and reference. This is a catastrophically anti-intellectual reaction to a knowledge-making, global phenomenon of epic proportions. To ban sources such as Wikipedia is to miss the importance of a collaborative, knowledge-making impulse in humans who are willing to contribute, correct, and collect information without remuneration: by definition, this is education.

5. Networked Learning

Socially networked collaborative learning extends some of the most established practices, virtues, and dispositional habits of individualized learning. . .The power of ten working interactively will almost invariably outstrip the power of one looking to beat out the other nine.

6. Open Source Education

Networked learning is predicated on and deeply interwoven into the fabric of open source culture. Open source culture seeks to share openly and freely in the creation of culture, in its production processes, and in its product, its content. It looks to have its processes and products improved through the contributions of others by being made freely available to all. If individualized learning is largely tethered to a social regime of copyright-protected intellectual property and privatized ownership, networked learning is committed in the end to an open source and open content social regime. Individualized learning tends overwhelmingly to be hierarchical: one learns from the teacher or expert, on the basis overwhelmingly of copyright-protected publications bearing the current status of knowledge. Networked learning is at least peer-to-peer and more robustly many-to-many.

7. Learning as Connectivity and Interactivity

The connectivities and interactivities made possible by digitally enabled social networking in its best outcomes produce learning ensembles in which the members both support and sustain, elicit from and expand on each other’s learning inputs, contributions, and products. Challenges are not simply individually faced frustrations, Promethean mountains to climb alone, but mutually shared, to be redefined, solved, resolved, or worked around—together.

8. Lifelong Learning

It has become obvious that from the point of view of participatory learning there is no finality. Learning is lifelong. . .But what is certain is that the pedagogical changes we have enumerated have radically changed how we know how we know.

9. Learning Institutions as Mobilizing Networks

Traditionally, institutions have been thought about in terms of rules, regulations, norms governing interactivity, production, and distribution within the institutional structure. Network culture and associated learning practices and arrangements suggest that we think of institutions, especially those promoting learning, as mobilizing networks. The networks enable a mobilizing that stresses flexibility, interactivity, and outcome.

10. Flexible Scalability and Simulation

Networked learning both facilitates and must remain open to various scales of learning possibility, from the small and local to the widest and most far-reaching constituencies capable of productively contributing to a domain, subject matter, knowledge formation and creation. New technologies allow for small groups whose members are at physical distance to each other to learn collaboratively together and from each other; but they also enable larger, more anonymous yet equally productive interactions.

If this is the future of learning institutions then we need to ask — how do we build this? When I consider the task at hand I am reminded of two famous quotes from Einstein

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

While I am not certain what the journey will look like to this proposed future, I am certain that we can start the process of getting there IFF we have the courage to radically rethink our teaching and learning environments and IFF we change how we support these environments.