How Digital Technology Turbocharges Traditional Education

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Ron Mobed for PP

Editorial by Ron Mobed, Cengage Learning

We can all agree that technology is sweeping across the educational frontier like a wildfire. Many say digital innovations transform the relationships between instructors and students, students and learning material, and students and their peers. More important, the correct use of technology, together with high-quality content, pedagogy and instruction, offers a dramatic improvement in both the learning experience and outcomes.

While the impact will be felt at all levels of the educational pyramid, it is supported in the highest circles. In March, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told a group of publishers to deploy technology to make learning “more relevant and engaging.” He laid out a challenge to make the “on-demand, personalized tech applications that are part of students’ daily lives a more strategic part of their academic lives.”

We wholeheartedly agree. Today we offer a comprehensive suite of completely customizable digital solutions that help solve the most pressing challenges of instructors, students and administrators in the higher education sector. But we also know that technology is not necessarily a panacea. Technology alone will not alleviate our educational concerns, nor make our students more competitive in the 21st century.

What all the constituents in the education value chain need more than ever are appropriate and affordable solutions to their learning and instruction challenges. This approach integrates state-of-the-art technology, assessment and tracking tools with the best traditional methodologies, content and pedagogy. A well-planned combination of these can add value and improve the learning experience, better helping teachers to teach and students to learn.

Now is the time for a new approach –- this approach –- because the challenges faced by instructors, students and administrators are getting more and more complicated. While budgets are being cut, instructors are being forced to do more with less. California, for example, is facing nearly $600 million in cuts to the University of California, California State University and community college systems. Meanwhile, administrators and lawmakers demand better learning outcomes and increases in recruitment, retention and graduation rates.

For their part, students are becoming more demanding and their needs are growing. Web sites such as are making them more vocal and making instructors feel more accountable. On the other hand, more students may be unprepared for higher education: nearly two-thirds of high school graduates who enroll in community colleges need remedial English, reading or math classes. Contemporary student populations also tend to be more diverse, and nearly eight out of 10 students work while enrolled in school.

Finally, students want more control over their education, and ask for access to instructors and materials via the channels that best fit their lifestyles: classroom, textbooks, the web and new digital devices.

Content is Still King

Coming up with solutions for this evolving set of dynamics requires all of us to think about how to marry traditional learning and instruction with technology. Primarily, we need to remember one concept: good content will remain the key component to learning, no matter how it is delivered. Publishers must not lose sight of the need to attract and retain leading authors and experts, paired with the skilled staff necessary to produce the best materials. As students increasingly demand up-to-date content, publishers must have the professionals to create it.

Technology comes into play in delivering that content, expanding its applicability and making the lives of instructors, students and administrators easier so they can focus on the content itself. This improves learning and teaching effectiveness.

In fact, a recent Cengage Learning/Eduventures survey, “Instructors and Students: Technology Use, Engagement and Learning Outcomes,” found that three-quarters of instructors think that student engagement has improved as the use of digital tools has increased, and that 58% of students believe that technology helps to engage them with coursework and learn.

So, to complement traditional content offerings, we see various tools making their way into higher education. One solution we call CourseMate offers interactive, digital textbooks along, with accompanying content such as multimedia resources and quizzes. Digital material can turbocharge traditional resources by bringing the outside world into the classroom and bridging the gap between theory and reality. CourseMate also includes Engagement Tracker, a function that allows instructors to assess student participation and time on-task.

Well-developed digital content can also improve learning. A 2009 UCLA study found that students learn better when they become engaged in a trial-and-error method to find information, rather than simply use Google or Wikipedia to reveal answers. Smart digital materials from educational publishers can challenge them and engage them, and thus improve learning outcomes.

Another family of our solutions, CourseMaster, provides for assignable, gradable digital homework with instant feedback. This enables instructors to understand how well students comprehend concepts, and also automates administrative tasks to free up more time for teaching.

A New Educational Landscape

As schools seek to expand outside their physical walls to meet the demands of offsite learners, solutions like our Course360 enable institutions to develop online courses with, again, top-flight content.

Keeping to the theme that technology is only a means to an end, publishers like Cengage Learning are also offering more services to enable customized solutions. Our CourseCare program offers service, training and implementation to help schools ensure that their technology is optimized to how they intend to use it, and personalized for their particular instructors and students.

We are also the first textbook publisher to create a direct-to-consumer distribution portal to help students individualize their learning experience and manage costs. Instructors and students alike can benefit from utilizing a wide range of digital textbooks, along with books available by digital chapters and direct-to-student textbook rental. These types of offerings allow instructors and students to match different approaches to accessing content to fit their learning styles.

These are interesting times to be in the education industry. Certainly, the challenges we all face in the educational system are unprecedented. But we have no choice but to confront them. In the wake of a historic recession, it is our job to help instructors, students and administrators not only regain their footing, but find new ways to navigate this changed landscape. The publishers who meet this challenge with a strong emphasis on learning optimized by cutting-edge technology will be best positioned to lead this paradigm shift.

Ron Mobed is President of Cengage Learning’s Academic and Professional Group and member of the Cengage Learning Executive Committee.

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