The development of a strategy for moving into the future is a very difficult process because it needs to take into account the successes of the past and make predictions for the future based on the best evidence available. The Digital Education Revolution (DER) of the national Australian Government was a $2.1bn initiative to provide computers to students in years 9-12. Additional funds were also made available for online resources, teacher education, infrastructure, technical support and online assessment. The DER has now come to an end and so the question is, ‘Where to next?’

The Australian Government formed a Digital Education Advisory Group (DEAG) to provide advice on the development of a future strategy to support the use of digital technologies in education. The report from DEAG called Beyond the Classroom: A New Digital Education for Young Australians in the 21st Century is largely based on solid research. Government reports are notorious for being written in a bland style and the executive summary (p. 5-10) of this report is no exception.

The actual report though, is detailed, thorough and provides an excellent summary of current national government digital education programs. The report covers a range of issues although three of them are notable for further detailed consideration: innovation, public-private partnerships and change. The document gives the clear impression that the training sector’s relationships with industry could be imported into school education which generally operates as a public good. School education seeks to educate for personal, intellectual and social benefits as well as vocational benefits. Such a change in philosophy from education as a public and personal good to an emphasis on vocational training is unlikely and unwise. School education is not about industry training.

The discussion on learning, the benefits of online collaboration and learning communities, and the emphasis on interoperable digital systems for sharing student data in the report are forward thinking and thorough. Beyond the Classroom: A New Digital Education for Young Australians in the 21st Century cites learning effect size research and research on building student capacity to demonstrate clearly that grouping students by multiple ages in a classroom ‘is more useful than normative grades’ (p. 22) and can allow for ‘more individualised and personalised learning experience(s) for students within a single classroom’ (p. 22). This finding needs to be heeded by educational planners if education is to achieve an emphasis on 21st Century Learning Skills such as creativity and innovation; critical thinking, problem solving, decision making; life-long learning; collaboration and communication; ICT literacy; consciousness of being a local and global citizen; and personal and social responsibility (p. 4).

However, the real gem of this report is the descriptions of high quality learning outcomes and the learning strategies to achieve them accompanied by the appropriate use of digital technologies (p. 24-26). This section of the report and the principles of high quality learning environments that follow provide a blueprint for educational leaders to drive improved and relevant learning environments for the future. Such learning environments are likely to accommodate students who bring their own technology for learning, that is, their own software and hardware. However, the report focusses only on hardware devices eg BYOD, in the same way that the DER focussed mainly on hardware devices in the initial stages of the program. Such a view can have a restraining effect on learning as was seen with the DER when iPads were introduced.

The report does not canvas learning analytics or understanding big data or the development of student e-portfolios, all three of which are already growing in significance in education at all levels. However, Beyond the Classroom: A New Digital Education for Young Australians in the 21st Century is a report that has much to commend it for educational planners although much more work needs to be done.

Gerry White is Principal Research Fellow: Teaching & Learning using Digital Technologies, Australian Council for Educational Research
This article was first published on the Digital Education Research Network 2 (DERN) and is reproduced here in full, courtesy of DERN.

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