Chad Dorsey

Perspective: Defining a Deeply Digital Education

This issue of @Concord marks some significant occurrences at the Concord Consortium. This summer our Molecular Workbench software received the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education, a prestigious award given to the top science education efforts across the country. This summer also marked the 30-year anniversary of the invention of educational probeware by Bob Tinker and Stephen Bannasch, technology that has ignited a revolution in science education by bringing real-time data collection to schools. These innovations represent two of the many important ways in which technology can transform learning.

In our workplaces and homes, we currently benefit from immense technological innovation, much of it having arrived only in the past few years. But true change comes more slowly to the practice and materials of education. Computers and connectivity have come to most schools and classrooms, but curricula — and often teaching — remain oddly stranded in a former age. Students sit around shiny new computers, only to build PowerPoint presentations. Miles of high-bandwidth cabling snake to and from the nation’s schools, but pulse far too often with simple WebQuests or Wikipedia searches. Valid but superficial uses of technology stop far short of the possibilities technology can offer. Settling for such uses brings society’s full-speed technological revolution to a screeching halt at the schoolhouse doors.

Of course, if few compelling alternatives exist it is hardly surprising to see the technological wave changing life and work, but barely seeping in at the margins of teaching and learning. Today’s curricula do not apply new approaches to delivering core content, and teachers lack powerful tools for timely understanding of student learning.

Whispers of a technology revolution in teaching and learning are becoming audible, however. Digital textbooks provide some of the loudest of these rumbles, and the benefits seem clear. Heavy backpacks would be banished forever. Content would be annotated, highlighted, and shared. Interactive aspects would accentuate the text. But these are far from enough. At the Concord Consortium, we are excited about bringing technology to the core of the classroom. But too often we see examples heralded as the education of tomorrow that are simply surface-level implementations that fail to deliver technology’s true potential.

The Concord Consortium raised these concerns two years ago when we identified the possibility that shallow examples of digital textbooks might end up feeling like important change while providing little more than digitized PDFs of their paper counterparts. We feared that integration of simple video clips or loose ties to social media sites might go down as the biggest technological contributions to learning. In response, the Concord Consortium introduced the Deeply Digital Texts initiative, devoted to developing the essential elements necessary for the curriculum of the future. We’re pleased to note that the term we coined has caught some attention — for one, the PCAST (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology) report to President Obama featured it prominently. In the meantime, we’ve been hard at work developing and further defining the critical facets of this deeply digital education.

Deeply digital texts should be much more than texts. We all need placeholders. Scaffolds. Steps we can stand on to peer over the wall into the future. For teaching and learning, textbooks are precisely that. The single most important thing about these central objects that we often hold as critical to learning is actually their role as a placeholder.

A decade from now, it is highly unlikely that these central objects will still be made of paper. We also hope they are no longer thought of as textbooks, with all their associated notions of static ideas waiting to be passively absorbed, but that we instead graduate to the concept of deeply digital curricula. In our vision, such curricula take full advantage of all the possibilities digital technology offers to improve teaching and learning. Though they will naturally come in all shapes and sizes, these deeply digital curricula should possess several common elements.

Embedded models, simulations, and data collection enable digital inquiry. Videos, animations, and 3D depictions enhance plain text content, but fall far short of activating the practice of scientific inquiry. Deeply digital materials take students far beyond these hightech reference items and enable students to do science within their everyday learning. Simulations allow students to design and conduct investigations and learn through experimentation — by manipulating molecules, directing the division of DNA, or capturing the complexities of climate change for themselves. With probeware, students can explore the invisible world around them, collect and share data, and test new ideas. These experiences shouldn’t be relegated to stand-alone activities or labs. Instead, they must be fully embedded within curricular text, assessments, multimedia, and more.

Seamless data sharing facilitates fluid scientific discourse. Students’ work in typical classrooms is confined to a very small universe. Laboratory experiments fall to a single student or lab pair to analyze, and students experience interactive models and simulations at a singular point in time. The information — and often the learning — typically vanishes or is discarded, along with myriad opportunities for collaboration and learning. Deeply digital curricula should retain, collate, aggregate, and share data with other students, the teacher, and other classes worldwide, opening up broad possibilities for debating and learning science from data.

Student progress data permit efficient assessment and adjustment of teaching. In deeply digital curricula, teachers should have access to real-time data about student progress at all times. This detailed, ever-evolving picture of student learning will permit unprecedented tailoring of teaching responses, bring to the surface student misconceptions as they occur, and allow teachers to treat vital ideas precisely as they become important for future learning. Data from student interactions with models and simulations will also form sophisticated performance assessments of science process skills.

Monitoring and feedback support and individualize learning. The importance of feedback is clear to any teacher and well established in education research. Deeply digital materials should provide nuanced and individual feedback, from leveled hints to smart scaffolding. Additionally, the rich environments of serious games are working to raise this concept to even more sophisticated levels.

Flexible and adaptive presentation of curricula enhances teacher support. Teachers can occasionally cater to students’ many unique needs and strengths, but the task becomes rapidly overwhelming even for experts. Adaptive curricula have already made notable strides in some well-constrained subjects. Deeply digital curricula should enable students to construct their own paths toward flexible, coherent, and organized sets of learning goals.

Curricula can be customized and can be refined based on extensive data. Deeply digital curricula should permit teachers to add, subtract, or rearrange elements or to create new examples if they wish. And teachers should be able to easily share their creations with others. Combined with the impending revolution of student data from thousands of online classrooms, this will open wide new possibilities for classifying and optimizing curricula as patterns of student learning can be linked to individual curricular sequences.

Curricula provide in-depth experience with crosscutting concepts. Most importantly, deeply digital curricula should supply the possibility for deeper learning overall. By enabling students to investigate fundamental science concepts such as molecular motion, energy, evolution, genetics, and many others firsthand, these curricula will transcend manipulation and memorization of facts. Instead, students will see and experiment directly with the core principles of scientific phenomena and gain an appreciation for the unifying concepts of science. Students will hone fundamental abilities of analysis, prediction, and comprehension of new ideas that they will encounter in the laboratory, the office, or the latest news report.

Chad Dorsey ( is President of the Concord Consortium.