Digital Learning: A Quick Overview

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Digital learning has revolutionized education. What began as "distance learning" has morphed into a multifaceted ecosystem—from fully online courses to tech-infused classrooms. As Director of Distance Education Brian St. Amour explains, COVID catapulted educators into urgent adoption of virtual tools. In this guide, trace the evolution of digital learning from early experiments to today's learner-centered models. Learn key terms, delivery formats, and tips to excel as an instructor and student in digital spaces. See how education continues to be enriched rather than replaced by technology. Read on to explore this unfolding transformation in the world of digital learning.

Written by Brian St. Amour, Director of Distance Education, Temple College

A Brief History

Over the past 25 years, traditional face-to face learning has evolved to include the use of the internet and other electronic portals to enhance learner engagement and the learning experience. The term eLearning or Distance Education was first introduced to describe online learning for learners at remote locations.

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Over time, the introduction and advancement of technologies and software solutions led to the introduction of Learning Management Systems (LMS) such as Moodle, Angel, Web CT and Blackboard.

Instructors and faculty developed courses or utilized the services of instructional designers. LMS provided a secure environment for learners to access course materials and gradebook information. Learners could also access course content, and complete assignments online, including discussion forums, uploading homework assignments and essays, and taking online quizzes and exams.

As eLearning technologies further advanced, Distance Education became Digital Education to more accurately reflect the use of technologies in online, blended, hybrid courses and traditional face-to-face classrooms and training rooms. Digital Education expanded to include numerous third-party software solutions and robust productivity tools for both instructors and learners. Productivity tools such as Microsoft Office and Google Docs allow learners to compose essays and homework assignments. Collaboration solutions such as Microsoft Teams, Google Workspace and Zoom enhance the virtual learning experience between learners and instructors, to build online community and facilitate teamwork in the virtual classroom. Traditional Library Services have evolved beyond traditional  brick and mortar service locations to include online libraries, databases and publications and other virtual services.

Technology enhancements in physical classrooms, lecture halls and training rooms include digital lecture podiums utilizing pc devices, overhead projectors, and other devices. Additional enhancements include interactive video between different campuses, classrooms and other locations. Mobile devices such as iPhones and tablets are being used in the classroom and training rooms as learning aids for live polling and active learner engagement activities through the use of software applications.

Institutions and agencies have formally implemented eLearning Departments responsible for aligning learning technologies with academic pedagogy and instructional design. IT Services Departments have been formally implemented to support technology infrastructure and various technologies. Offices of Instructional Design have become more prominent ensuring high levels of course design and course quality. Instructor professional development on the use of various technologies ensures a positive learning experience.

Digital learning continues to evolve with a focus on instructor effectiveness, learner engagement and learner success. Both learners and instructors benefit from a variety of technology solutions and platforms, which enhance the learning experience. Digital learning is here to stay and will continue to empower instructors and learners, as well as enhance the learning experience.

What is Needed to Succeed?

Learners and instructors will need to be comfortable with a variety of technologies or order to ensure an optimal learning experience:

  • A PC device such as a notebook or tablet PC with appropriate processor, memory and camera, and proficiency in the use of this technology and managing pc operating systems such as Microsoft Windows or Apple OS
  • A fast and reliable internet service
  • Proficiency in the use of an internet browser
  • Familiarity with office productivity software such as Microsoft Office or Google Docs
  • Use and navigation of a Learning Management System or course management system
  • Familiarity with online collaboration meeting software such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams or Google Meet

Training for these technologies is usually available online, in the local community or through institutions or organizations. It is encouraged for all to be lifelong learners in this world of evolving technologies.

Is Digital Learning Self-Paced?

Digital Learning is the same as traditional face-to face learning with set scheduled times and due dates for course assignments.  There may be some flexibility to complete coursework however course assignments due dates are carefully scheduled to ensure student success and compliance with the requirements of various governing agencies.

What are the Different Types of Digital Learning Delivery?

There are different delivery types (known as modalities) when it comes to Digital Learning. Here is a brief overview of each type:

  • Online – All (or at least 85%) of the coursework is online typically delivered via a secure online Learning Management or course management system. Learning assignments and course content are provided online or in conjunction with hardcopy or eBook learning materials. Course assignments typically included homework and essay assignments, online discussions (live or independent- also known as synchronous or asynchronous), quizzes and exams. It is possible that exams may require the use of a remote exam proctoring solution or the use of the institution’s testing center.
  • Blended – Typically a face-to-face course which occurs in a traditional classroom environment which also has online components similar to an online course (typically not to exceed 50% of the course), except to a lessor degree. Course materials and various assignments are posted online to supplement the classroom experience.
  • Hybrid – Similar to blended course delivery; however, there are scheduled times for live class meetings which occur on a regular basis throughout the duration of the course. Learners and instructors may meet live via Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Zoom or similar solutions to engage and interact with each other. Hybrid delivery may also be used for courses with lab work which learners are physically present for lab work and all other assignments are completed online. Another example is a traditional course or training class which usually met two times a week only meets one time a week and the other day is conducted via online.

The popularity of Digital Learning has increased significantly and will continue to enhance the learning experience. As more learners reap the benefits of online learning, the future of online education and training will continue to be shaped.

The Texas Digital Learning Association is comprised of individuals from industry, agency, and education who share a passion for Digital Learning. TxDLA promotes, connects and leads the Digital Learning community by promoting leadership, participation and recognition in digital learning and innovative educational practices.

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