Learning in the Digital Age: Control or Connection?

By Jane Van Galen

Illustrator: Michael Duffy

Michael Duffy

In October 2011, 200 state school officers and legislators gathered at a hotel in San Francisco to learn how to “revolutionize” learning by “personalizing” instruction. The occasion was former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s second annual National Summit on Education Reform. The topic was digital learning.

To Bush and his supporters, “personalized instruction” has a very particular meaning: Students click at their own pace through web-based tutorials, videos, learning games, and diagnostic quizzes, with digital remediation as needed—content and assessments all created and delivered by for-profit corporations.

Media magnate Rupert Murdoch was a keynote speaker at the summit. Ten months later, Murdoch’s News Corporation launched its own digital learning platform, Amplify, that will “customize instruction and generate classroom data” around the new Common Core Standards under the leadership of CEO Joel Klein, the controversial former New York City schools chancellor.

Although this corporate vision of digital learning is gaining traction in state legislatures across the country, social justice educators and their students offer a competing vista: new forms of media as a means for young people to create and collaborate across distance, aimed at collective action, advocacy, and democracy.

Ctrl L: Learning Controlled Through Technology

The vision of digitally managed curriculum and assessment presented at the summit was developed by the Digital Learning Council, also co-chaired by Jeb Bush. The council’s plans are ambitious: In the rapidly changing landscape of digital media, the council has taken it upon itself to “define the policies that will integrate current and future technological innovations into public education”.1

Council membership is stacked with long-established players in educational technology who stand to profit from its success: Pearson, the Educational Testing Service, Houghton Mifflin, Blackboard, Sylvan, Apple, Microsoft, Intel, Google, and Dell. Also at the table are the Charter School Growth Fund and virtual school providers Apex Learning and K12 Inc., recently the subject of a New York Times investigation into rapid growth, high profits, questionable marketing strategies, and falling achievement rates. There are no teachers on the Digital Learning Council.

Every year, the council grades states on implementation of “10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning.” Among the conservative reform agenda items that the council seductively cloaks as “digital innovation” are:

  • Mandating that virtual coursework be available to all students.
  • Allocating public education funds to students rather than schools so that public funds pay for virtual courses.
  • Eliminating “arbitrary” class size caps to enable high numbers of students to be assigned to distant virtual teachers.
  • Requiring competency-based accountability as measured by computerized assessments to take the “guesswork” out of understanding the needs of individual students.

And they are making progress. The right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), backers of a flood of recent legislation to privatize public education, officially adopted the council’s reform agenda just before the 2011 Reform Summit. Thus far, 11 state school superintendents have signed on to the council’s “Chiefs for Change” network. Four states (Idaho, Florida, Indiana, and Virginia) recently passed legislation mandating enrollment in at least one online course for high school graduation. Last spring, the Eagle County, Colorado, school district cut three international language teaching positions and replaced them with online language classes provided by a subsidiary of K12 Inc.

The council envisions teaching as content delivery. Implying that over-regulation of student-teacher relationships gets in the way of “quality” education, they argue:

Digital learning erases physical barriers that have prevented the widespread connection between effective teachers and eager students. Statutory and administrative practices that stop instruction—at the classroom door, school campus, state border or even the nation’s border—limit access to quality educators.

A retired NASA scientist in Cape Canaveral who is qualified to teach physics in the Sunshine State should be able to teach students in any state in the country. A digital educator in one school should be able to teach students in multiple schools in state or out of state.

Yet it is difficult to imagine the “connections” between teacher and students at places such as Carpe Diem Schools, a charter network touted by the council as a model for digital learning. In these schools, where students spend much of their time working to “master” content at computers, there is one live teacher for every 68 students.

Marketing materials for the council lament “failing schools” while highlighting images of children of color smiling at computer screens, learning “21st-century skills.” Supporters of the council’s legislative agenda are advised to speak of the rights of all children to access “high quality education.” The council’s website promises—without any evidence—that states implementing these “bold reforms” will witness higher achievement at lower cost. Remarking on how swiftly these policies are being adopted, The Nation recently declared 2011 “the year of virtual education reform.”

What is a social justice educator to do? Tossing the digital baby out with the bathwater of corporatized curriculum won’t serve our students well, given the magnitude of change that digital media has made in the economy, culture, politics, and daily lives of our students.

Fortunately, there are excellent alternatives that complement the work that socially just teachers are already doing. Through open and vibrant digital networks of resistance and support, teachers, students, community activists, and media scholars are building a very different and empowering vision of digital learning as part of a broader pedagogy of social justice.

The Shift Key: From Digital Control to Connected Participants

Just a few days before Gov. Bush’s San Francisco summit, five undocumented students were arrested as they staged a sit-in at the Los Angeles Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters. Surrounded by 300 supporters who had been alerted to the event on Twitter and Facebook, they were protesting the deportation of undocumented youth and legislative inaction on the Dream Act. Four thousand people around the country watched the sit-in and arrests on live streaming video. Within minutes of the arrest, youth organizers systematically Tweeted, Facebooked, texted, and blogged images and links to this national support network. Donations and signed digital petitions of support poured in almost instantaneously.

The sit-ins were part of the Undocumented and Unafraid campaign, led by high school and college students across the country. Without documents that would allow them to travel to plan together, they collaborated using digital media. Via YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and podcasts, they reached out to otherwise isolated young people and planned a series of direct political actions as they built a powerful network of allies. They created sophisticated autobiographical “coming out” YouTube videos to counter negative stereotypes, and used Twitter and texting for regular updates. Although some leaders of Undocumented and Unafraid had no internet access at home, they used public libraries, friends’ equipment, community media spaces, and mobile phones.

The students learned that it was within their power to tell their stories on their own terms and to create change, regardless of their lack of conventional political power.

New Digital Divides

Digital media scholar Henry Jenkins and his research team use the term participatory culture to describe how actions enabled by digital tools have profoundly changed the ways in which people interact with information and with one another. In participatory culture, barriers to civic engagement and artistic expression are low. There are strong norms of sharing, support, and mentoring of digital novices. Within networks of interest and activism, participants come to believe that their contributions matter, and they form meaningful social connections with one another.2

Jenkins warns, though, that new digital divides are emerging within these new ways of participating. These divides are no longer about access to equipment, but are instead about access to the knowledge and skills to use powerful digital tools for one’s own goals and purposes.

Recent studies have shown that, although nearly all youth now use social media for entertainment and socializing, the critical skills needed to create, communicate and connect are much rarer. Poor and working-class students disproportionately use cell phones and computers as consumers of the content created by others, while middle-class kids are more likely to be learning to navigate participatory culture from family and friends.

Three Elements of Socially Just Digital Learning

Talking back to Bush’s “10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning,” I propose “Three Elements of Socially Just Digital Learning” that should be part of every student’s education for new participatory culture: authentic engagement with cultural diversity; technology in service of identity, voice, and audience; and educating for political activism.

1. Authentic Engagement with Cultural Diversity

Just across the Bay from the site of Bush’s summit, groups of low-income young people have been gathering in an Oakland media lab to work within the private Space2Cr8 social networking site that they’re building with peers from India, South Africa, Australia, Norway, New York City, and Taiwan. Working with mentors from UC Berkeley, the students have been talking, creating, and learning across the globe. For example, when a girl in India posted a joyful digital story about her family’s new cookstove (a single burner on a kitchen floor), peers around the world began talking together about satisfaction and materialism. The Oakland students decided to create their own digital stories about their neighborhoods. As they worked, they were thinking ahead how they would answer questions from around the world about their lives.

Bush’s model of “excellent teaching” would have them digitally quizzed on isolated facts; instead these students are actively participating in authentic global conversations.3

In the Help Us Read Around the World project, young children from Malta, Borneo, and the United States recorded themselves reading stories and then posted the audio recordings to a shared website.4

In rural Saskatchewan, instead of packaged digital geography modules, middle school teacher Clarence Fisher creates home pages for classroom computers that link to live updates from English Al Jazeera, global issues discussion forums, online archives of photos uploaded by people around the world, and citizen journalism sites. His students regularly do semester-long online collaborative reading and writing projects with classrooms of peers across Canada and the United States.5

In a socially just vision of digital learning, tools are used to enable people to speak directly with one another, without corporate curriculum writers as gatekeepers of what may and may not be said.

2. Identity, Voice, and Audience

When Diane Sawyer presented a segment on ABC’s 20/20 titled “Hidden America: Children of the Plains” that portrayed Lakota Rosebud Reservation youth as victims of poverty, alcoholism, and deep family dysfunction, two English classes in the reservation high school rebutted the show by creating a moving video, “More Than That,” which has been seen by more than 70,000 YouTube viewers. The videographers were invited to a national education advocacy conference in Washington, D.C., where they also lobbied their congressional delegation.

Back in the San Francisco Bay Area, digital stories created by LGBTQ foster youth working in the Breaking the Silence Project are used in training sessions for social workers.

In a socially just vision of digital learning, students author their own identities, raise their voices, and connect with ever-broader audiences.

3. Political Activism

Nine-year-old Scottish student Martha Payne created the NeverSeconds blog to upload daily photos and rate her unsavory school lunch. She drew readers from around the world, inspiring other children to create similar blogs. When newspapers picked up the story, officials announced that they were banning cameras in the lunchroom, so Martha blogged about the ban. The administrators were bombarded with critical Tweets and emails. Officials relented and Martha continued her daily blogging, noting that lunches have been getting better.

The Philadelphia Student Union teaches young people to use new media to advocate for fair and just funding for schools and for civic engagement projects in neighborhoods. Students produce web radio programs and videos, support a comprehensive website, and participate in public meetings and written forums.

In South Central Los Angeles, teacher Antero Garcia co-developed the digital Black Cloud Game to enable his students to collect data on air quality and present their analyses of the effects of air pollution in their daily lives to their community.

In each of these projects, students are empowered by the attention of authentic audiences. They know that they are successful not from digitally tracked progress on tests, but from successfully communicating their knowledge to others and contributing to social change.

Teaching for Participatory Culture

The Digital Learning Council is promoting legislation that would turn classroom computers into delivery systems for curriculum “taught” by for-profit corporations. Policymakers, parents, and administrators, anxious that students should be doing “something” with computers, will be seduced by their vision if there are no other alternatives in play.

Socially just digital learning doesn’t require that teachers start out as “tech savvy,” but only that they be willing to step into the conversation as educators and students are connecting with one another via rich digital networks of support, sharing, and mentoring. There are many possible places to begin:

  • Read and comment on the blogs of the teachers and projects mentioned in this article.
  • Check out the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub (dmlcentral.net) for information on new projects about youth, culture, and politics.
  • Connect with digital platforms supporting teacher-to-teacher networking in the content areas. Start with the National Writing Project’s Digital Is website (digitalis.nwp.org) or the Social Studies Teacher group on Twitter (#sschat).
  • Ask your students how they want to learn with and about technology. What do they want to be able to do?

We’re at the very beginning of enormous cultural, political, and economic shifts of the digital age. Although Jeb Bush and his corporate partners have set out on an ambitious and alarming agenda to control how these shifts will play out in classrooms, and their vision is alarming, there are growing numbers of educators and activists enacting a very different vision of participatory education in which people network together to collaborate, create, and connect. n


  1. digitallearningnow.com
  2. Jenkins, Henry, et al. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. The MacArthur Foundation.
  3. bit.ly/5h9PfL, 2006.
  4. Hull, Glynda, Stornaiuolo, Amy, and Sahni, Urvashi. “Cultural Citizenship and Cosmopolitan Practice: Global Youth Communicate Online,” English Education, July 2010. 331-367.
  5. helpusreadaroundtheworld.wikispaces.com
  6. evenfromhere.org

Jane A. Van Galen is professor of education at the University of Washington Bothell, where her interests are social class and education, and new digital literacies.

Illustrator Michael Duffy’s work can be found at duff-co.com.