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Book Review: 'Digital Teaching Platforms: Customizing Classroom Learning For Each Student' edited by Chris Dede and John Richards

By Laura Layton-James / July 2012

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When I read the title of this book I was intrigued. Admittedly, at first I only read the main title "Digital Teaching Platforms" and as I'm always looking at learning more about how technology can help, support and advance learning, I was keen to investigate further. When I then read the sub-heading "Customizing classroom learning for each student," I have to admit, I was thinking more corporate classrooms.

Finding ways of avoiding the "sheep-dip" approach to teaching and thereby seeking to customize learning interventions for individuals is the Holy Grail amongst learning professionals. However, customizing content for learners often proves elusive. It was once deemed expensive to have to create enough variables to cater for everyone. However with the major advances in technology of recent years this is becoming achievable.

Truthfully, I did find reading this book a challenge. The classroom learning the book refers to is academic education and secondly, it's aimed at classroom learning in the United States. The challenge for me was to get beyond the fact that the language used is wholly relevant to school education and, more specifically, the U.S. school system. Neither of which I am at all familiar with because my area of expertise is in corporate training in the UK.

Nevertheless, once I looked beyond the differences I was able to concentrate on the concept of digital teaching platforms (DTP) the various authors described in the publication. The book consists of a number of contributors who share their 20 years of research and development in using digital learning environments and how these environments can be used effectively in a school classroom environment. The authors touch upon a number of digital platforms and how they can be used to support individual student learning, providing useful case studies—with detailed descriptions on what digital teaching platforms are and how they can work.

Further discussed is how digital teaching platforms can allow students to work individually on laptops, which are wirelessly connected to a network. This technology can be used by the students in the classroom in the presence of the teacher. The DTP provides the content, which can be personalized to the student, and where the teacher can monitor an individual's progress. This enables the teacher to be able to provide individualized feedback and provide targeted development to the student as appropriate. If necessary, the teacher can call the students' work to a stop for a class discussion. "Classrooms develop from a teacher-directed environment to workplaces where peers help one another and teachers serve as mentors," explains Richards and Walters in Part I of Digital Teaching Platforms. Teachers are able to spend more time coaching students rather than lecturing and teaching content.

The effective use of these platforms therefore encourage enquiry based learning, open discussions, and the development of new ideas all of which will foster independent thinking and encourage students to want to learn more.

This "disruptive" technology can be effective, not only in day to day teaching curriculum activities but as formative and diagnostic assessment tools including the use of customization of immersive learning experiences such as multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs).

According to the text the benefits for the student are many. However, successful implementation will depend on having a clear project plan. Such a project plan would need to include establishing the right technical infrastructure (sufficient bandwidth for all students to access simultaneously, the necessary equipment). We are also advised that a clear project plan isn't enough. For such a change in teaching processes to succeed, an effective change management program would be essential. Teachers would need a radical change in their professional development and to become comfortable and familiar with using the technology especially if using the more advanced immersive digital platform environments. The book concludes by reasoning that in today's economic climate in the U.S. (and this can be true elsewhere) education cannot continue to be delivered as inefficiently as it has done in the past with the increasing numbers seen in classrooms. The introduction of DTPs in the classroom, effectively facilitated by its teachers, will not only alleviate the current challenges but also improve results. This can only be achieved, however, if teachers embrace the use of this disruptive technology.

Who is this book for? Certainly for all teachers involved in the U.S. schools system as well as anyone with interest in their children's education. Across the pond here in the UK, I'm sure our teachers would benefit from its contents.

In summary, although this book does concentrate on the use of DTPs in the U.S. education system and it took some perseverance to look beyond the unique language used, the corporate training environment could also benefit from a similar approach. We are already experiencing a move away from delivering training in the classroom and taking learning online. However, in such a move, efficacy is often compromised in favour of efficiency. Perhaps we could learn some lessons from the examples within this book on how the teachers using these DTPs are facilitating learning effectively and more efficiently. The challenges experienced by teachers as referred to in the publication will certainly be similar to those already being experienced by anyone involved in delivering technology based learning solutions in the corporate environment. Equally, the success of any digitally delivered learning solutions will also rely on effective implementation as described in the book.

About the Author

Laura Layton-James is a full time Learning Consultant with in the UK. She works with many large organizations in the UK helping them develop and deliver effective learning solutions in the traditional classroom and online. She specializes in blended learning and eLearning, helping people adapt and enhance their classroom skills to effectively deliver in an online environment. Laura blogs at Purple Learning and can be found on Twitter as @purplelearning.

© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/07 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2328736.2336716


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