Several years ago, I attended a conference that focused on learning. More specifically, on the ways that businesses leverage technology for mass training their employees. New models of learning such as asynchronous, synchronous and second life -- a virtual world where users can connect and create content -- were at their infancy and being implemented by many of the corporate elite. I wondered if this could make classroom learning more representative of the important interactions that happen between teacher and student. I remember thinking back to my school administrator days when the incorporation of technology was relegated to placing a few computers in classrooms and labs and creating a schedule for students to stop in for word processing, or for the more adventurous, creating digital pictures and calendars to enhance reports or class presentations.

The chasm between the real world and our K-12 system of education became painfully clear. Higher education was not using global learning platforms for instruction, but for course and curriculum management. All of us in education were being outpaced by business which had found multiple ways to take advantage of what digital learning has to offer. 

Today the tide has shifted significantly. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC's) have launched, providing access to college-level courses to students from all over the world. Whole degree programs can be completed online. Virtual high schools are continuing to pop up all over the country. Social media platforms are being leveraged for spreading ideas, sharing lessons and networking globally.

Digital education proponents indicate that learning is enriched because students have the chance to interact in a less intimidating manner than in the traditional classroom. Moreover, they stress that online learning gives the participant more time to think and consider their answer -- and a better system of interaction with the instructor. But what is most important when developing a digital learning platform that has the capacity to reach millions around the world?

We spent the last year asking ourselves this very question, as we developed our own digital learning platform with Discovery Education, the leading provider of digital content and professional development for K-12 classrooms. We hoped the user experience could be a personal one, that it would be engaging for students and that it would lead young people and their families to embrace the possibilities of higher education and STEM. Here are three tenets we followed as we adapted our curriculum for the online model:

  1. First, identify the learning objectives and the audience you hope to reach. As one educator put it, "you can't boil the ocean." Too much content or attempting to reach multiple age groups of children is confusing and leads to frustration, making the tool useless. 
  2. Organize learning objectives and select delivery methods so that material is presented in a way that leads to high learner engagement. The use of interactive exercises allows participants the opportunity to listen, view and respond -- maintaining interest and excitement for the content being presented.
  3. Use of video, games and audio enhances the user experience and keeps participants involved in the learning.

Technology is here to stay, and has far-reaching possibilities for educators around the world. Every day brings new applications, programs and methodologies for consideration. It's up to all of us to stay a step ahead and ensure that today's students are prepared for the future. I look forward to the transformations that will undoubtedly occur as we embrace the 21st century.

Champions of the unexpected.