Grasping the Realities of Educating in the Digital Age

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Leadership [Views from the Top]

Phil Schubert ([email protected]) is President of Abilene Christian University.

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"Mobile-learning strategies can reconnect students to their peers, challenge them with real-world data, and involve them in real-world conversations—all providing the relevance that students need for academic, social, and professional success."

I recently came across some interesting information: the average teenager sends more than 3,000 text messages each month. Not counting the time he or she spends asleep or in school, that's one text every three to four minutes of each day. I wasn't quite sure I believed this, so I checked my most recent mobile phone bill—and discovered that my fourteen-year-old daughter had sent 3,100 texts last month!

Today's students interact socially in astoundingly different ways than did my generation. They also acquire information differently. Consider that there are approximately 500 television and 10,500 radio stations, over 350,000 iPhone applications, and more than one trillion web pages today. Over the past sixty days, more information has been uploaded to YouTube than if ABC, NBC, and CBS had been broadcasting around the clock since 1948.

Are these useless or relevant statistics? From where I sit, they serve as a powerful reminder of the changing demographics present in every classroom in the United States. Today's students interact, build community, acquire information, and experience the world differently.  So, why would we think the best way to educate them is via the same old method that has been used for decades: the lecture/textbook model, in which the teacher imparts wisdom and understanding via a lecture, paralleling the textbook, and then at some point asks students to recite what they have heard?

Nearly one-third of high school students in the United States fail to graduate. Among African American, Hispanic, and Native American students, the rate increases to nearly 50 percent.1 In 2008, more than two million students still attended a high school in which graduation was no better than a 50-50 proposition.2 The United States has slipped to 16th among industrialized nations in the percentage of young people who complete a secondary education program and 12th in the world in higher education attainment.3 What will stop the embarrassing slide?

When asked, high school dropouts reported classes that "were not interesting" and being "bored and disengaged" as two of the primary reasons for failing to finish.4 This is true in our colleges and universities as well as our high schools. The 2009 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) found that college students "whose classes used course management technologies . . . or interactive technologies . . . scored higher on NSSE benchmarks, participated more in deep approaches to learning, and reported higher academic and personal gains during college."5 Student engagement is linked positively to desirable learning outcomes such as critical thinking and grades.6

What are the implications for those of us in the education community? I certainly don't think there's a single silver bullet for this complex array of problems. I do, however, think all of us—as educators—can take immediate aim at making our classrooms more relevant. The archaic nature of many of our classrooms does not resemble anything students recognize, much less gravitate toward.

In a world where students contribute content through blogs, Facebook, and YouTube, many schools still treat students as mere consumers of information rather than creators. In a world where students are provided with opportunities to connect and dialogue through social media, many schools still fail to engage students in more active and social learning processes. In a world where students can and do access content from anywhere and at any time, many schools still treat classrooms as the only access point for information. Given these disparities, it is not surprising that students are increasingly disinterested with school and lack the skills to thrive in a world replete with digital information.

Technology has changed the way we live; it also must change the way we learn. Today, global data networks and mobile communication tools enable students to engage and to learn from any location, at any time. Mobile-learning strategies can reconnect students to their peers, challenge them with real-world data, and involve them in real-world conversations—all providing the relevance that students need for academic, social, and professional success.

In our effort to keep the classroom relevant at Abilene Christian University, we began to provide all new students with an iPhone or iPod Touch, as a learning tool, in Fall 2008. We challenged our faculty to engage in "wild experimentation" and to consider how we might reimagine the 21st-century classroom. Two and a half years later, each of our 3,800 full-time undergraduates has a mobile device, and more than 90 percent of our faculty have actively taken part in this groundbreaking mobile-learning initiative.

From the use of spontaneous in-class interactive surveys and response tools to the use of podcasts and blogs to extend learning beyond the physical classroom, our faculty have championed digital innovation to reengage students, with great success. Our students are experiencing education that engages, empowers, inspires, and challenges them. They are participating as creators and contributors among broader communities and discovering how learning is both relevant and important.

This is not a journey, however, for the faint of heart. Following a path of innovation requires strong leadership that is willing to forge up the hill even when the summit is not visible—and to be fully prepared for the likelihood that once the fog dissipates, it may be clear that the hill just taken was the wrong one. Fueling innovation also requires shifting resources toward emerging areas of opportunity and away from programs and practices representing the status quo. Such decisions typically incite internal grumbling and turmoil.

True innovation is a messy enterprise. Rarely do things work out as planned in an innovative culture. Instead of defining success by a preconceived destination, we should see real success in innovation as the ability to create value from insights discovered along the journey. This requires creativity and agility, two characteristics rarely used to describe U.S. educational systems.

But there is progress to report. In February, I welcomed more than 540 professionals—representing 73 universities, 87 K-12 schools, and 33 corporations in nine countries—who came to the ACU campus to consider how pushing the boundaries of change and innovation in the classroom could improve learning. These participants at the 2011 Connected Summit ( shared stories of their classroom innovations, listened to industry experts describe relevant educational trends, and jointly created inspiring visions for the future. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak discussed his love for teaching and his thoughts about how technology can affect teaching for good. The week was tremendously rewarding, providing great encouragement for the future of education.

Still, our work is just beginning. Enormous untapped, game-changing opportunities exist for students and faculty to take learning in the digital age even further, building new tools and testing new strategies to shape the future of elementary, secondary, and postsecondary learning. Moving forward, we must be serious about expanding the boundaries of digital media, refining best practices, and sharing new pedagogies with colleagues in K-12 and higher education. The ubiquitous access to information provided by modern data networks and converged mobile media devices challenges long-established models of teaching and learning, and opens the doors to the "new world" of education.

What role will you play? Will you cling to the safety and comfort of the traditional educational models that have defined U.S. schools for more than a century? Or will you help drive the innovation to ensure that our young people are prepared not only to compete but to lead in an increasingly digital world?


1. AT&T, "AT&T Aspire: Connecting Our Youth," 2008,

2. Robert Balfanz, John M. Bridgeland, Laura A. Moore, and Joanna Hornig Fox, Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic, November 2010, p. 9,

3. U.S. Department of Education, A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education [Spellings Commission Report], September 2006, p. 13, <>.

4. John M. Bridgeland, John J. DiIulio, Jr., and Karen Burke Morison, The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts, March 2006, p. iii, <>.

5. National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), "A Wide Range of Colleges and Universities Show Gains in Effective Educational Practices, Survey Finds," press release, November 9, 2009,

6. Robert M. Carini, George D. Kuh, and Stephen P. Klein, "Student Engagement and Student Learning: Testing the Linkages," Research in Higher Education, vol. 47, no. 1 (February 2006), p. 19,

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 46, no. 2 (March/April 2011)