What are the benefits of digital education?

Digital education requires teachers to acquire new skills that they may not have had the opportunity to acquire before. However, the benefits of digital education for both learners and teachers provide significant impetus for teachers to develop new skills.

Consider the infographic below. It illustrates the impact that teachers believe digital education can have on teaching and learning:

main benefits of digital education

Teachers who have used digital tools in their classrooms will have experienced many benefits of digital education that we will discuss in this section.

Understanding the benefits of digital education

One way to understand the benefits of digital education is by considering:

  • the impact of digital education on teaching and learning methods
  • the need to equip learners to function effectively in the digitised 21st Century.

A variety of teaching and learning methods

Digital education offers the potential for a wide variety of teaching and learning methods.

If we consider that digital education offers opportunities to change how and to what extent learners engage with the teaching and learning process and the traditional relationships between pedagogy and content/skills, then the outcomes of digital education could be represented as follows:

different approaches to digital education

Frameworks for digital education

The SAMR framework is a helpful model to help teachers further understand and evaluate the impact of digital education on teaching and learning.


SAMR stands for substitution, augmentation, modification and redefinition. The framework was developed by Dr Ruben Puentedura, who has worked in educational environments for more than 20 years. He specialised in critically evaluating the impact of digital tools on teaching and learning.

The SAMR framework considers the impact of integrating digital tools into an educational strategy. At the first level, teaching and learning are enhanced. At this level, digital education relies on substitution and augmentation. In substitution, only the medium changes, so teachers and learners use new (digital) technology tools in place of old ones, for example, PowerPoint instead of the chalkboard. Consequently, no functional change takes place in the teaching and learning tasks. In augmentation, digital technology directly substitutes print, for example, and improves the quality or variety of the content made available for teaching and learning purposes. Again, there is no change in the teaching and learning process itself, and the fundamental pedagogies remain the same.

However, at the transformative level, a substantial change in pedagogy takes place. In the modification, the learning tasks that are set and with which learners engage are substantially different in that they can be redesigned. Game-based learning is an example of modification made possible by digital education. Redefinition goes one step further than modification. Digital intervention enables learners to complete tasks such as simulations of real-world scenarios and tasks that were not previously possible.

Example of applying the SAMR framework

  • Consider the following assignment: Discuss a natural heritage site in your country as a tourist attraction.
  • Original task: Learners write a 300-word essay and provide examples.
  • Substitution: Learners use a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation and include pictures they downloaded from the World Wide Web.
  • Augmentation: Learners design a travel brochure using Microsoft Publisher. They make it available online and include hyperlinks to useful websites.
  • Modification: Learners collaborate to deliver an online video or blog that includes narration by learners.
  • Redefinition: Learners use Google Earth to identify the features used as examples in their videos. They include interviews (via Skype or recorded face-to-face) with residents, tour guides and environmental organisations.

Anderson’s framework for online learning

In his book The Theory and Practice of Online Learning (2008), educationalist Terry Anderson developed a framework for online learning. He identified four components necessary to design a successful online learning activity. The activity should be:

  • learner-centred
  • knowledge-centred
  • assessment-centred
  • community-centred.

Anderson suggests six levels of interaction available in a technologically-driven learning environment, where interaction is defined as ‘reciprocal events that require at least two objects and two actions. Interactions occur when these objects and events mutually influence one another. The use of a combination of these interactions results in deep and meaningful learning. The six levels are outlined as follows:

  1. Learner-to-learner interaction allows for collaboration, the development of social skills and multiple perspectives.
  2. Learner-to-content interaction is the use of technology to consume, create or interact with content.
  3. Teacher-to-teacher interaction revolves around exchanging teaching professionals and developing a community of practice and further professional development.
  4. Learner-to-teacher interaction revolves around synchronous and asynchronous communication and is a two-way flow, i.e. from teacher-to-learner and learner-to-teacher.
  5. Content-to-content interaction is the (generally) automated process whereby a content item communicates with other content sources for notification of changes or to provide meta-information.
  6. Teacher-to-content interaction occurs when the teacher creates content to be used in learning activities or tasks.

Equipping learners to function in the digitised 21st Century

The digitisation of industry via computers and other digital advances is driving a revolution in living and working. In their book The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee explore the impact of digital technologies on the 21st Century. They compare the advancement and challenges offered by these technological developments with those of the Industrial Revolution.

Therefore, in education, our challenge is to equip learners to function effectively in the 21st Century, a century in which life and work will be enhanced but also dominated by digitisation.

Skills for the 21st Century

Digitisation has changed the way we live, work and interact with one another, and it will continue to do so. Therefore, the skills considered most necessary for the 21st Century all focus on how to live and work in a digitised environment. Look at the illustrations below that summarise these skills. Then look at the cognitive abilities illustrated in Bloom’s taxonomy needed to learn and interact effectively in complex environments.

The learning and innovation, as well as information, media and technology skills needed for learning, working and living in the 21st Century, can broadly be categorised into cognitive and practical skills.

skills required for the 21st century

The importance of 21st Century skills

Today’s learners need a rounded skillset appropriate for a job market where both digital savvy and working within multiple disciplines are crucial. In a hyper-connected world through various communication technologies, learners need to acquire adaptable ways of working with others. Educational technology can address these requirements, helping learners achieve learning, literacy and life skills.

21st Century skills: the three Ls

The Partnership for 21st Century Learning divides 21st Century skills into three categories: life, learning and literacy skills.

Learning skills such as critical and creative thinking and the arts of collaboration and communication are more critical than ever. Global trade and industry and the global dissemination of information mean that learners are emerging into multilingual and multidisciplinary work environments. As Thoughtful Learning says:

‘To hold information-age jobs … students also need to think deeply about issues, solve problems creatively, work in teams, communicate clearly in many media, learn ever-changing technologies, and deal with a flood of information.’

The growth of digital technologies and the extent to which we rely on them in the workplace means that learners need to acquire information and media literacy and technology literacy.

Crucial 21st Century life skills include flexibility and social awareness and leadership skills, and the ability to be productive and proactive.

Education experts in several countries are finding a mismatch between the skills learners acquire in ordinary school learning, and the kinds of versatility and varied literacies employers require.

21st century learning framework

Cognitive skills

As you would have noted, cognitive skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and creativity are covered by curricula delivered in non-digitised environments. Therefore, you will know from experience that it is possible to teach and learn these skills without accessing digital tools and environments.

What, then, are the benefits of digital education in acquiring these skills?

Personalised learning

Learners progress at an individual pace. The challenge of offline/non-digitised learning is that learners are expected to keep up with (or slow down to) the majority of the class. Digital education enables teachers to pace learning according to individual needs. In this way, it facilitates the acquisition of cognitive skills at each learner’s ability level, allowing some learners opportunities to practise more and others to go ahead when they are ready to do so.

Expanded learning

Expanded learning refers to additional learning opportunities outside of the usual classroom teaching and learning scenario. Digital education can offer learners across the ability spectrum other options to either extend their knowledge and skills by having access to extension materials or consolidate and improve their knowledge and skills through supporting activities and practising similar tasks.

Increased engagement

Learner motivation is key to engagement and hence learning. Digital education methodologies such as game-based learning offer opportunities for teachers to increase learner engagement with the subject matter and improve learners’ performance. In addition, access to varied and current content online allows learners to enhance their knowledge and develop their ability to engage critically with information.

Digital education makes collaborative learning easy to implement. Digital platforms allow for three key things:

  • Teachers can set group tasks.
  • Learners can collaborate to complete tasks.
  • Teachers can monitor learners’ contributions and progress towards completion.

In addition, collaborative learning scenarios give learners invaluable opportunities to critically evaluate one another’s inputs and communicate with one another to solve problems through teamwork.

Assessment for learning

Digital education enhances the teacher’s capacity to assess learners diagnostically and formatively to identify the cognitive skills lacking accurately. In so doing, digital assessment programs enable teachers to offer personalised learning opportunities that are appropriate and effective. Further, game-based learning programs assess learners to make the assessment process invisible to learners who experience each task as yet another challenge in a competitive environment.

Case study: Developing 21st Century skills

Hlolisisa Primary School is situated in a dusty township in the rural area of Bronkhorstspruit in Gauteng. Some parents of children who attend this school work in the nearby factories or mines, but many more are unemployed. According to teacher Pauline Skosana, only about 10% of parents assist their children with homework activities; some are illiterate and cannot help with homework, while others do not see the need to assist with schoolwork.

Pauline Skosana has been teaching for 30 years. She initially completed a two-year teacher’s training college course but has since upgraded her qualification to a Higher Diploma in Education by correspondence through the University of South Africa. Pauline has participated in the Microsoft Innovative Teachers program, the ICT Skills for Teachers course and the Microsoft Innovation Workshop.

Pauline attended these digital training courses to find out how to structure her lessons to ensure that they cover the topics included in the curriculum and help develop 21st Century skills such as collaboration, self-regulation, and effective communication. She found that whilst these courses went through some examples of how technology could be used to enhance learning, the course’s overall focus was on developing essential life skills. This appealed to Pauline as her school does not have much access to technology, but she believed she could apply the learnings of the course to any lesson whether or not it would use technology.

Following on from these courses, Pauline aimed to revise her existing lesson plans to ensure that they could develop learners’ 21st Century skills as far as possible. One lesson that she tackled was a Grade 4 English lesson about different types of texts. The original lesson, which Pauline adapted, was taken from the CAPS curriculum teacher’s guide and learner’s textbook. It involved learners reading aloud instructions in their book for making a butterfly mobile and then discussing the features of the procedural text.

Pauline felt that it was insufficient for learners to learn about following a set of instructions merely by reading the instructions and that learners should instead make the butterfly mobile described. In her version, learners prepared for the lesson by first viewing the materials needed to make a butterfly mobile and determining who would bring which resources to the school. Some materials such as butterfly-shaped pasta and sandwich-bag ties proved to be difficult to source in a township, but learners were able to come up with alternatives and shared their resources.

When the lesson began, Pauline handed each group a set of instructions for making the butterfly mobile. However, instead of the instructions appearing as an ordered list as they did in the textbook, each instruction was stuck on a separate piece of cardboard. Groups needed to read the instructions to determine the correct order. This task involved reading the instructions aloud (as the original lesson prescribed). It required learners to discuss the correct order of procedure, for example, to measure the string before cutting it.

As the lesson was taking place, Pauline informally drew learners’ attention to the features of the list by saying, for example, ‘Do you see how the requirements are listed right at the beginning? It would be silly to start making the mobile if we didn’t have everything we need. This is also why a recipe lists the ingredients at the top so you can get all the things you need before baking a cake.’ She also asked learners to explain why they had put the instructions in the order they had selected.

As learners worked on making their mobiles, Pauline reminded them that they had limited time to complete the task. This allowed the groups to self-regulate and for the various functions such as cutting, decorating, and dividing the group.

Whilst no technology was used in this lesson, Pauline provided multiple opportunities for genuine collaboration: each group member took responsibility for different components of making the mobile; learners had to figure out for themselves how they were going to source the equipment and who was going to do which component of the task. Instead of simply listing the characteristics of a procedural text, Pauline allowed learners to construct knowledge by working with a set of instructions and thinking about why they were written in the way that they were. In addition to providing an opportunity to read aloud, the task allowed for skilled communication. Learners had to place the instructions in the correct order and then explain their reasoning to one another and their teacher.

Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy

Andrew Churches’s Digital Taxonomy, developed in 2008, as an extension of the original Bloom’s taxonomy, creates a hierarchy of learning activities in a digital environment. Read the following tabulated form of the hierarchy:

LevelDescriptionApplication examples
1 RememberingBe able to retrieve information; find and access necessary resources.Identify a legitimate search engine, e.g. Google (www.google.co.za) and understand how it works.Enter a key word in the text box and click on the search button and follow the links to further resources.
2 UnderstandingBe able to construct meaning and build relationships.Categorise and tag bookmarks through a social bookmarking application such as Delicious (www.delicious.com).
3 ApplicationBe able to apply learnt knowledge or processes to a situation.Produce a presentation, document or simulation.Edit a wiki page, such as on Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org).
4 AnalysisProcess data; determine relationships between parts and overall purpose of a project.Use an online survey tool, such as Survey Monkey (www.surveymonkey.com) to set up and conduct a survey and analyse the result.
5 EvaluationMake criteria-based judgements through the processes of critiquing and checking.Moderate and respond to comments made on a blog post.
6 CreatingLearner must synthesise past knowledge to create a new, coherent product.Remember, understand and apply knowledge, analyse and evaluate outcomes and processes to construct the end product.

Digital literacies

Practical skills required in 21st Century environments relate to the ability to access, interpret, use and apply the available technologies appropriately. These skills are often known as digital literacies. Learners who have access to and use smartphone apps may already have acquired many of the digital literacies they need to live, work and learn in digitised, online environments. However, learners who do not have personal access to technology will benefit significantly from school-based access and will need to be taught (at least initially). However, learners need teachers who can embrace technology.

Teachers who are not comfortable with technology due to limited exposure often avoid using technology in their classrooms. In addition, teachers who do not know how to use technology are incapable of equipping learners to do so.

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