What happens outside classroom: Young learners are surviving and thriving in digital age

Tao He, supported by Shihua LI

Traditionally, Flemish students have always performed high scores in PISA test which is an international student assessment by OECD mainly focus on academic skills. They continue to excel in traditional literacy such as reading literacy, mathematical literacy and scientific literacy since 2000, and also the Flemish higher education enjoys a good reputation globally. Recently, Flemish public policy promoting and implementing new technologies into formal learning settings, which encourage the educational innovation within institutional system. But what about youth learners’ digital literacy and how do they learn with digital media outside classroom settings? A research program has been conducted to investigate this issue. A group of first year university students were interviewed and a survey was administered to young learners mainly from college freshmen students in Flanders.

Digital literacy: Digital generation with emerging technologies

I cannot imagine what I can do without internet, smartphone and PC” a 17 years-old boy from business school told us at the very beginning, it seems that he hit the point immediately. He showed us how convenient to schedule, take notes and texting. And he really enjoy share funny moments via Facebook or Youtube etc.. Flemish young learners charted a high ownership rate of personal computer, 87% youth learner reported that they have at least a laptop, more than one third of students said have one more desktop. The majority of students claimed that they have been using personal computer for more than nine years. Obviously, these young adult learners live and grow up in a world which is highly digital mediated. Consequently, engaging with digital media has become a central part of students’ daily life. Therefore, young people are developing significant literacy that corresponds to important cognitive processes and new learning styles.

Digital literacy is the ability to access, evaluate, utilize, communicate and create content using digital media and the Internet. These young learners showed a relatively high digital literacy during our research, and most of them were confident in using digital tool to search and synthesize information in a critical way. “They are born digital” as mass media usually claims, are they really digitally literate? Our research found that young learners not only show good technical skills when using personal computers, mobile devices and online searching engines. They also impressed us with high level of meta-cognitive skills and ethic knowledge through learning with digital technologies. 73% self-assessed students reported they can choose appropriate digital tools and resources for different purposes, they are well aware of the privacy and reliability of online resources.

Young learners are not just passively watching or playing with digital media, their virtual or the real world – they are engaging, interacting, and organizing, which are really happening in both places. “Their brains actually adapt to having one eye on earth and one eye on virtual world. They are not so easily being distracted or inattentive as a traditional learner living in the printed era might have” Tom, who is a 10-year veteran added, “They can do both at once and perform good as well”.

Informal learning with digital media

When it comes to the way how young learners learn, the interesting thing happens outside classroom. “I love searching online, I can always find materials and tutorials to complete specific task outside classroom.” A student says, “we even created our own Facebook page of the same class group, and it’s private only open to our students. I often discuss tasks and questions with my classmates on it.” Today’s young learners are also able to engaging constructive learning activities with peers by using cloud-based tools such as Google Drive and Evernote, these tools are beneficial because discussion can be continued outside of class, thereby opening up a broader learning environment.

Digital media enables learning outside classroom more frequently than before. It is a remarkable fact that students with more digital media used years tend to spent more time engaging and learning in daily life as a form of informal learning according to our research findings. These learners are actively seeking content and tutorials on topics of interest. They search, watch and read valuable online content from YouTube, blogs, MOOCs on their own initiatives, without any guidance and instruction.

Mirco learning innovation change teaching landscape

When young learners develop digital learning lifestyle, it happens anytime and anywhere. This is also a big challenge for teachers facing today. High ownership of digital technologies, and the trend to flipped classroom. Some teachers are ready. “I don’t want to monologue on the stage anymore” says a university teacher “I like to put my course video and materials on my YouTube channel, let my students watch at home and get prepared. I am glad to find that students know more than before when they come into class”.

Digital media actually provide more opportunities for those who miss an important the first time have a second chance. After class, they can they can access the lecture online or pipe it to their laptops or smartphones and hear it again. But still some question the value of digital learning “why are we switching our pedagogy to digital, some students like face to face instruction”.

Young learners in digital era are different. They prefer receiving information quickly from multiple multimedia sources, they are good at parallel processing and multitasking, they prefer processing pictures and video before text. While traditionally, teachers like to follow the curriculum guide and standardize tests, they prefer controlling the release of information from limited sources, single processing, provide instruction linearly and logically. “More than 85% higher education institutes in Flanders have implemented campus based digital learning platform since 2003” an administrator says, “But less than half of the teachers really using the digital learning platform as a support in their instructional activities.”

It seems there is a gap between the digital young learner and traditional teachers, but it is also an opportunity for teachers to create teaching innovation. There is a growing number of teachers who have realized that teaching landscape is changing and they need to keep up with the pace of students’ digital learning reality.

European InfoNet Adult Education, 16.06.2015