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Digital learning beats chalk and pencils

  • Unitec Academic Advisors James Oldfield and JJ Purton Jones

Academic Advisors James Oldfield and JJ Purton Jones talk about how digital learning is changing how we teach at Unitec 

Hollywood has done a great job of preserving the classroom in a time capsule, which means whenever we see a lecture hall or schoolroom in a movie it has a distinctly retro tinge - blackboard, chalk, maybe a few pencils and the desks lined up facing the lecturer.  Think Netflix hit, Stranger Things, and its perfectly preserved recreation of the 1980s.

A classroom in Netflix's Stranger Things  
Netflix's 'Stranger Things' brings the 80s back in a good way 

The reality is that this clichéd, low tech image has less and less connection with what a class actually looks like today.  The blackboard and chalk have definitely disappeared and gradually the lecturer, as the centre of attention, is taking on a new role as learning becomes more social and digital.  So, what’s with the changing role of the lecturer, is digital learning the same as on-line learning and how is technology having an impact on how we learn?

No more one-way models

Class is no longer about the lecturer delivering the content via PowerPoint presentations or blackboard exercises and an instruction at the end of the class to “read this handout”.  

One-way models are giving way to significantly more student-centred approaches where the lecturer has more of a facilitating role.

Although the before class, during class and after class model is not a new concept to teaching, it is benefiting from the extra interactivity and excitement that technology can bring.  The idea is that students explore concepts before class by accessing on-line videos or animated content, come to lessons to learn more about the topic through discussion and application in real situations with their teacher and classmates, and then revisit and reflect on the material on-line.  

The most important things to recognise are that digital learning isn’t the same as on-line learning, although learning on-line has a role.   It also doesn’t happen in a separate place or at a specific time, like the computer lab of old.  Digital learning happens all the time and its completely integrated into the learning experience. 

So, what’s a teacher’s role?

Teaching doesn’t necessarily equate to being the only voice in the classroom or the only person who is teaching.  A teacher’s role today is to facilitate discussions between students so that they share knowledge and learn from each other.  It’s to curate the most relevant and thought provoking information and to support students to investigate and follow their own lines of enquiry. Teachers are stewards of content and facilitators of discussions. This is called a flipped classroom and it means the teacher is no longer the centre of attention, the subject matter expert and owner of all the knowledge.

Digital technologies really make this new role possible by helping the teacher introduce more authentic situations for the application of knowledge and problem solving as well as maximising the face-to-face engagement time between teachers and students.  It enables people to learn in ways that suit them – in their own space and in their own time.  Handouts are not paper-based they can be video clips, animation, software or, apps to interact with.  And students can engage with content in a range of different ways, asking and answering questions with their peers or teachers immediately using the technology without having to save them up for class-time.


But more modern teaching methods require different types of classrooms.  At Unitec we’re gradually remodelling all of our classrooms to be teaching spaces with no front and no back of the class.  Students sit in groups and work together, using mobile computers on wheels, also known as CoWs, exploring ideas and discussing each other’s work. Interaction, collaboration and discussion are provoked and enabled by the technology built into the classroom and owned by the students.

Digital Citizenship - Safety First

Technology is making it easier to master tasks with higher inherent safety hazards, such as welding and carpentry, with the aid of virtual reality (VR).   VR simulates the real experience and enables students to master a skill without endangering their limbs.

Safety is also not just about physical safety but about protecting your self-esteem.  We’ve all been there: you’re in a meeting and you don’t want to speak up because you’re not ready yet to expose how much you don’t know about something.  Well, the same thing happens in class.

When we’re on-line, we write more if we think we’re anonymous.   The power that anonymity can give you encourages you to share more and to interact more without the fear of someone judging you.

Of course, there is a darker side to this anonymity and we need to always be conscious of acting on-line in a way that is appropriate and respectful to others.  The on-line social universe has taken shape so quickly that society hasn’t quite worked out all of the etiquette and rules that govern our social interaction in this world.  We’ve all seen people will say things on line they wouldn’t in person.  


97% of our students have a smart phone but not all of them have laptops or tablets.  And there’s no doubt that the less well equipped students are at a disadvantage.  It’s not a new issue, in the 1980’s the latest scientific calculator was the device du jour. 

But there is a technology solution that could be one piece of the puzzle for this technology deficit and it’s called virtual desktop interface (VDI).  A desktop interface can be downloaded to your tablet or smart phone enabling you to use it exactly like a computer, and all the computing is taking place in the cloud.  It can even be used to run really high-end demanding software such as computer aided design (CAD) used by engineering students on any computing device, even a phone.

Fluent in digital

It’s also about digital literacy and being fluid and capable in the digital world and if you’re a student being able to use learning management systems and other e-learning tools.

From next year, the new digital technologies curriculum which will be introduced into all New Zealand schools to support students progressing beyond being fluent operators of digital technology to understanding and creating digital advances. Pencils and chalk will probably never completely disappear, especially so long as Hollywood keep them in their iconic classrooms scenes, but more and more the primary learning tools are digital. 

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