Digital learning – six reasons we’re failing

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

The sooner we design and deliver a national digital education strategy to ensure every one is connected and we can all be agile and responsive the better! (CA)
It’s an absolute and utterly vital foundation for contemporary education — and for people’s digital inclusion – and that was even before #covid19! (JC)

The quotes above are clipped from a stream of conversation on a Twitter thread that I was included in recently. The stimulus came from recent media reporting on the response from schools to the situation in NZ where schools in the Auckland region are experiencing a further period of closure or limited operation as a result of the additional COVID-19 outbreak.

Calls for a national digital learning strategy have been around for some time now, with the importance of having a robust, national infrastructure providing connectivity, content and communications appearing in successive government plans and policies. Elements of these have appeared over time – we have had the national broadband roll-out for example, N4L providing managed web services for schools and an ongoing focus on PLD for teachers to increase levels of digital fluency.

So why are we still surprised when events such as the COVID-19 pandemic strike, and are left scrambling to provide the appropriate forms of digitally-enabled alternatives to in-class instruction when schools are closed? I suggest six possible reasons outlined below – I’m sure there are others, so would welcome your comment and feedback…

1. Unbelief

For the most part our actions are the product of our beliefs – unless, of course, we are being coerced against our will. A strategic goal or declaration of intent won’t effect a change in behaviour unless we first believe in it. The notion of ‘belief’ is something that is personal, a trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something.

For some time now it has been recognised that an organisation – school or business – operates according to a set of values and beliefs which in turn establish its culture and ways of working. Making these things central and explicit has been the focus of a lot of leadership advice in recent years, described by some as the ‘why‘ of any organisational strategy.

But even with an evidence-based ‘why’ underpinning the strategic intent of an organisation, it’s still not uncommon to find some members whose behaviour simply doesn’t reflect the stated ‘beliefs’. Instead, we see evidence of their ‘unbelief’.

In a recent email thread I was a part of the discussion focused on how distance/online learning might play a more significant part in our future education system. In the midst of the discussion one of the participants stated “I want to strongly stress that distance learning is, in fact, woefully inferior to face to face learning“. From that point it was clear to the group where that person’s beliefs (or lack of) about distance education as a potentially valuable form of learning.

Not everyone expresses their ‘unbelief’ in such an upfront and explicit way. It’s more common to see this unbelief revealed through behaviour. For example, an inspired principal or leadership team may articulate a vision for collaborative learning through the school and support that with all sorts of evidence, but then find a number of staff simply return to teaching in isolation in their classrooms. The declaration of change hasn’t affected their beliefs – and their behaviour demonstrates, in fact, their ‘unbelief’.

At a national level we currently have a focus on digital fluency as a part of our strategic thinking, supported by evidence about why this is so important for the future of our young people.

2. Analogue mindset

In his 1995 book “Being Digital” Nicholas Negroponte painted a vivid picture of life as we move toward an entirely digital society. Much of what he predicted then would be considered as taken for granted by today’s youth. Negroponte argues for the need for us as humans to ‘be digital’ which he describes as thinking in terms of ‘bits’ not ‘atoms’ in the book. The current debates and alarm around things such as online shopping threatening stores on the main street or online services replacing taxis, travel agencies and newspapers for example illustrate some of this. Not that it’s wrong for such debates to be had, or such concerns to be aired – rather, it’s the nature of the arguments that are sometimes put forward that reveal the extent to which participants are not thinking with a digital mindset.

Take as a simple example the use of a word processor which has nowadays all but completely replaced a typewriter. The modern word processor provides a vast array of functionality and capability for anyone wanting to convert their ideas into print – and increasingly that ‘print’ is more likely to appear online than in physical form. Yet there are still some who simply use their word processor as a typewriter – they are not thinking with a digital mindset (bits), but are trapped in analogue ways of working (atoms). For some thoughtful reading here consider the 1990 publication The Mac is Not A Typewriter which provides in some detail the point I am making.

In our daily lives in schools we can see evidence of this non-digital mindset operating everywhere. Consider how long it has taken for many schools to make changes to their tradition of sending out reports on student progress twice a year, and move instead towards a ‘report on demand’ approach that is now possible with the digital recording of progress linked with evidence of work completed etc can be made available almost as immediately as it is completed.

More subtly, consider the practice in meetings where minutes are still kept by a minute taker, recorded in a form that is based on the paper format of some decades ago, ‘typed’ up on a word processor and then distributed as an attachment in an email to members. Contrast this with a digital version of the agenda in which notes are able to be recorded and added to by participants as the meeting is in progress, with one person taking responsibility for ‘tidying up’ at the end so that the minutes are instantly available for all as the meeting is concluded. And consider also that the actions identified in the minutes can be digitally assigned to a person and a reminder automatically appear in her/his calendar to remind them ahead of the next meeting.

These are just a couple of examples that remind us that, while the technology has evolved exponentially in the past couple of decades, there are still many who continue to operate with analogue ways of thinking. This can be a particular problem when the analogue thinkers happen to be the leaders in our organisations or national agencies. The tell-tale signs appear when leaders attempt to promote the idea of digital fluency, but rely on others to “make the technology work” for them.

3. Binary Thinking

A conundrum in the digital age it would seem is the propensity for binary thinking. We can be so prone to assessing everything as being ‘either’ – ‘or’ with little in between.

A case in point would be the positioning of views around the role of distance and online learning within the future of schooling. During the COVID lockdown the experience of emergency remote learning left some with a very negative experience based on loss of connection with others or lack of support at home, while for others it was a positive experience, allowing more time for reflection and a greater sense of personal agency in terms of the use of time and choice of what to study. Now that we are seeing a return to schools operating back in their physical buildings, there’s a lot of binary thinking evident as some advocate for more distance education, while others reject that outright and claim that face to face learning is all that matters. Very little appears to be happening in the space in between – the exploration of what a truly transformed education system might look like where learners have the freedom to attend a physical site of learning, but access the expertise and ‘instruction’ from a range of places – virtually. While some educators have been exploring ‘flipped’ classroom approaches for a while now, the real change here will require a commitment to non-binary thinking at a broader, system level (see below).

The challenge for all of us is to recognise and respond to this sort of binary thinking when we experience it in our meetings and everyday relationships, and call it out for not being a helpful way of moving forward.

4. Stable State Thinking

I’ve taken the notion of ‘stable state’ thinking from Donald Schon’s 1971 book, Beyond the Stable State that is so amazingly pertinent in addressing the challenges for learning organisations. Schon sees ‘the stable state’ as a deep individual and collective need for comprehensibility and control in life. The problem is life is not like that. In an age of accelerating change and increasing complexity the strong sense of desire to return to the stable state is simply not realistic.

This is particularly so when thinking of life in the digital age, where the impact of digital technologies has transformed so much of how we live, work and communicate that it would now be impossible to simply return to what we’ve known in the past and now consider to be our ‘stable state’.

More than a decade after Schon’s work the US military adopted the concept of VUCA to describe the more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous multilateral world perceived as resulting from the end of the cold war. This thinking has now been embraced by a large number of governments, agencies and organisations to inform ideas about strategic leadership and change – all of which moves us beyond the stable state.

Yet sadly we see evidence of stable state thinking in so many of the decisions being made currently in education, many of which are so grounded in analogue and stable state thinking that they miss the point of the digital age and quickly lose relevance. It seems that, in so many circumstances, conversations around important things including curriculum development, assessment approaches, the form and nature of schools and schooling or the role of teachers etc are all limited by stable state thinking, with vague reference to the role of digital technologies as if they are something that are ‘in addition to’ or ‘an option’ to be considered in support of the particular issue.

5. Expedience

This is an obvious one to have on the list really. In the face of increasing complexity, or having to operate within the short time-frames of political funding cycles etc. the easiest decision to make is often the one that is most expedient. What can we achieve with the least amount of effort, that will give us the best ‘bang for buck’ within the (mostly short) timeframe available?

Expedience leads to decisions that don’t require learning new ways of doing things or engagement with complex issues. When faced with the challenge of a digital divide, for example, the expedient thing to do is to provide more devices and better connectivity. Granted, that is an essential part of the picture – but in an of itself it won’t achieve a lot. There are issues relating to technical support, development of digital skills, what happens at the ‘end of life’ of the device, and who pays for the ongoing internet connection cost to be considered for example.

Many leaders, when faced with decisions that are time bound and competing with other demands on time and resource will resort to what is expedient simply to keep things moving and provide a sign of progress. Because the requirements to support a digital learning future involve quite literally a paradigm shift in thinking and behaviour, decisions made on the basis of expedience not only slow or inhibit progress, they can actually cause a step backwards and increase the level of resistance and frustration felt by all involved.

6. Lack of System-ness

Surely one of the biggest issues in our ‘focus on self’ society of today is the lack of systems-thinking within our education ecosystem. Since the advent of ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ in 1989 when individual schools were charged with operating very autonomously our system as a whole has been characterised by high levels of competition and mis-trust between and among schools. Consider how difficult it has been in so many areas of NZ to achieve the clustering outcome intended by the introduction of Kahui Ako?

In terms of how we embrace digital learning in our system, the lack of system-ness in our thinking, our structures and our processes has left us with a rather ‘fragmented’ approach, with each school (and in some cases clusters of schools) responsible for decisions that are more appropriately (and effectively) dealt with as a system. Some of that has been done already. For example, the government has taken responsibility for rolling out ultra-fast broadband to (nearly) all schools in the country – something that would simply not be possible if individual schools had to ‘sort that for themselves’. In addition, the Ministry of Education have commissioned the Network for Learning (N4L) to provide schools with the protections of a managed network. But neither of these things have been without problems, as schools have still had the freedom to choose whether to connect to these services – a part of the reason for some being the ongoing cost of subscribing which comes out of their operating budget. And then there’s the matter of support… and end-of-life on hardware… and sustainability with upgrades… and teacher PD etc. etc.

Consider the state of the student management systems across the country. Each school operating their own – and defending this decision based on reasons associated with the special needs in their school to have access to certain features etc. All very good within the local school – but what about when a student goes from primary to intermediate school – and then on to secondary? What happens to all of that data and record of learning? The situation under COVID-19 highlighted this lack of ‘system-ness’ for us. Given the urgency of the lockdown notice, and the imminent closure of schools, the option to ‘take learning online’ was an obvious decision to make – in most cases. But to do this we needed to know who all of the students in the country are, where they are located and what their technology needs are – at home. This data simply isn’t available in NZ – making us possibly the only education system in the developed world incapable of doing so. Despite personal phone calls by MoE staff to each of the 2500 schools in the country, even then it proved impossible to gather accurate data in a timely fashion to enable the system to shift into gear and provide devices and connectivity to the learners who needed it.

These are just a few of the issues we face due to the lack of system-ness in our thinking. The overwhelming tendency to focus on the immediate situation in the local context by the staff and boards of trustees of local schools means that little time is given to considering the benefits of collaborative ventures and investing in things that will benefit learners both now and in the longer term.

This lack of system-ness in our thinking and overall system design and operation can be a major impediment to achieving the conditions required to support and sustain digital learning as a key feature of a transformed education system moving forward.


I’m sure this list can be added to and will be argued about by some. It’s my best effort to synthesise the experience I’ve had in supporting what’s happening in our education system for more than four decades now – at all levels from the classroom through to national policy settings. In any context where the opportunity to explore digital learning emerges it’s likely that at least one of these characteristics will be observed – often more than one. It’s not that there’s no validity in some of the perspectives shared, indeed, it can be helpful to consider alternative views, but this must be done with an open and critical mind. Where these behaviours are tolerated and unchallenged, the impact on our system is significant, and the ability of that system to adequately serve the needs of the learners in it is diminished and so we fail yet another generation of young people at a time when we should be doing all we can to prepare them as ‘confident, capable and connected life-long learners’ as they grow up in an increasingly digital world.

2 thoughts on “Digital learning – six reasons we’re failing

  1. Spot on Derek!
    “So why are we still surprised when events such as the COVID-19 pandemic strike, and are left scrambling to provide the appropriate forms of digitally-enabled alternatives to in-class instruction when schools are closed?”
    The question you pose above demands answers and action. You’ve traversed the first cogently. A dynamic strategic approach, founded on a clear vision, is the necessary bridge to understanding and action for both policy makers and implementers.

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