When people think about digital learning, the first things that come to mind are likely the common applications they’ve experienced. For example, you might think of remote learning through class meetings that happen over a video call, sharing class materials and collecting assignments using a learning management system, taking an asynchronous online course, or giving students individualized practice and feedback with learning software. 

All of these examples frame digital learning in terms of specific resources and their functions within our current education system. But when we think about the big-picture, long-term impact digital learning will have on society, we need to think more broadly than its role in our current schools and classrooms. 

Why does formal education emphasize reading and writing?

To get at this broader view, consider a related big-picture question: What’s the role of written text in education? Literacy is about more than just enabling schools to use textbooks and written exams. So why does much of formal education focus on teaching students how to decode and communicate through written text? 

There are lots of potential answers to that question, but one reason literacy matters is that reading is one of the oldest and most common mediums for self-directed learning. Learning to read precedes reading to learn. Once students learn to read, a world of life-long learning opens up to them.

Following this line of reasoning, digital learning is, in many ways, the modern technological descendant of writing and the printing press. People invented writing to share ideas unconstrained by time and space, and people read to learn both as part of independent and formal education. Similarly, digital learning is a powerful medium through which people teach and learn—both formally and informally—in our modern world. Digital learning includes not only video-based class meetings, online courseware, and adaptive learning software, but also Wikipedia articles, explainer videos on YouTube, learning communities on Facebook, and virtual experiences in Minecraft.

A better medium for self-directed learning

Framed in this way, it’s easy to notice some enormous benefits of digital learning as a medium for self-directed learning that overcomes some of the inherent limitations of learning through print-based reading and writing.

First, a lot of information gets lost when ideas and experiences are compressed into writing. The emotion conveyed in the cadence and tone of a person’s speech doesn’t translate well into print, and the saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is a self-evident truth. In contrast, online video is a medium that incorporates both pictures and speech to convey ideas in “high definition.”

Second, processing written communication isn’t a particularly natural thing for humans. People have been communicating through speech for at least 50,000 years and body language pre-dates homo sapiens. In contrast, writing is less than 6,000 years old. Our brains are much more adept at processing spoken language than written language. And people with dyslexia or other reading challenges are brilliant in many ways despite having brains that aren’t wired as well to process writing. The audio and video components of digital learning help overcome these challenges.

Third, books can’t respond to readers’ questions or adapt to readers’ learning needs. This is one reason why textbooks have never replaced live instruction in classrooms. Reading alone lacks the dialogue through which teachers check learners’ understanding and adapt how they present information according to student feedback. In contrast, online learning software can give learners feedback on basic knowledge and skills and can adapt to their needs. It doesn’t approach the abilities of teachers, but it offers a huge step forward beyond static text.

Additionally, simulated digital learning environments allow learners to not just study concepts but to have experiences that they might never have access to in real life. First-hand experience is probably the oldest form of self-directed learning. Digital learning platforms can break the constraints of geography to connect learners directly with both learning communities and experts from all over the world. 

In these myriad ways, digital learning offers an explosion of self-directed learning opportunities that go far beyond the capabilities of both textbooks and classrooms. 

What possible futures might digital learning enable?

Digital learning doesn’t replace all forms of synchronous, face-to-face learning. But it has the potential to make self-directed learning far more accessible and engaging, and in doing so enables the uncoupling of learning from whole-class, teacher-led, single-paced instruction. 

With this big-picture framing in mind, we need to make sure that we don’t pigeonhole digital learning into only serving as a component within our conventional education systems and instead consider the possible forms that formal education might take when coupled with self-directed digital learning. 

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages.


  • Thomas Arnett
    Thomas Arnett

    Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.