From Dewey to Digitization: Organizing classrooms to optimize learning

From: Lea Brandt, Enrichly Chief Operating Officer & Chief Academic Officer

I have been teaching in health professions education for almost twenty years. Having been both a student and instructor in higher education during the advent of digital technologies, I have seen first-hand the benefits and barriers to e learning. However, even with the vast changes in how we teach students in post-secondary education, nothing has changed so much as the students themselves.

Armed with the anecdotal evidence of this changing learner, I have strived to enhance the classroom experience in order to try to meet the students where they are. I have spent hours searching YouTube, trying to find the perfect video clip to elucidate a concept or engage the students. I have started classes with reading passages from The New York Times to children’s stories in attempt to promote synthesis of thought. Some of my faculty colleagues have scoffed at the idea of molding curricula to meet student needs, after all when studying to be a health care professional the student is required to produce clear and standardized learning outcomes. While the content evolves based on current clinical evidence, the standards consistently contain the same topic areas and basic core science requirements. Other faculty has argued that students really have not changed that much. However, for those of us who have been in the classroom for over a decade, we have certainly experienced a shift in dynamics and student expectations. This is why I felt so validated when I read the August 2018 report published by Pearson.

Beyond Millennials: The Next Generation of Learners outlines research conducted by The Harris Poll based on 2,587 online responses from participants 14-40 years of age (Pearson, 2018). The report gives credence to the changing needs of students, in particular, differences between Generation Z and Millennials. Some of the most staggering differences relate to the individual’s preferences regarding learning tools. For example, 63% of Gen-Z students considered video as the best way to learn, where 65% of Millennials considered reading the best way to learn.

By the late 2000’s most faculty were encouraged, if not mandated, to use an online platform to teach their courses. Even if taught face-to-face, access to course materials is through a learning management system (LMS), such as Blackboard or Canvas. We as instructors and institutions of higher education were already responding to perceived student needs and a drive to harness the benefits of technology. In fact, 45% of millennial learners report preferring to take online classes (Pearson, 2018). One might think that an even higher percentage of Generation Z students would prefer online classes, but in fact, only 26% prefer this approach (Pearson, 2018). So where does that leave us as educators? Surely, the answer is not to scrap e learning all together and yet, it seems the current online settings fall short of the Generation Z learners’ needs. These learners are digital natives, but still crave access to teacher lead instruction.

The current LMS serves mainly as a repository for learning objects, but it is still the instructor’s role to frame the question in a way that “challenges thought”. The end goal of learning is not acquiring answers to known questions, but rather preparing students for the struggle of dealing with complex social questions. Regardless of their profession, they will encounter new problems, difficult situations and unexpected conflict. We have to create learning environments, which cultivate critical thinking skills; to engage the student in thinking and solving for the problems they will encounter in practice. As instructors, we must constantly challenge ourselves to determine if, it is

the pupil’s own problem, or is it the teacher’s or textbook’s problem, made a problem for the pupil only because (s)he cannot get the required mark or be promoted, or win the teacher’s approval unless (s)he deals with it? (Dewey, 1944, p. 155).

If you are an educator who wants to challenge and engage your students, it is imperative to address the ‘why’, while also identifying the best tools of this age to inform teaching.

It is my hope, that professional communities will come together to share their stories using diversified, media rich content to engage learners in solving for social problems. Imagine being part of an online community not restricted by disciplines, institutions, or borders; where scholars, be they educators, students, practitioners or industry leaders, can work together to nurture team-building skills, respect for alternative viewpoints, and a passion for learning to solve problems in a diverse, globally connected society. As educators and scholars, it is our duty to build learning communities that promote critical thinking, inter-professional collaboration, and appreciation for diverse viewpoints. These are the skill sets of an innovative, educated, and globally connected society.

Dewey, J. (1944). Democracy and Education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: The Free Press.

Pearson Education, Inc. (2018). Beyond Millennials: The Next Generation of Learners. Available at:

Shane Brethowr