Digital Directions: Subject-Specific Solutions
The advent of digital media has presented educational publishers with opportunities not only for the delivery of effective teaching and learning solutions, but also with significant challenges that are well known by readers of this column. These challenges include the need to acquire new competencies within the organizations, the creation of new partnerships with service providers and the need to sort through a range of technical issues.
However, there is one challenge that is discussed less often, a challenge that may prove especially vexing: the need for fundamentally different approaches for different subject areas in the application of educational technology. This was less of a problem in the past, when the same product model could be applied to most subjects: the textbook. However, the new capabilities of digital media require publishers to think in terms of subject-specific approaches.
Over the past few decades, some of the most effective applications of learning technology have been specific to the subjects they address. A few examples include:
- Aplia entered the field with a learning model that allowed students to interactively and graphically explore and manipulate mathematical functions required for mastery of economics and other quantitative fields. It is a powerful way to master difficult concepts. Thomson Learning (now Cengage) acquired Aplia in the hope of extending the platform to all subjects. However, the Aplia model was proven to be most effective for the subjects for which it is originally intended.
- Adaptive learning platforms such as Aleks and Lrnr take math students through individualized and prescriptive sequences of math problems based on their mastery of concepts. As effective as this approach is, it is clearly most appropriate for math in which the student is attempting to efficiently progress through large arrays of problems.
- Discussion and social interaction has long been an approach for exploring humanities and social sciences. This is a natural fit for community-based learning platforms like Blackboard or Moodle that support a group of learners or researchers in asynchronous (discussion threads) or synchronous (IM, chat) modes.
- Alexander Street Press and History IT are two organizations that provide resources for fields in the humanities by providing access to well-curated collections of historical documents. Such approaches are also beneficial for such fields as archeology or material culture, which are supported by access to documents and other artifacts.
A pattern emerges: learning technology is most effective when it is oriented from the ground up around a specific subject area. The subject domain should drive the requirements of how the technology will be best used.