02/19/2013 05:56 EST | Updated 04/21/2013 05:12 EDT

How Technology Is Disrupting Learning

Getty Images
Holding Digital Tablet with statistics isolated on white background.

Remember a company called Blockbuster? What about Sam the Record Man?

Think of those companies and what became of them and their industries in the digital world.

Now turn your thoughts to learning.

While teachers, students, parents, taxpayers and politicians discuss the current state of education across Canada the learning landscape is being transformed under their feet. Digital technologies are disrupting it in the same way that they disrupted Blockbuster. Learning is more than memorizing and knowledge is more than storage. And technology is unleashing powerful new ways to teach and stimulate the brains of those learning. With digital education, educators need to open their minds to alternatives when it comes to teaching, learning and assessment.

It's been said our parent's generation had a job for life, we baby boomers had a career for life with multiple jobs and future generations will have multiple careers with multiple jobs. Digital education options have the potential to be part of the education mix that will enable us to stay current and adapt to new opportunities in the transforming job market.

With new digital education alternatives popping up every day it's difficult to decide who to highlight but here's some great examples. There are many websites dedicated to digital learning; from a myriad of exciting Canadian startups supported by Innovation hub MaRS to the Khan Academy and Coursera. The Coursera network has almost three million registered students online and offers courses through its partnership world-class universities. Courses are taught by leading professors to anyone. And it's free.

If we forget about the technology for a minute and think about the basics of education it turns out that there are two prime reasons individuals want to further their education: to learn and broaden their perspectives and to get credentials which can further their careers.

At Coursera, the educational benefits provided currently are primarily focused on the former -- enabling learning. Having said that, they're testing alternatives that enable successful students to get credentials for their work -- once they solve the problem of proving that it was really you who did the course work and not some genius relative.

Think about it: you pay $40 to take an accredited course from one of the best professors in the world on a given topic. When millions of people, not dozens or hundreds in the class, pay $40 each then Coursera and partner universities have a pretty good looking business model.

Even without the $40 online verification fee, there are plenty of reasons why universities and professors want to partner with Coursera in digital education. First, when hundreds of thousands of people are taking your course and you can tell when people logged off or pause the video, a professor gets good feedback on how to improve his or her teaching. With questionnaires and quizzes online, there are vast amounts of other data teaching teachers how to teach better -- and that's critically important in the 21st century.

Or, so found Dr. Barbara Means in a massive study about digital learning. Means, co-director of the not-for-profit Center of Technology in Learning, SRI International, in California, and her research team analyzed 175 different education studies and found that online teaching or blending learning between online and face-to-face instruction produces stronger learning outcomes. Students are more engaged and digital technologies put students in contact with hundreds of thousands of students, not dozens in one classroom, to share advice and boost learning.

It's important to note that our children aren't the only (or even the primary) beneficiaries of these new learning alternatives. I'm a baby boomer adjunct professor of technology strategy at the York University Schulich School of Business -- and a current student on Coursera.

Classrooms have an important place in the education landscape and probably always will. But online alternatives have the potential to enhance or supplement traditional options. In today's digital world, teachers matter more than ever, but just in different ways. Instead of simply lecturing and grading papers, teachers must act more like conductors of a symphony leading and engaging the various players in the orchestra.

No doubt about it: blockbuster changes have started in education and we ain't seen nothing yet. I have to go now -- I've got homework to do on my iPad.