George Mason University

News at Mason

Professor's research shows how the digital revolution is creating an evolution in learning

July 19, 2018   /   by Damian Cristodero

Thanks to digital technologies such as laptops, smartphones and tablets, students are creating personal learning environments in which they choose the tools, times and methods by which they learn.

Institutions should help students make the best use of those technologies, George Mason University professor Nada Dabbagh said.

“Rather than us creating platforms for students to learn from, we need to put it into their hands,” she said. “Teach them how to use technology, to help them create their own personal learning environments. Formal and informal learning need to be connected.”

"This shows you that the nature of learning is really changing. It's becoming more collaborative." — Mason professor Nada Dabbagh.

Mason is well on its way in that regard. It is part of the Online Virginia Network, and its partnership with Wiley & Sons delivers quality online graduate courses.

Also, classrooms in the state-of-the-art academic building that will be part of the Core Campus Project will have docking stations so students can learn using their own devices and with face-to-face and hybrid engagement options. There will also be increased voice and video connectivity among Mason’s campuses and strategic partners.

To understand how entwined technology is to learning at Mason, Dabbagh, director of the Division of Learning Technologies in the College of Education and Human Development, and her team sent surveys to 10,928 Mason students in October 2017.

Results from the 622 students who responded show that:

  • 98 percent said they use laptops to help them learn; 72 percent said they use smartphones and only 33 percent said they used desktop computers.
  • 99 percent of respondents said they use search engines to learn; 90 percent use file sharing tools; 88 percent use digital libraries and 65 percent use learning management systems.
  • 82 percent of respondents said collaboration tools are useful for learning, but they also cited progress tracking tools, visualization tools, resource sharing tools and organizational tools as important for digital learning.

You can see the survey results here.

“This shows you that the nature of learning is really changing,” Dabbagh said. “It’s becoming more collaborative. [With] the students, because of their engagement in social media apps, there’s a lot of back and forth communication.”

The benefits, respondents said, are the ability to learn anytime, anywhere and at their own pace, working with others on projects, connecting course materials and real-world experiences, meeting learners with similar interests and receiving immediate feedback on their work.

“They’re telling us they are self-directed,” Dabbagh said of students. “They want to choose their own tools. They’re not going to textbooks. When they need to do a project, they’re going to use search engines. They fuse different types of technologies together into an integrated platform.”

“Nada’s research represents a rigorous application of theories of learning to the use of digital technologies in training and development,” said professor Kevin Clark, director of Mason’s Center for Digital, Media, Innovation and Diversity. “As more organizations move toward creating online content, her research provides a theoretical framework necessary to effectively apply technology in these online learning contexts.”

Dabbagh’s team also included Thulasi Kumar, associate provost in Mason’s Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness; Zhicheng Zhang, associate director, Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness; and PhD candidate Helen Fake.