Learning: Peering Backward and Looking Forward in the Digital Era

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Our focus here falls on those competencies that require some kind
of formal instruction, tuition, or scaffolding on the
part of the individuals, organizations, and/or media
of the ambient society. Put differently, we direct our
attention to those forms of learning that do not occur
automatically, readily, naturally, or by dint of simply
living in a certain place at a certain time. (In this way,
we also eliminate from consideration most of what is
considered learning in organisms other than primates
and higher mammals; cf. Hauser 2000.)

We begin with a consideration of how learning
took place in the distant past; then turn to learning
as it evolved in recent centuries; then direct our
focus to the challenges and opportunities of learning
going forward in the digital era. Our sketch of
“learning past” will be just that—a cook’s tour, perhaps
necessary, at least brief. As shown in table 1,
we will be cognizant throughout of who the learners
are, where they learn, how they learn, what are
the principal curricula, and how competences are
purveyed via the media of the time. The grid itself
contains generalizations about the past and present,
and speculation about the future, thus providing
a broad portrait of changes over time. While we
do not discuss each entry in the grid, we hope that
it aids in thinking about learning in formal and informal

In this article we argue that, after millennia of
considering education (learning and teaching) chiefly
in one way, we may well have reached a set of tipping
points: Going forward, learning may be far more individualized,
far more in the hands (and the minds)
of the learner, and far more interactive than ever
before. This constitutes a paradox: As the digital era
progresses, learning may be at once more individual
(contoured to a person’s own style, proclivities, and
interests) yet more social (involving networking,
group work, the wisdom of crowds, etc.). How these
seemingly contradictory directions are addressed impacts
the future complexion of learning. Throughout
this article we draw upon a variety of resources to
inform our arguments, including scholarly research,
general interest articles, blog posts, and research in
progress by our team at Harvard Project Zero, including
The Developing Minds and Digital Media Project
and The GoodPlay Project.