Three years ago, I toured the Library of Congress for the first time. Today I am here again, this time for Digital Learning Day. Although I have been involved with helping to organize this event since its inception in 2012, and have had the privilege of attending the live event twice, when I have shared with other educators, including those in my own district, the response is usually indifference.
This event, and the kinds of learning practices it encourages and celebrates, has grown a great deal in only 3 years. This year, about 2,200 individual school and classroom events around the United States have registered at the DLDay website. International events are taking place in fifty countries. Yet this is still a tiny fraction of the schools, classrooms, teachers, and students in the US. In many places, digital learning is treated like a pocket square for a man’s suit: an optional, albeit flashy, accessory.
Although the events of Digital Learning Day are just one day a year, the day is intended to raise awareness for ongoing and embedded digital learning practices in schools. On Monday, there was even some discussion of extending the celebration:
The last time I was here, I was struck by the mission of the Library and why it was so deeply connected with public education in the United states. So why is Digital Learning Day not just an accessory but an important event and opportunity? It’s about access.
The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world. It contains almost 150 million items in its collection, almost all of which are accessible to the public. In order to read a book here, one only needs to obtain a reader’s card, something that takes less than five minutes. But you have to physically be in Washington, DC, to actually access the items.
Recently, though, the LoC began digitizing its collection. To date, it has done so with about 18 million items, about one-eighth of that collection. Now, from anywhere you have Internet access, you can view, for free, any of those 18 million items. Digital tools make it possible to view the collection worldwide, instantly, for free.
Digital learning tools allow students the same kind of access to a world of content, teachers, and other learners. Beyond the Library of Congress, there are billions of original texts, data, and media from around the world. Through initiatives like EdX, anyone can learn from some of the best teachers on the planet, even if they don’t have the money (or the grades) to enroll at Harvard. The best learning opportunities and environments are no longer the exclusive domain of wealthy elites. And the best part is every teacher can turn their own classroom into the world’s greatest learning environment just by tapping into these resources.
In today’s world, calling this an “add-on” or an accessory should be considered educational malpractice, if not unethical. In the North Corridor on the first floor of the LoC, there is a painting by Charles Sprague Pearce (see the image at the top of this post). The scroll contains these words from Confucius: “Give instruction unto those who cannot procure it for themselves.” A fitting theme for not only the Library of Congress, but also Digital Learning Day. This is not about flashy pocket squares. It is about celebrating the big and small things that not only should be happening, but can be happening, every day in every classroom, to connect our students with the world.