Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina interviews Alan Alda at yesterday's summit. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award for his leadership in communicating science to the public.

Digital education is like whitewater rafting. Or like the Napster era in music. The two analogies were among many that came up yesterday as panelists considered the future of technology in education at a Scientific American and Macmillan Science & Education summit on “Learning in the Digital Age,” at Google’s New York headquarters.

As a special section in the current issue of SA lays out, technology is transforming schools in many different ways. It allows anyone with an Internet connection to take courses at Harvard and MIT; it adapts instruction to individual students’ learning styles and provides streams of data to help researchers track student progress. Many college professors are also experimenting with animations and interactive computer exercises to break up the pace of lectures and help their students focus on key points. Skeptics worry, of course, about the dark side of these developments, including threats to student privacy and to teacher autonomy.

Tim Stelzer, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne and co-creator of the smartPhysics learning system, compared the changes in education to rapids because “standing still is not an option, but if we allow the current to dictate our path, the results will be disastrous.“

Many of the panelists agreed that education is at a tipping point. “Technology has not revolutionized education yet,” said Mike Berlin, director of strategic initiatives at Macmillan New Ventures (a sister company to Scientific American). “Investment and technology are in place, but we’re fighting 200 years of inertia, and nobody knows exactly how it’s going to play out.” The key, he added, was to try to avoid mistakes like those made by the music industry on its road to iTunes. “This is a Napster moment for education,” he said. “It’s a big opportunity and an existential threat.”

The Post-MOOC Era

The good news is that some of the brightest minds in business and academia are working hard to chart a new course for education. Harvard’s Robert Lue, director of the university’s online course portal, HarvardX, and a professor of the practice of molecular and cellular biology, shared his and his colleagues many initiatives. First off, he said, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are already obsolete. Courses need not be massive, nor open, nor even courses. Instead, Harvard faculty have been developing Online Learning Activities, which Lue calls OLAs. These can be incorporated into any course, and he imagined a future where students could come to HarvardX and “pull an OLA from public health, one from the law school, one from the business school and one from basic science and create a learning experience that is exactly what that student needs. We think about personalized medicine. This is personalized learning that can unite a campus unlike anything we have ever seen before.” Later in his talk, he called this the “choose your own adventure” model. “A course represents a series of exploratory chambers. Students begin and end at same point, but the pathway they choose is entirely different.”

Are Lecturers An Endangered Species?

Lue, who was the summit’s keynote speaker, also considered the question of whether digital learning threatens teachers. “Will this eliminate the need for faculty?” he asked. “If what we’re doing in the classroom can be replaced with an online course, we should be eliminated. But I’m convinced this is not the case. This is an opportunity to rethink what drives effective learning in the classroom.”

For more on digital education, please see special joint coverage by SA and our sister publication, Nature, here.

Highlights include Robert Lue on how digitization can improve the on-campus experience, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the future of testing, and long features about MOOCs in the developing world and Arizona State University’s grand experiment in computerizing its introductory math courses.