Review of Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World

Perhaps more than ever, education is at a crossroad. Schools are now educating digital generation students, and alternative methods of content delivery that utilize technology and personalized digital systems are being implemented in the educational setting at an alarming rate.

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In 2011, Tom Vander Ark wrote Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World. Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart, a learning advocacy firm that promotes technology, innovation, and customized learning to make educational opportunities available for everyone.

Getting Smart articulates Vander Ark’s vision for an educational system built primarily on the benefits and realities of current and new technologies. Vander Ark’s primary goal is to see students learn. In fact, he believes that innovation is the key to educational excellence and equal access for all students. Getting Smart’s premise is that today’s educational structure has remained largely unchanged in the last hundred years, and schools are not taking advantage of the benefits that technology and customized digital learning can bring. Vander Ark states that changing the school structure is extremely challenging because of the layers of politics and bureaucracy interwoven in the educational system. Secondly, many educators are not aware of the increasing changes and needs of digital generation students. Much research states that these students learn differently than previous generations, and many express boredom with the current educational structure that does not fit their needs and interests.

Chapters one to six discuss the many technology tools and opportunities needed to change the learning environment for students and teachers. Vander Ark feels that the current classroom setup is a mass-production style in which schools group students based on age and not necessarily learning levels. Some students succeed, others fail, and many are ushered through class as if they were on an assembly line. Vander Ark strongly encourages the use of a self-paced, self-directed structure in which technology assists students in mastering the content.

The final chapters of the book are more policy driven and discuss the operational aspects of managing a blended education school. No new technologies ever emerge without proper funding, and Vander Ark discusses the many possibilities now available for venture capitalists and even the U.S. government in these areas. Funding is needed to unify many of the current platforms that are the central portals for all teaching and learning. Curriculum will need to be re-written and formatted for digital delivery. Teachers will need to be trained, and parents and students will need to be educated about the new possibilities. Vander Ark emphasizes the need for an individualized, innovative, and less-formal educational system.

Few would doubt the powerful influences of proper learning and education. Today’s educational system promotes equal access for all; however, students who are trapped in a below-average school or school district do not have access to some of the best teachers. With the power of the Internet coupled with today’s blended learning management platforms, equal access is possible.

In conclusion, Vander Ark does not imply that technology tools should simply be added to the current educational setup, but that technology should be used to unbundle and restructure the entire teaching and learning process. These bold ideas challenge long-held assumptions about education. Innovation is the key to unlocking next-generation learning. These new models are not a one-size-fits-all solution, but in a day when many private schools struggle with attendance and proper marketing, digital learning can provide innovative tools to buy the teacher and school additional time and student interest. Today’s students have diverse needs, and if technology can assist with individualized learning and re-engage student interests, then the power of these tools can engage and educate students in ways that traditional education cannot.

Have you read Getting Smart?  Tell us what you think!  

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Vander Ark, T. (2011). Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Copyright Journal for Christian Educators, Spring 2014 edition.  Reprinted with permission of the American Association of Christian Schools.

Jason Haas is the Director of Programs and Services at the North Carolina Christian School Association. Jason has a B.S. in Music Education, an M.S. in Educational Leadership, and an Ed.S. in Educational Leadership. He will complete an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from Liberty University by the fall of 2015. He has been researching, writing, and speaking on blended education and other educational technology integration for several years. Email him at or on Twitter @jasonhaas.