Published Online: July 5, 2012

Commentary

Realizing the Promise of New Education Technologies

For the past 30 years, futurists, computer-software programmers, and entrepreneurs of all stripes have argued that the latest newfangled advances in technology would transform education into a more interactive and productive enterprise.

Until now, their predictions have largely fallen well short of the hype. But today, we really are on the verge of a watershed moment, when a new generation of Web-based tools could help assess the learning of each student while delivering personalized instruction that builds on specific strengths and addresses individual weaknesses. Unfortunately, if the nation—the education community, in particular—fails to embrace this new technology, we risk squandering an extraordinary opportunity to create a renaissance in teaching and learning.

How do we persuade the skeptics to stop worrying about the new teaching tools and learn to love education technology?

First, we must demonstrate that, unlike earlier efforts to graft radio, television, and computers onto schooling, the newest wave of technological innovation really can move the needle on instruction and learning. Many new tools are Web-embedded programs rather than dedicated pieces of software, which means that they incorporate other tools, lesson plans, and best practices from myriad sources. Because they typically record every keystroke made by users, the new technologies create a flow of information about performance and understanding that can be accessed by teachers, students, administrators, and parents. They also generate information on their own effectiveness, fueling a cycle of continuous improvement. Accessing these tools requires investments in the appropriate hardware for each student, but the cost of such hardware continues to fall, and the introduction of touch interfaces such as those on the current generation of electronic tablets makes them easy for younger students to use.

Still, for educators who actively resist technology, such arguments may not go far enough. They subscribe to a media-driven narrative that pits teachers and new technologies against one another in a zero-sum game, and therefore, fear that every dollar spent on technology is one less dollar invested in teachers.

These fears are unfounded. With class sizes expanding, with the mix of students and the range of student ability becoming ever broader and more varied, and with daily schedules packed with parent conferences and extra tutoring, teachers should welcome tools that allow them to pinpoint, in real time, the precise aspect of a homework assignment that’s giving a student trouble. These tools would also aggregate data on entire classes so that teachers could focus their classroom teaching on the issues that are front and center for the majority of their students. Ideally, each student could work at his or her own pace, and no child would fall through the cracks. Parents and teachers would share the same understanding at any given moment of every child’s success or challenges in grasping the subject material.

This isn’t pie-in-the-sky talk. Technologies that can do these things exist and are in use in select schools around the country. Refining them, and developing additional tools, is a relatively low-cost enterprise, particularly at a time when “technology” has become a hot-button word for many foundations and private funders. But before others can hop on the bandwagon, educators themselves need to take three critical steps.

"How do we persuade the skeptics to stop worrying about the new teaching tools and learn to love education technology?"

First, educators must figure out which tools work best in different scenarios. New tools and apps are proliferating exponentially by the day, and we need to evaluate them to learn which align best with the needs of teachers and students or, more broadly speaking, with emerging core areas for learning. Two new tools typify the promise of the new education technology:

• A Web-browser-based tutoring platform called ASSISTments. Developed at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, ASSISTments, as its name suggests, performs tasks that extend the teacher’s reach in and beyond the classroom. As it generates sets of practice math problems geared to a range of skills, ASSISTments provides hints to students when they cannot answer problems correctly and then furnishes teachers with updated assessments of each student’s progress, as well as aggregated data on the entire class’s performance. The system prompts students to describe the logic they employed in answering specific problems, and teachers can communicate weekly or even daily with parents about their children’s work.

• The Web-based Inquiry Science Environment, or WISE, developed at the University of California, Berkeley, is a platform for sophisticated science instruction. An open-source system offered for free, WISE provides a library of weeklong inquiry assignments developed by partnerships of researchers and teachers around the country, on topics that include chemical reactions, global climate change, photosynthesis, recycling, and plate tectonics. Each WISE project encourages students to articulate their initial grasp of a scientific concept by thinking through words and images and then refining their understanding by testing it against real-world scenarios.

Second, educators should create uniform standards and formats for archiving, protecting, and sharing the data generated by intelligent learning tools. It is obvious that even educators who believe in the promise of the new technologies often have difficulty accessing one another’s study data to make comparisons, conduct meta-studies, or tease out new correlations, while school leaders are unable to compare performance across districts and states. With the emergence of data-repository centers such as DataShop, at the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center, common formats for archiving data are emerging. But to truly build the field, the education community must build data-sharing into the initial design of all studies.

Third, educators should support policy initiatives and funding efforts that would ensure that all districts and schools reap the benefits of new technologies. An example of such policy would be the Achievement Through Technology and Innovation Act introduced last year by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., as part of the pending reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation. The bill would promote technological literacy for students and support teaching and learning that incorporates technology.

Let us be clear on one essential point: Technology alone can never match the impact of a talented teacher. But technology can make good teachers better. We need to stop viewing the introduction of new tools simplistically either as a quick fix for the current system or a threat to livelihoods. Instead, we should understand that these tools can support and accelerate a multidecade, evolutionary effort to create a smarter system that delivers a better education for more students.

For the first time, the tools that can help us achieve that goal literally lie at our fingertips. Now, we just need to let our fingers do the clicking.

Vol. 31, Issue 36

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