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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

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Focus on the Opportunities Ed Tech Brings, Not the Hype

By Rick Hess — March 20, 2014 3 min read

You can hardly open a newspaper, visit an education website, or visit a school without being bombarded by excited claims about educational technology and a raft of intimidating jargon. Newspapers and school district announcements are full of terms like “MOOCs” (massive open online courses), “blended school models,” “virtual classrooms,” “adaptive assessments” and much more.

The promise is that digital learning will improve and enrich learning, while empowering educators to design more engaging, professional and dynamic schools and classrooms. But technology by itself can’t and won’t make this happen.

After all, though educational technology always seems ripe with promise, the results over the course of the past century have left educators exasperated and wary. Fanciful initiatives have repeatedly soaked up time, energy and money, only to leave parents unimpressed, teachers frustrated and students no better off.

Doing better requires that we approach technology in a different way. After all, remember the “definition of insanity” that’s usually attributed to Einstein: “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

The trick to is to stop focusing on the technology and to instead focus on the learning. After all, you rarely hear someone say, “I’m going to that doctor because she’s got an amazing X-ray machine.” Instead, we talk about the doctor’s skill at diagnosing and addressing ills, because we know the tool is only as good as the hand that wields it.

Yet, when we talk educational technology, there’s far too much excited talk about big purchases of tablets or assessment systems and far too little about just what educators and students are supposed to actually do with these.

There are four keys to getting this right. First, focus intently on identifying specific opportunities to improve learning. Second, develop concrete strategies for how we can take advantage of these opportunities. Third, ask how technology makes it possible to put these solutions to work. And fourth, figure out what obstacles are in the way, and how to remove or sidestep them.

What’s the right approach look like? It starts with that tight focus on problem-solving. For instance, many schools have trouble giving struggling students or English language learners as much individualized attention as they need when it comes to writing and reading skills. One promising solution is to give students a serious chunk of additional, personalized coaching and practice each day. The thing is, most schools don’t have enough staff to make that feasible.

If we forget about fancy tech terms and just look though a problem-solving lens, the benefits of putting technology to work can come into sharper focus. Computer-assisted tutoring can make it possible to give students more of the support they need. Kurt VanLehn, professor of computer science and engineering at Arizona State University, has reviewed more than 80 studies of “intelligent,” computer-based tutoring systems and found that the best of these systems can nearly match the performance of human tutors when it comes to helping students. This is not magic. These systems provide targeted feedback and repeated practice, adjust the pace to the individual student, use a variety of illustrations and explanations, and employ both audio and visual information. They are not as good as the very best human tutors--but they can approximate what most tutors actually do. If these tutoring systems are not any better than people, why bother with them? Because of the problem we’re trying to solve. These systems are always available, don’t get tired or sick, never have a bad day and can accurately assess how things are going.

Another common problem is new teachers having to spend lots of time trying to cobble together lessons plans and assemble materials for each class. This can make it tougher to spend time working with individual students, developing coherent lessons, or just figuring out how to teach better. One promising solution: making it easier for teachers to readily access a library of high-quality, comprehensive lessons. Technology creates vast opportunities for online providers to collect, curate and make available outstanding lessons, along with all the requisite materials, videos, illustrations and user guidance. New providers like BetterLesson and LearnZillion are doing just this, offering teachers a freely available resource that’s a huge step up from having to beg for boxes of old materials from the veteran down the hall.

The bottom line is that getting ed tech right isn’t about bandwidth, devices or cool graphics, but about solving problems for students and educators.

Note: This article originally appeared in Amplify.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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