Earlier this summer, prominent education technology professor Daniel Schwartz was named the new dean of Stanford University’s graduate school of education. On his first official day on the job, Schwartz talked with Education Week about the academy’s growing recognition of the importance of technology in schools, where K-12 schools are headed, and why ed-tech entrepreneurs might want to start paying more attention to health education and social-emotional learning.
The transcript of our conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
What does your appointment say about the growing importance of technology in K-12 education?
I think the interesting story here is that it’s now possible to have a strong, high-profile research record in the field of educational technology. At the same time, it’s very clear that Stanford is interested in technology for learning. One of my hopes is that I can help the GSE inform technology efforts around campus. We have a master’s program in this area, Learning, Design and Technology, that other universities are starting to emulate.
Where do you see the K-12 ed-tech field heading?
Well, hardware shakes up the field faster than anything, and it’s always hard to predict what the next hardware change is going to be. But it’s clear that technology is going to be suffusing the field more and more. The practical barriers are getting out of the way; schools are wireless now, for example.
[The tension between those who view ed tech as transformational and those who view it as promoting greater efficiency] hasn’t changed. The thing that may be transforming that is the realization that we can collect so much data from what students are doing. There is going to be a merging between productivity tools and educational games, and suddenly you’re going to see dashboards to interpret all the data coming out of these systems. But the ability to handle all that data and use it to differentiate instruction is going to take awhile.
There’s also a lot of energy pouring into health education right now. That’s a place where technology can make a huge difference, and I think it’s a place where we’ll see a lot of action. Sensors, fitbits, apps for keeping health information—it doesn’t seem hard to turn this into an educational avenue.
Lots of research indicates that technology isn’t dramatically changing how teachers teach. Is there any reason to expect that to change in the next 5-10 years?
Disrupting the way teachers teach with technology is tough.
But then again, almost every K-12 teacher I know uses YouTube. Suddenly, they’re not longer just describing things, they’re able to show simulations. That may not feel disruptive, but boy does it make a difference with what students are able to grasp.
Your research also focuses on cognitive science. Why should the ed-tech field be paying attention to that field?
Here’s a good example. We did some research that spanned from brain scans to classroom [observations.] It was a very simple task, [asking subjects to] compare negative numbers. What’s bigger: -3 or -2? And we found some evidence that people recruit [the parts of their brain that recognize] visual symmetry to help them solve these problems, even though there’s nothing particularly visual about them. So we designed a technology that tries to teach students negative and positive numbers by taking advantage of symmetry, and it turned out that it worked really well.
The fundamental insight was that people are like this, but we’ve been teaching [this concept] like that. You find that a lot, where people teach in well-worn ways.
Your research also focuses on the idea of ‘transfer'—that what a person learns in one setting can be applied in another setting.
I think people will start to pay more attention to this, which is really key. The problem right now is the kind of assessments that we do [to measure learning and transfer] tend to be the standardized tests, and those aren’t designed to measure the kinds of learning that teachers care about. Myself and a number of other people are trying to make a next generation of technology assessments capable of detecting things like [students’] willingness to seek feedback or cooperate.
What needs is the ed-tech industry not filling right now?
It’s just starting to get cluttered, but social-emotional intelligence, how do you get students to feel like they belong and be willing to persevere. Technology could really help in this space. Why not develop apps to help kids have a good attitude about homework, not just deliver homework? I can imagine a suite of learning technologies where the learning is not about square roots, but how to be a productive person.
Can you make money on that? I don’t know.
The big problem I think is that universities are coming up with very clever solutions to interesting problems, but by nature, none of us think about going to market. At the same time, industry people come to me all the time asking for advice, but they’re already 85 percent down a path. We need industry and academics to collaborate at the early stages. Solving this problem of how to get the industry and academic sensibilities at the same table to understand each other would be really good.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated when Mr. Schwartz was appointed dean of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. He was appointed in July 2015.
Photo by Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.