An article in yesterday’s New York Time captured well the confusion that exists using technology in education today. “Everyone” thinks there is something great technology should do for learning, since kids love it and so it “ought to work,” driving much spending. At the same time, there is little concrete evidence at scale about how technology lifts learning.
What to do? Decide that technology doesn’t work for learning (again)? Decide that the assessments being used to measure learning are wrong (again)?
The problem with technology and learning is not with technology, nor with the assessments – it’s with the lack of focus on what works for learning.
The article illustrates well the policy, learning, and financial problem we are putting ourselves into over and over again. It looks at the Kyrene School District in Arizona, with 18,000 students, loaded with technology:
“Classrooms are decked out with laptops, big interactive screens and software that drills students on every basic subject. Under a ballot initiative approved in 2005, the district has invested roughly $33 million in such technologies.”
And, indeed, more to come:
“The district plans to go back to local voters for approval of $46.3 million more in taxes over seven years to allow it to keep investing in technology. That represents around 3.5 percent of the district’s annual spending, five times what it spends on textbooks.”
With, unfortunately, no concrete evidence (from state test scores) that this large investment has made any difference to mastery.
The problem is not that there is no evidence how technology can help lift learning – the problem is that most folks working at scale forget the key driver for learning is what you get a mind to do, not the technology you’re using.
- There are plenty of examples of research showing how learning can be enhanced by using technology to encode key principles from learning science.
- There are centers like the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center who’ve been doing research on applying technology and learning science to drive outcomes for years.
- There are companies (too few!) like Carnegie Learning who’ve been using good research for years, applying the results to hundreds of thousands of students.
- We, too, at Kaplan are hard at work applying these principles to improve, over time, the learning of more than a million students per year around the globe in our learning environments.
The problem is that, at scale, our educational systems is still mostly not getting it the right way around, not in elementary education, nor in higher education, nor in training folks to be teachers, faculty, or education technology decision makers. We’re not thinking about how to improve learning based on what’s known about learning, and then applying technology to make it faster, cheaper, easier, and data-rich. Instead, as described in the article, we tend to buy first, and wonder why no change in results:
“'Rather than being a cure-all or silver bullet, one-to-one laptop programs may simply amplify what’s already occurring — for better or worse,' wrote Bryan Goodwin, spokesman for Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning. . .”
Even worse for students, we may be short-changing their futures this way. Instead of focusing our efforts (including technology) on mastering sometimes challenging skills that are essential in the competitive world they’re about to enter, we’re getting them to spend that time on things that we think are “cool.”
Think about this example in the article:
“In another class, [a student] and several classmates used a video camera to film a skit about Woodrow Wilson’s 14-point speech during World War I — an approach she preferred to speaking directly to the class.
‘I’d be pretty bummed if I had to do a live thing,’ she said. ‘It’s nerve-racking.’”
Hey, it’s a good thing that in the real world we don’t have to talk to people – I always prefer using video to communicate with folks over actually speaking with them in person. That's the progress we want for our kids, right? Not!
The key is not to just add screens and silicon and hope for the best. We have to do (and expand) the hard work of understanding what activities by a mind with a particular background optimize its learning. From this we can see how to apply technology to take a better method and make it simpler, cheaper, easier to access, more reliable, data-rich.
We at Kaplan are working hard to apply technology in the right way to learning across our learning environments. Ultimately, technology's long-term promise comes from building learning environments able to be improved rapidly over and over again, because of how we’re instrumenting for data and using this to rapidly and measurably improve the experience – and the results.