Innovating the Classroom: How Technology Can be Used Effectively in Your Child's School

Education technology evangelists love to point out that modern classrooms and lecture halls have changed little since the introduction of mass public schooling in the 19th century.

Critics of the existing K-12 school system specifically call out the "Prussian" or industrial characteristics of sorting students by age cohorts, standardized testing, rigid block scheduling, and other factory-like practices. At the same time, other important areas of life — entertainment, transportation, home making, communication, and medicine, to name a few — have eagerly adopted radically new technologies and ways of thinking. In 2005, then-Senator Obama noted that "We're living in a 21st century knowledge economy, but our schools... and our culture are still based around 20th century expectations."

On the other hand, critics and skeptics of education technology evangelism point out that various technological breakthroughs throughout history have all been hailed as education game-changers with little to show for it. People have considered the use of automation as a teaching aid well before the invention of the transistor chip.

As early as the 1960s, researchers and pedagogists, such as Seymour Papert, have explored the use of personal computers as learning devices. A computer network called PLATO, a housing interactive learning software, was constructed in 1960 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a kind of forerunner to today's MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) and other web-based learning. The fact that you likely haven't heard of Papert (though you may have heard of his MIT Media Lab) or PLATO is evidence of their relatively limited reach and traction.

Over the past two decades, public schools in the United States have, at the prodding of successive presidential administrations concerned about the state of American education and technological literacy, eagerly added computers to the classroom for instructional purposes. The national computer density average in the United States is now lower than 3.8 students per classroom computer, among the developed world's lowest (most favorable) ratios.

Today, daily Internet use in society at large is practically ubiquitous at every income level. With the increasing pervasiveness of computing, it is only natural that technology is finding its way even into the relatively sclerotic and hidebound world of education.

Evaluating Educational Technology

So, as technology finds its way into your child's classroom, there are several important questions to consider when thinking about any piece of educational technology (or, frankly, any educational proposal):

  1. Does it improve the quality of the content that is available to students?
  2. Does it improve the means by which that content is delivered?
  3. Does it improve student engagement and motivation?
  4. Does it improve pedagogical practices?

The most intensive and impactful implementations of educational technology have answered all four of these questions affirmatively.

Aside from measuring these four characteristics (content, delivery, engagement, pedagogy) of education technology, there is the matter of actually determining whether educational innovations positively contribute to learning. This is devilishly difficult to measure, which is why we often prefer to think mainly in terms of inputs (funding, the characteristics of students' families and neighborhoods, teacher qualifications, and so on) and also why efforts at educational reform often emphasize standardized testing. The most important outcomes of an improved education — notably an improved quality of life — are often not observable until years downstream.

Cautionary Notes

Skeptics of education technology are often correct in suggesting that the perception of technology's ability to revolutionize education often departs from the reality.

Although "The New York Times" dubbed 2012 "the Year of the MOOC," the MOOC has yet to demonstrate that it can even partially displace or complement traditional education in some substantial way. The major MOOCs as of 2012 (Coursera, Udacity, and Edx) provided top-notch content and rapid, convenient delivery, but almost no changes to pedagogy or the fundamental structure of a traditional college course.

The net results were extremely high numbers of registrations and extremely low completion rates. "Completion" is something of an arbitrary metric, and inextricably tied to traditional notions of formal credentialing. The experience of the MOOCs does, however, illustrate the inherent difficulty of radically changing educational outcomes through technology.

Another cautionary note is the proliferation of publicly-funded "virtual schools" or "cyber schools" intended to supplement or wholly replace traditional K-12 education. These schools are essentially correspondence schools in all but name, mediated by the Internet instead of the post. The single largest proponent of this model is K12 Inc, a web-based charter school network.

The purported benefits of online K-12 education overlap in general with those of MOOCs — content on demand, flexible timing, and flexible pacing. Research on the issue, however, is scant, and on balance the overall benefits of virtual schools are currently dubious. As with MOOCs, the likely beneficiaries of virtual schools in their current configuration are a self-selected group of exceptionally self-motivated, conscientious, and capable students.

Concepts to Become Familiar With

There are several important concepts and trends in K-12 (and to a limited extent, higher) education that have been demonstrated to consistently shift the needle on at least several of the four characteristics mentioned above, notwithstanding the explosion of online content, games, and other media. Some of these are more technologically intensive than others, though all benefit from and leverage computerization.

Gamification

A sort of gamification — or the use of game-based techniques, like awarding badges or declaring a winner — is already familiar to those of us who have ever received a shiny sticker in grade school as a form of validation for an assignment or test score. Although gamification is perhaps the least technology-dependent of the recent trends in education, I can only assume that the obvious addictive potential of video gaming spurred research into gaming's educational benefits.

I have written before about the educational potential of video games in both a direct and a tangential sense. Fundamentally, applying gaming principles to education is an exercise both in self-determination theory and operant conditioning. By making students stakeholders in a cooperative or collaborative challenge, attaching visible and tangible rewards, and sometimes weaving in a compelling narrative, the benefits of gamification are chiefly in the realm of motivation or engagement.

Educators have pioneered gamification in many ways, from live-action historical role-playing simulations to networked multiplayer games based on commercially successful titles.

Competency-Based Learning and Assessment

Traditional approaches to schooling and credentialing tend to measure achievement based on an input to the educational process — most commonly seat-time, i.e. "class credits." Unfortunately, class credits and a nominal passing status often suggest little about the actual learning that the student has accomplished. This can be crippling in disciplines where cumulative mastery is required. An example I enjoy harping on is mathematics education — scraping by in elementary arithmetic with an alleged 75 percent comprehension (i.e., a grade of C) will, without extensive remediation, likely doom a student's chances of mastering algebra.

Predicating "passing" or "failing" on high-stakes testing is similarly problematic. Receiving a mark of "proficient" or "needs improvement" several weeks or months after a test renders the assessment basically useless as a diagnostic tool for instructors about their students' weaknesses. In effect, a great deal of modern standardized testing is used to sort, rank, reward or penalize rather than to diagnose and improve.

Competence-based education is structured around continuous, low-stakes assessment intended to diagnose gaps and shortcomings in a student's comprehension and correct them on-the-fly. Usually, there is a high minimum threshold for passing. D’s and F’s are abolished entirely, and a student is required to be proficient, often to something like an 85 percent (or a B), in order to progress. This serves the dual purposes of both self-pacing and preventing obvious gaps in knowledge from forming. School districts in a few states are pioneering this personalized learning approach on a large scale.

Blended Learning

The essential elements of blended learning are a combination of digital (almost always online) instruction and content delivery with in-person instruction. Notably, the instructor's role in the classroom changes from relaying information to students en masse as a lecturer to serving as a coach and hands-on mentor and tutor as necessary.

Blended learning is often associated with the phrase "flipped classroom.” The flipped classroom is a specific implementation of blended learning in which students ingest the baseline knowledge and content through pre-recorded lectures and other digital media at home, settle basic questions via web-based discussion, and spend class time practicing and honing the previous night's learning through projects, labs, and small group work.

In practice, seminar-style courses in which students read their texts at home and discuss them in the classroom already resemble flipped classrooms and are nothing new to students of the liberal arts; for that matter, labs have long been familiar to aspiring scientists and engineers as a form of blended learning. Blended learning's displacement of traditional, in-person math and science lectures, however, is novel. This is one capacity in which Khan Academy has excelled and seen widespread adoption by school districts.

Read more about the benefits of blended learning.

By the rubric I described earlier, blended learning has the potential to improve every measure by leveraging web-based content, fostering face-to-face time in the classroom, and making more effective use of the instructor's time.

Adaptive Learning

If blended learning is a digital adaption of a well-known idea, adaptive learning is a headlong dive into the rabbit hole of automated interactive instruction software, big data, and artificial intelligence. Adaptive learning combines competency-based learning, blended learning, and often gamification into an integrated, computer-mediated process and a radically reconfigured classroom. As with blended learning, the teacher shifts into a coach or mentor role, while most of the grunt work of content delivery and continual assessment is handed over to software.

The unique contribution of adaptive learning isn't merely in the summing up of its parts (competency-based learning, blended learning, and gamification), however. The most successful implementations of adaptive learning painstakingly track all actions by students in order to construct a cognitive and behavioral profile that informs the type and style of instruction and assessment that is uniquely suited to each student's needs, sometimes even linking students to study buddies with similar profiles.

These include continual evaluations not only of academic aptitude but of media consumption preferences, attention span, and other non-cognitive characteristics. The dark side of adaptive learning lies in questions of privacy raised by the reams of highly personalized data that are collected in the process.

Perhaps the most visible proponent of adaptive learning is Knewton, known originally for using adaptive learning to teach college freshmen at Arizona State University remedial math. In New York City, School of One has taken a similar approach at the K-12 level. To some extent, Khan Academy has boarded the adaptive learning bandwagon as well.

Concluding Remarks

In 1984, Benjamin Bloom (of Bloom's Taxonomy fame) found that between ordinary classroom instruction, broad-based competency-based instruction, and personal tutoring, students who received personal tutoring achieved overwhelmingly greater gains in learning. Of course, not all of us are well-heeled or wealthy enough to afford highly qualified tutors for all (or any) areas of academic study.

You can use Noodle to search for low-cost tutors near you.

Where human intelligence is unavailable, the next best thing is machine intelligence. What the trends in educational technology that I have described seek to accomplish is to shift basic classroom instruction in a direction that is predicated on student engagement, continual mastery, and differentiation on the basis of individual ability and interest. On this front, blended and adaptive approaches to learning have begun to accumulate a formidable track record.

Some educators, such as Sergio Juarez Correa in Matamoros, Mexico, have managed to accomplish some or all of the above even with a relative paucity of technology. In the case of his class, all that was required was an Internet connection and a harkening back to the pedagogical methods of Montessori and other alternative pedagogies.

Fundamentally, anything a classroom does to differentiate itself from the basic instructional format must improve upon the quality of content, efficiency of content delivery, student engagement, and pedagogy. Now that you have read the Cliffs Notes overview of the important trends in educational technology, you will at least have the vocabulary to ask hard questions about how and whether education technology is deeply integrated into a classroom.

Further Reading

Top 25 Learning Management Systems for Education

Ten Great Education Apps for Students and Teachers

Top Five Best Educational Apps for Kids

The Four Basic Models of Blended Learning