Classrooms look fundamentally different today than they did a century ago. They’re aglow with laptop and tablet screens. And some classes don’t involve classrooms at all; especially at the university level, students increasingly pick online courses over on-campus ones. In many ways, the Cloud is the new classroom.
“Every state has a standard about learning to use a yardstick,” Dr. Tim Hudson, chief learning officer at Dreambox Learning, told Built In. “At Dreambox, we just don't think that's worth doing on an iPad — get a yardstick.”
Used strategically, though, technology can have huge benefits in schools. Photo and video editing platforms, for instance, promote digital literacy; simulations can clarify complex concepts and, Oregon Trail-style, connect students to history.
Smartly implemented technology can augment education in other ways, too. We spoke to three experts in the field, including Hudson, about the benefits of edtech.
Edtech expands teachers’ toolkits.
Head of global education programs at Adobe
Part of what we’re doing at Adobe is building and supporting a community where educators can learn from their peers. It’s an online platform called the Adobe Education Exchange, used by 750,000 creative educators from around the world. They may want to learn how other science teachers are using data visualization as part of their teaching and assessment process. So we offer free peer-led courses, sample lesson plans and full year-long curricula. Adobe created some of the materials, to make it easier for teachers to incorporate digital media and teach creativity in the classroom.
Senior director of academic and research at edX
One of the most powerful and most beneficial aspects of educational technology is what's referred to as learning analytics. I was a college professor before I came to edX, and when I taught lectures of 140 students, I'd check in every now and again to see if they understood. Maybe I'd ask for a show of hands, maybe I'd do a clicker question. But often, I'd only hear from or understand 25 percent of the room. And then we'd do a quiz or an exam, and I’d find something out.
But on edX’s online platform, I would know in real time if the students are getting it. Are they paying attention to videos? Are they taking the knowledge checks? How are they doing with those knowledge checks? I can see that for all of the students in the course, in real time. I can really pinpoint the part of the lecture that didn’t work because students dropped off watching. Or, 30 percent of the students got this question wrong — why? The analytics create this agile cycle of improving your lessons.
Dr. Tim Hudson
Chief Learning Officer at Dreambox Learning
At Dreambox, we only ask for an hour a week for our software — usually two 30-minute sessions — because we know the importance of a teacher working with students and students working with their peers for a significant portion of math class. And we’ve developed solid partnerships with teachers because they realize we're connecting students with math concepts in ways that aren’t possible in the analog world.
For example, I taught a lot of high school geometry, and tenth graders frequently did not understand that angle measurement was a measurement of rotation. They learned it early on with protractors that maxed out at 180 degrees and a bunch of pizza wedges on a worksheet. The problem is, as you get into more advanced mathematics, you deal with angle measurements like 200. That’s not on a protractor, but 200 degrees exists. So does 4,000 degrees. That’s hard for students. But what we built was a game where, from the very moment you start playing, if you type in “100 degrees,” the game animates what a 100-degree rotation looks like — that motion, that rotation. Without digital graphics, it’s harder for teachers to show that to students in a way that makes sense.
Edtech makes private institutions public.
HUNTEMANN: Before I worked at edX, I took some edX classes. One of the courses I took early on was a course in using games in education from MIT. It was just incredible to be able to take courses from institutions that I wouldn't otherwise be able to attend as a student. And it’s not so different from the in-person experience. How would you simulate a cyber attack in the classroom? You wouldn’t. The way that you would do it is online, because that's what a cyberattack is. It's an online experience, so that simulation might be used for an edX course and on campus. That's one of the strengths of our platform and our partners — we all very much drive to have the online experience and the on-campus experience be comparable. And sometimes that means you're literally using the same technology.
Edtech encourages creativity in the real world...
TOWBRIDGE: At the University of Central Florida, the students have done something really interesting. It began with a graduate student listening to the radio on his way to school, and he heard a mother talking about how expensive it was to get a prosthetic arm for her son, who was born with a limb difference. Insurance would cover a leg, but an arm wasn't seen as quite essential. So the mother was wondering if she could find a cheaper prosthetic arm. This engineering student thought, “Sure, I’ve got a 3D printer.” The cost of a prosthetic arm can be $100,000, and he was able to print something for $500.
He sent it home with the kid, and the next time he checked in with him, the child had used a magic marker to color it. This child explained that he wanted not just an arm that let him blend in, but an arm that let him stand out. That started a whole project called Limbitless, where students came together across disciplines to design arms that looked like Iron Man, arms that were beautiful. What I see as especially interesting is the way they used technology to solve a problem creatively and efficiently. I think it has given the students who participate a really interesting skill set and perspective as they go out into the workforce. And they have a powerful, concrete example of what they’ve done.
...and in the virtual world.
HUNTEMANN: Very early on in edX we had a chemical compounds simulation for students to play with. So you could quote-unquote “make” chemical compounds by pulling different components together. Simulations have to be built for purpose, so they’re very different experiences depending on the subject. But they simulate a real experience that’s hard to import into the classroom in an analog way.
Edtech pushes students out of their comfort zones.
TOWBRIDGE: When I was teaching middle school English and history in the ’90s, the tech teacher at my school said, “Come to this workshop on digital storytelling.” It made sense for an English teacher to dive into this, and I got really excited. We picked a particular story to focus on, and I loved the incorporating image and video and voice. I was fundamentally teaching my students about communication and organizing thoughts and persuading an audience, and at the time, I was using tools like the five-paragraph essay and poetry. Both of which are wonderful, and I wanted to keep teaching them. But I realized that the world of communication was increasingly visual, increasingly digital. I was doing my students a disservice if I didn't teach them to communicate with new media as well as traditional forms.
I started to try things out in my classroom, like an assignment where my students had to tell a story using a short video. The students who really excelled were not the students who are great writers. And the students who are great writers often were uncomfortable with visual communication or with using audio or using using video. And it became clear to me that all of my students needed both skills.
Edtech allows for more personalized lessons.
HUNTEMANN: I saw this a lot from students I advised: They would get a faculty member who just moved way too fast in the classroom, and they would get lost halfway through the lecture. And then they’re lost for the rest of the class. They had to find some other way to catch up. The transformation from in-person lecture to a video lecture is that you can stop the lecture. You can rewind or rewatch the lecture. On the flip side of that, if you've already got the topic, sitting through a lecture where you already know everything is excruciating. Why should you have to do that? Video creates efficiencies in both directions.
HUDSON: Before I worked at Dreambox, when I was K-12 math district coordinator, I frequently got calls from first grade parents saying, My child is really accelerated in math, they're able to do third grade math and multiplication. But they don't qualify for a gifted program, and I can’t ask the teacher to make time to create extra work that's going to really challenge him. What can you do at the district level? Similarly, we had first graders who had not yet met the kindergarten standards — they were “behind,” though that’s in quotes because it's all relative with child development.
But from the teacher’s perspective, you’ve got 30 students in your class. They're all the same age. They all have wildly different prior knowledge. How do you meet every student’s needs throughout the year? It’s very, very difficult. So we brought Dreambox into our district, because whether a student was below or above grade level, Dreambox could meet them where they were. Nine out of ten teachers and administrators cite that as the reason they use educational technology — that differentiation and personalization.
It teaches students the skills of the future.
TOWBRIDGE: As a society, we’re facing a lot of challenges. I think technology will be involved in the solutions, whether it's analyzing huge amounts of data to understand what's happening, or creating a simulation bridge to make sure the bridge design is going to hold up. Students don’t need to learn to use a specific tool so much as they need to learn to be tech-savvy. They need to understand how to learn, how to use and evaluate different kinds of tools and accomplish goals.
At Adobe, we’ve scanned the landscape for the kinds of skills that employers are looking for, and it's increasingly soft skills like communication and empathy. To build soft skills, students need to work on projects where the answer isn't A, B, C, D. They need opportunities to work with peers on real problems, to create something and to tell the story of the work that they've done and the impact they've had, led by a really powerful instructor. Technology can facilitate that.
Responses have been condensed and edited. Images via Shutterstock and interviewees.