Sam was skeptical of what his new online friends told him. Was Islam really a violent religion? Were "feminazis" really eroding the family?
A sensitive middle-schooler and the protagonist of a recent Washingtonian story, he found himself caught up in a slurry of bigoted and misogynistic views that litter the online forums Reddit and 4chan.
Googling those views to learn more about them only made things worse by overwhelming him with information that confirmed the extremist rhetoric rather than correcting or contextualizing it.
Unbeknownst to Sam, Google's algorithm prioritizes user engagement and retention, which means it often acts more as echo chamber than fact checker. The same goes for other search engines.
Of course, the internet can be a great learning resource if you know where to look — and if you're aware that just because something seems educational or factual doesn't mean it actually is.
That's where bona fide educational technology, which relies heavily on the internet, has a distinct advantage: It's created specifically to educate. Often, it's invented by former teachers who want to help young kids with developing brains (like Sam) think more critically.
Currently valued at around $8 billion (in the U.S.), the edtech industry has in recent years benefitted from a major influx of investment capital — a reported $1.45 billion in 2018 alone.
We've gathered some examples of innovative edtech applications that help teachers and students alike.
edX: Free Harvard Classes
Location: Cambridge, Mass.
How it’s doing edtech: Managed by MIT and Harvard, this non-profit offers online courses from more than 140 institutions. And most of them are free, including a Harvard course on machine learning and a Berkeley course on quantum mechanics. That's not unusual, though. edX specializes in Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, which aim to democratize knowledge by supplementing college and other forms of continuing education. One-on-one attention and feedback is tough to come by with MOOCs, but there are plenty of strengths that include top instructors and extreme accessibility.
Edmodo: Learning Management Systems
Location: San Mateo, Calif.
How it’s using edtech: Edmodo is a versatile digital portal through which teachers can perform every aspect of their job, including taking attendance, reading written assignments and auto-grading quizzes. In industry terms, Edmodo’s platform is what's known as a “learning management system,” which means it's intended to replace actual file cabinets stuffed with classroom paperwork. In addition, its customizable and teacher-developed interface has a networking component that lets students, parents and school employees connect and communicate securely.
Labster: Virtual Lab Experiments
Location: Copenhagen, Denmark
How it’s using edtech: Labster makes the lab experience accessible to more STEM students with interactive lab simulations where equipment cost is no object and students can experiment with microscopes, pH meters and titration equipment to their hearts’ content. To prepare homogenized milk, for example, students use the cursor to pick up objects and adjust their microscope settings. Labster’s library has almost 100 lab simulations that cover a range of scientific subjects, including chemistry, physics and biology. In partnership with Google, Labster also offers an array of more immersive virtual reality biology lab simulations.
Dreambox Learning: Adaptive Math Instruction
How it’s doing edtech: Dreambox Learning’s K-8 math curriculum relies on adaptive technology with game-like interfaces that responds to students’ choices in real time by providing corrective drills in response to mistakes and moving on to new concepts when students display mastery of a particular topic. By making assessment an integral part of the learning process, the company aims to personalize the educational experience and reduce the need for testing.
No Isolation: Robot Avatars for Sick Students
Location: Oslo, Norway
How it’s using edtech: When chronically ill kids miss long stretches of school, they also miss out on the social interaction that schooling provides. No Isolation, a Norwegian startup, wants to change that. Its bright-white “telepresence robot,” shaped like a miniature head and shoulders, acts as a stand-in for sick kids by seeing, hearing, and even speaking on their behalf. Said 17-year-old AV1 user named Jade, who often has to stay home for health reasons, “It feels like I’ve been released from prison."
Remind: Parent-Teacher Texting
Location: San Francisco
How it’s using edtech: Remind solves a perennial problem of education: parent-teacher communication. Things like permission slips constantly get lost in the murky depths of kids’ backpacks, but Remind shifts key paperwork and deadlines to the digital realm where they’re harder to lose or overlook. The app allows teachers and school administrators to contact parents and kids on via phone using the equivalent of text messaging. And it works on all phones, not just smartphones. Unlike texting, however, it masks everyone’s phone number and has built-in translation tools.
Newsela: Readings for English Language Learners
Location: New York
How it’s doing edtech: Nonfiction readings on the Newsela digital platform are fluid, meaning they're readable at each student's individual reading level. Learners who are just learning English can translate complex stories into simple terms. More fluent speakers can explore the full technical vocabulary of a Scientific American deep-dive or an Al Jazeera feature — two of the many reputable sources from which Newsela’s massive library of nonfiction texts are drawn. Spanning topics from American history to space exploration, the readings often touch on social justice issues. More generally, they aim to strike a chord with teenagers and help ignite a lifelong love of reading.
Piazza: Educational Live Chats
Location: Palo Alto, CA
How it’s doing edtech: Piazza—Italian for “public square”—is a live Q&A platform where stumped students collaborate to overcome problems they're having with STEM field problem sets. Some might call it a discussion board, but critics have noted that discussion boards often foster stilted, mandatory conversation. Piazza does the opposite. And its notifications encourage quick replies. According to the New York Times, the average question on Piazza is answered within 14 minutes. And though it’s primarily used for student collaboration, the platform lets teachers endorse correct student responses.
Location: San Francisco
How it’s using edtech: Livescribe specializes in Smartpens, high-tech styluses that digitize handwriting into PDFs, transform handwritten documents scrawled on special "dot paper" (printable at home) into editable text files and even record audio. The pens link to a mobile and desktop app through which audio and written notes are blended into one multimedia document. Intended for lecture classes and interview situations, Livescribe can also benefit students with learning disabilities.
TurnItIn: Automated Plagiarism Scanning
Location: Oakland, CA
How it’s using edtech: Teachers can often sense plagiarism, but TurnItIn confirms gut feelings with hard data. The company’s popular digital plagiarism checker lets teachers compare student work with previous writings contained in a massive multi-lingual database of student papers, published academic work and years' worth of web content. Since its founding in 1998, TurnItIn’s search algorithm has scanned more than 70 billion web pages, many of which have since been archived.)
Swivl: Robotic Teacher Observation
Location: San Carlos, CA
How it’s using edtech: Swivl’s signature video tool is less a camera and more an “intelligent assistant” — in effect, a second set of eyes in the classroom. The robot's smart camera, flanked by multiple microphones, is more autonomous than typical video cameras and has a built-in sense of when and how to swivel. In addition to observing students to get a sense of comprehension levels and classroom dynamics, Swivl video can help educators hone their teaching style.
Examity: Proctoring for Online Tests
Location: Natick, Mass.
How it's using edtech: Examity's online proctoring services verify that students who take exams remotely do so honestly. The company offers a trio of tools to ensure test-taking integrity: digital identification, auto-proctoring and live proctoring. The digital identification process confirms identities through fingerprints and voice biometrics, among other methods. During auto-proctored exams, machine learning algorithms monitor students through the webcams and microphones on their personal computers and flags suspicious behavior. Security is even tighter in live-proctored exams during which test-takers are monitored by college-educated proctors who've completed two months of training on the workings of Examity's interface. Types of tests for which the company's platform can be used include standardized testing, college finals and certification exams. And there's 24/7 tech support via phone or online chat.
Thinkful: Video Mentorship for Newbie Coders
Location: New York City
How it's using edtech: Edtech isn't just for young people. In Thinkful's virtual classrooms, instructors train adults for new careers in full-stack programming and data analytics. Alumni of Thinkful's courses have landed jobs at tech giants like Google and Amazon, and the team has such faith in their program that students are promised a tuition refund if they can't find a job within six months of graduation. Central to Thinkful's approach is one-on-one mentorship. Each student receives focused, face-to-face attention via video chat from a professional in the field they're studying. When students leave Thinkful's bootcamp for the job market, the company also offers them six months of career services, including interview training.
Images via Shutterstock, social media and companies websites