Years ago, associate professor Kentaro Toyama wrote an influential article and argued that the history of education in technology was “fraught with failures” and that technology could not address the individualized concerns that are necessary for good teaching.
And for a while, his criticisms seemed to hold a lot of water as EdTech (“education technology”) never managed to revolutionize classrooms, even after years of investment and many broken promises. However, its time may finally be here.
The Promise of EdTech
The idea that good teachers are an essential ingredient to good education isn’t up for debate, but Toyama’s harsh view of EdTech’s potential needs addressing. Just because EdTech is “fraught with failures” doesn’t mean we should abandon it outright.
In the past 100 years, most industries have evolved in spectacular ways, including in the ways we live our lives and in the ways we work. Yet somehow the classroom is still a century behind, still carving industrial workers in a post-industrial age. There is a sweet spot that can — and must — be reached.
The response here should be measured. Calling for a revolution in education might seem like the obvious course, but if it fails, we could end up damaging the lives of millions of children. Then again, the same could be said for leaving the education industry in its outdated state.
Instead, we need to speed up the evolution and adoption of EdTech so that our children can be better educated in the context of this hyper-connected digital era.
The 5 Problems Facing EdTech
Education expert Matthew Lynch once explained the reasons why the U.S. education system is failing, and not just the U.S. system but systems all over the world. As put forth by the article, the most pressing reasons are:
Schools are overcrowded.
School spending is stagnant.
A lack of teacher innovation.
A lack of involvement from parents.
Technology has become synonymous with entertainment.
For decades now, technology has failed to solve these issues on a large scale, but the blame cannot rest solely with the EdTech industry. Some innovations may have been destined to fail, sure, but others could have exceeded our expectations.
Robert French believes that in these latter cases, the education system has actually failed the tech industry by remaining so hostile to change. After all, the EdTech industry has indeed made rapid advancements in recent years and there is evidence that each of these issues may soon be solved.
The main issue, then, is whether the education system will take advantage of this opportunity to grow. Let’s explore what these issues are and how technology could actually solve them for good.
1. Overcrowded Classrooms
A 2009 University of London report stated that “once the class size passes a certain point, the teachers are bound to ‘fail’ because the demands on their time cannot be met”. In essence, the root of this problem is not the number of children in a classroom but rather the inability for each child to receive adequate attention.
In 1984, Benjamin Bloom conducted research that undeniably showed that through combining his “mastery learning” techniques and 1:1 tuition, students could perform far beyond other students who were being taught in more conventional ways.
It’s with this knowledge that EdTech company Matchbook Learning works with some of the worst performing, overcrowded schools in the U.S. You can see an overview of their approach, building on the research of Bloom, in the video below:
By combining blended learning (where face-to-face teaching is combined with online learning) with real-time data, we can get rapid feedback in classrooms and use that feedback to further enhance the quality of education.
As an example, consider a classroom of 30 students. Ten students with similar abilities may work closely with the teacher, another ten may work through lectures and online tasks using computer terminals, and the final ten may work together on a group project. In the next lesson, students are rotated so they can learn in different ways throughout the course.
This kind of approach enables the teacher to focus more closely on fewer children at once. The teacher can also tailor the learning approach for each student based on how well each one works for the individual. Meanwhile, the software on the computes is advanced enough to tailor the content to each student as well.
By collecting real-time feedback on each child’s results, the course contents can be adapted per student and make it as if they were receiving a one-on-one tuition.
This approach allows each student to have their own learning path that’s customized to their needs. By doing this, teachers can easily see which students are falling behind and offer more individualized teaching to those students. The results, as you can see below, have been fantastic. (Each 10% gain is equal to a year’s worth of learning.)
If more schools were to adopt a similar approach, where some responsibilities could be handled by tech-aided learning methods, more of the teachers’ time could be freed-up to give more attention where it’s needed the most, even in larger classroom sizes.
2. Excessive Spending
Donors Choose is a “pioneering crowdfunding site” that allows regular people — like you and me — to fund teachers who want to run educational projects but lack the money to do so. Donors can find projects that inspire them and then choose to give however much money they want to the teacher.
Since its founding in 2000, 69% of public schools in the U.S. have posted projects on the site and over two million citizens have donated well over $400 million, benefiting at least 18 million students.
Academic creativity has been drained from degraded and overworked experienced teachers. Uniformity has sucked the life out of teaching and learning.
If teachers were given more freedom, as would likely happen if a blended learning model were introduced as mentioned above, innovation would rocket — and an education system overhaul isn’t exactly necessary to accomplish that.
After all, there are (and will always be) plenty of options open to teachers to introduce more creativity and innovation to their lessons. Some of these options would cost money, but as we’ve seen, Donors Choose could certainly help there.
Other options include BlinkLearning, which allows teachers to create their own personalized, interactive courses from content provided by a range of publishers. Students can then access these courses on any device, while the app keeps a record of how they are progressing. If students are struggling, the course can quickly be altered.
A more lightweight option is to use Learnist to curate relevant content to guide students through courses.
If students struggle with boredom, game-based learning can be introduced with KinectEDucation. This is an education community where teachers can download and upload apps and resources for Microsoft Kinect, and learn from the experiences of other teachers. GameDesk is another company creating EdTech games for a variety of subjects.
In an article on why technology has failed, Paul D. Fernhout explains that there are two types of learning: learning just in case, which is like the rote memorization approach taken by most schools, and learning on demand, where we acquire information as we need it (not as frequently practiced in schools).
Technology is already fantastic for on-demand education, and that technology is available to all of us at home by means of the Internet. So, this is where parents can currently take the mantle from time-stricken teachers and offer some fun on-demand knowledge to their children.
In the current schooling landscape, there just isn’t time for large amounts of group projects and problem-solving exercises, but these are the kinds of exercises that children can be set with at home. When a child is given a problem exercise and the use of a smartphone, tablet, or computer, on-demand learning happens naturally.
Used in conjunction with the school curriculum, this can really help children to progress.
For example, if your child is learning about Excel spreadsheets at school, try setting them the challenge of creating a pocket-money calculator in Excel. Searching Google, watching YouTube videos, or studying Excel templates can offer real education in practical settings. There are tons of other educational projects you can try out, too.
5. Tech Is Not Just Entertainment
To finish, let’s look at the issue of how technology has become synonymous with entertainment. The alleged problem here is that when children use technology, they enter an entertainment mode rather than a study mode.
And this is the moment where we need to ask ourselves: Why does education have to be seen as opposed to entertainment?
The truth is that when joy and comfort are scrubbed from the classroom and replaced with homogeneity, and when spontaneity is replaced with conformity, students’ brains are distanced from effective information processing and long-term memory storage.
The highest-level executive thinking, making of connections, and “aha” moments are more likely to occur in an atmosphere of “exuberant discovery,” where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning.
In other words, education does not (and should not) need to be a chore. Throughout this article, I’ve given a number of EdTech solutions that truly work and encourage entertainment in education, from gamifying the classroom and introducing fun projects to funding more field trips and creating personalized, interactive courses.
From a psychological perspective, it makes perfect sense: teachers have been using games for ages. Did you ever play Jeopardy in biology class? A quiz game in English? Have a popsicle-stick bridge building competition in physics?
These games are challenging and motivational. But games — or any other form of entertainment — with a technological element can be so much more immersive, responsive, and effective, which thereby makes it so much more valuable as a learning aid. More so than lectures, board games, and dull rote tasks, anyway.
Consider the difference in impact between teaching the wonders of history through a lifeless textbook or through an immersive virtual reality tour. It’s clear which one would be more effective, so whenever education can be fun, then it should be fun.
Education + Technology = The Future
In a world where technology has the power to transform industries and offer entertainment to every dull moment we encounter, it’s time for educators to more whole-heartedly adopt some of these innovations. Not for the sole purpose of improving grades or cutting costs, but to offer our children a more fulfilling educational experience.
And, perhaps more importantly, to empower teachers to more effectively help struggling children while introducing innovation back into the classroom.
Do you think it’s time more schools introduced more technology into the classroom? Or do you think classrooms are ok as they are?