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Making technology work for teaching and learning: Invest in teachers

Making technology work for teaching and learning: Invest in teachers was originally published by Education International Worlds of Education

Technology has long been touted as an antidote to the ills of schooling.

As the recent article in The Economist points out, digital tools have grown in sophistication since 1928, when Sidney Pressey invented a “teaching machine.” There is no doubt the clamor for technology to transform teaching and learning has intensified.

Current drivers of this push for ed tech include the following approaches:

  • Personalizing learning for every student;
  • Preparing young people for the future of artificial intelligence in the workplace;
  • Making schooling more cost-effective; and
  • Disrupting public education as well as privatizing it.

As noted in the article, despite some exceptions, advances from ed tech developers (like DreamBox) and the advent of online schooling (like Khan Academy) have not led to better student outcomes when compared to more traditional forms of teaching and learning. Even when studies show that technology can make a difference, the positive results are often tied only to standardized test scores in math and/or literacy. As the article notes, we do not have evidence at all when it comes to assessing the impact of technology in the “softer subjects” like in communications, collaboration, and critical thinking (all deemed necessary for preparing students for the future of artificial intelligence in the workplace). In a 2015 report published by OECD, of the 31 nations studied, little or no relationship existed between technology and student learning in math, science, and reading.

Could technology become yet another zombie reform, as economist Paul Krugman wrote, where "beliefs about policy that have been repeatedly refuted with evidence and analysis... refuse to die"?

I would say yes it will unless we get much more real about investing in the people who use the technology—both in students as well as the teachers who must know them well—in order to help achieve deeper learning outcomes expected of today’s (and tomorrow’s) schools. Seymour Papert, the co-founder of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence and Media Labs, made the same case. Almost 20 years ago, Papert used the Trojan Horse analogy to define how technology can “fundamentally change the way kids learn.”

…(With) the real story of the Trojan horse, it wasn’t the horse that was effective, it was the soldiers inside the horse. And the technology is only going to be effective in changing education if you put an army inside it which is determined to make that change once it gets through the barrier.

Researchers, drawing on the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and human development, have informed the field of education for some time on how students learn. The most important finding is that humans (and students of any age) come to formal learning with prior knowledge—and in order for them to learn deeply (consistent with the needs of our global economy), teachers need to be able to activate what is already known and engage these learners as leaders of their own learning. Technology and even artificial intelligence cannot solely do that.

Additionally, as technology enhances some aspects of a teacher’s practice, we have to ensure that data security and privacy concerns are appropriately addressed. Students, parents, and teachers have a right to know who is viewing data and how it is being used—especially by for-profit entities. As a recent Carnegie Mellon study makes clear, ed tech startups tend not to prioritize the protection of student data that can be used for malicious or unintended ends. Now is the time to prepare and support teachers and administrators – for our public schools — to ensure that their students’ privacy is protected. (See micro-credentials that encourage educators skill development as protectors of their students’ privacy  here.)­­

Students, now more than ever, need experienced, well trained adults to help them navigate the mastery of 21st century skills and how to use them. If school reformers want to use technology to make education cheaper or to privatize it for profit—well that is another matter.

What do you want in the future of learning—and what is the role technology plays?

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