By Justin Reich
PROPONENTS of education technology have made remarkable promises over the past two decades: that by 2019, half of all secondary school courses would be online; videos and practice problems can let students learn mathematics at their own pace; in 50 years only 10 mega-institutions of higher education would be left; or that typical students left alone with internet-connected computers can learn anything without the help of schools or teachers.
Then in 2020, people around the world were forced to turn to online learning as the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools serving more than 1 billion students. It was education technology’s big moment, but for many students and families, remote learning has been a disappointment. When the world needs it most, why has education technology seemed so lacklustre?
Educational software has a long history, but throughout there have been two major challenges. The first is that most people depend on human connection to maintain their motivation. When a student closes their laptop in frustration in a classroom, someone can see it and respond. When the same thing happens while using an education technology product, human connections are shut down with it.
Well-designed online learning environments can encourage meaningful relationships, and online learning has the potential to transcend typical classroom boundaries, but in practice, many online students struggle to stay focused.
The second challenge is that curricula are complex. On any given day in a school, one teacher may introduce a new sound-letter mapping in phonics, another finish a unit on plate tectonics, and a third facilitate a seminar on Don Quixote. Many teachers can walk down the hall into a new lesson to teach different subject material. But for every new curriculum area for education technology, new content, tools, resources and assessments need to be developed and disseminated.
Assessments are also a thorny challenge. In some domains, like mathematics and computer science, education technology can instantly detect when a student solves a problem or creates a correctly functioning computer program. We can reward students for getting answers correct, nudge them towards resources when they get things wrong, and create the feedback loops of instruction, assessment and iteration that good learning requires.
Unfortunately, the same approach doesn’t work so well in other areas. We can ask students to calculate how far a tectonic plate might move given a certain speed and time and computers can instantly evaluate a correct numerical answer. But if we ask students to write a paragraph that explains how plate tectonics work, computers can’t reliably identify correct, partially correct and incorrect responses. Computers cannot reliably evaluate how humans reason from evidence, and reasoning from evidence is the very core of schooling.
Education technology has long promised to transform education, but at best, the field has developed individual tools for niches of the curriculum. For large swathes of school learning, we don’t have online tools or resources that are any better than a printed textbook.
Every technological solution is also a human capital problem: integrating technologies into learning requires giving teachers and students time to play with and get acclimated to new tools, routines and pedagogies.
For most teachers, the road to more effective teaching with technology looks less like a transformation, and more like tinkering: a slow and steady process towards identifying the right tool or approach for particular students in a particular context.
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By Justin Reich