In today’s classrooms, stacks of heavy paper textbooks, battered notebooks, and worn-down pencils are giving way to e-readers, tablets, laptops, and a multitude of digital tools, apps, and software that are completely changing the way that students learn. These new tools don’t just change the delivery of the same material, though. Instead, they’re kicking off an array of changes to how students engage with what they’re learning, how they collaborate, how they receive feedback from teachers, and even how they learn to think and interact with the huge amount of information available to them. Here are five big ideas about how technology is disrupting education, and some of the resources pushing them ahead.
1. Technology enables adaptive, personalized learning
Here’s an idea that turns the idea of a traditional, linear textbook on its head. Adaptive digital textbooks created by the OpenStax project at Rice University use machine-learning algorithms to enable biology and physics textbooks to adapt to individual students, as NewScientist reports. The books can deliver additional questions and practice sessions if the algorithms detect that a student is having difficulty with a subject, and the algorithms also determine when to use retrieval practice to give students quizzes on material that they’ve already learned.
On a broader level, teachers will be able to implement that same personalization throughout an entire course. Companies like Knewton build technology and infrastructure for online learning environments. They use predictive analysis — made possible by data science, machine learning, content graphing, and more — to find out exactly what a student is successfully learning, and let the instructor know what needs more reinforcement. The technology helps teachers improve pass rates and withdrawal rates, because adaptive, personalized learning is more effective than one-size-fits-all solutions.
2. Technology encourages collaboration among students and among teachers
Collaboration tools like Basecamp enable students to upload, share, and edit documents and track assignments’ progress with to-do lists and schedules on when everything is due. Google Apps for Education provides similar capabilities, and integrate Google Docs, Google Drive, and Gmail to make it easier for students to collaborate whether they’re in the classroom together or not. Google Classroom pushes the platform’s functionality further, and enables teachers to create and organize assignments, view and comment on students’ work before it’s turned in, and easily communicate with their classes. Podio, Kickoff, and Producteev are other productivity and collaboration tools, and students can even use them on mobile devices both inside and outside the classroom.
The same online productivity and collaboration tools enable teachers to collaborate with other teachers, as well. Teachers benefit from a huge variety of shared resources accessible online. As TechCrunch reports, OpenCurriculum curates and organizes an open library of lesson resources from teachers’ blogs and from publishers. Teachers can access a lesson plan builder and other tools through the website. An array of similar communities and resource libraries have been created online; there’s even a section of Pinterest that acts as a dedicated space for teachers to share lesson ideas and resources.
3. Technology enables students to learn and consume content socially
As classrooms shift from a teacher-centric model — where all students listen quietly to a lecturing instructor to learn the material — learning more often becomes project-based, and sometimes even game-based. Apps and educational games enable teachers not only to differentiate lessons to each student’s needs, but also to get students to work in teams and complete challenges and assignments together. Open-source learning platforms like Moodle enable teachers to set up courses where students can engage in discussion when they’re away from the classroom.
Especially when they’re working together, students naturally turn to technology to make the learning process more social. Rather than reading traditional books in solitude, students find it more natural to read e-books where they can make annotations, or even to peruse blogs where discussions arise in the comments section. Another great example is students’ gravitation to YouTube, which is simultaneously visually stimulating, mobile-friendly, social, and engaging.
While in the past most students preferred to search Google for an article on a period of history or a scientific process, many students now choose to watch a video instead, and that video is what forms the basis of their inquiry, or acts as the catalyst for a further search for information. Technology — in this case, any computer or mobile device, plus an Internet connection — makes the process of consuming information more social, more easily shared, and more engaging. Many teachers respond to students’ natural predisposition to learning via videos by teaching with videos from TED-Ed or Khan Academy, and the TED-Ed website even includes a tool to help teachers build their lessons around videos available online.
4. Technology enables students to learn anything from anywhere
The most obvious example here is the rise of the MOOC, or massive open online course, which enables thousands of students from anywhere in the world to learn from one instructor via an online platform. The MOOC hasn’t lived up to its promise of disruption so far, mainly because of the lack of a formal system of accreditation.
But as educational institutions catch up with the technology, online education is improving. As an article from The Economist reports, MOOC provider Coursera has eight million users and earned $1 million in revenue last year after introducing the option to pay a fee between $30 and $100 to have course results certified. Udacity has collaborated with AT&T and Georgia Tech to offer an affordable online master’s degree. Harvard Business School has launched the beta version of an online “Pre-MBA” called the HBX CoRE, which the university will offer to students nationwide this fall at a cost of $1,500. Other online education providers delivering courses in forms other than the MOOC enable students to learn anything from coding to ancient history online.
Even in an elementary school classroom, a simple Internet connection opens up a practically unlimited amount of information and learning potential. That’s why the Chromebook – Google’s lightweight, inexpensive, and Internet-reliant laptop — makes a lot of sense for schools. To accompany constant Internet access, it’s critical that schools teach students not only how to think critically and how to learn in the traditional sense, but how to be literate consumers of information, to research effectively, and to synthesize information intelligently.
5. Technology centralizes grading and assessment — and gives teachers better insight
Data-driven tools like BubbleScore make it simple for teachers to give tests via mobile devices, or scan and score paper tests with a mobile device’s camera. Similar apps enable teachers to export students’ results to their grade books, and track progress against Common Core or state standards. Adaptive software like Knewton can automate these tasks, which have traditionally taken up large amounts of teachers’ time. Platforms like ThinkCERCA help teachers think strategically about how to help each student build Common Core-aligned skills in literacy, writing, and critical thinking.
Ultimately, that means that technology not only gives teachers more time to spend interacting with students and completing meaningful work other than record-keeping, but provides them with better insight into what works for each student and what their goals for each student should be. That underscores one of the most important things that you can realize about technology in the classroom: the teacher is still integral to the classroom and to the learning experience. While technology can and should help teachers monitor how their students are progressing, no algorithm can replace a human who brings creativity and problem-solving skills to the classroom, physical or virtual.