Tech in education means so much more than digitizing a textbook. Whether an early reading app, online lecture on astrophysics, or an interactive teaching module on jQuery, tech’s increasing intertwinedness with education is undeniable.
Education startups raised $500 million in the first quarter of 2014, signalling to many that education is perfectly poised for massive disruption. There are a number of contributing factors as to why this may be so, such as: 1) the roll out of the Common Core Standards in the U.S. introducing visibility and predictability into learning objectives for all grade levels 2) the influx of younger, tech-savvy, tech-friendly teachers 3) the increasing ubiquity of cheap, high-speed Internet.
With their tight regulations, school boards and school districts are notoriously slow to change; however, there’s plenty of evidence–anecdotal and otherwise–to suggest that change is occurring, if only at the micro level of the classroom. Rather than wait for the blessing of their administrators, teachers are taking matters into their hands by experimenting with technology into the classroom. This might take the simple form of apps to track and support student learning–the App Store has collections of apps dedicated to just this–or more complex platforms to communicate with parents and analyze student data. High school teachers and professors are increasingly turning to social media to engage their students in and out of the classroom. The availability of student data, too, holds potential to help teachers gain insights into their students’ learning in real time.
Outside of institutional walls, education innovations are seeing incredible adoption and growth. Looking for an edge or to supplement school learning, parents and students turn to online instruction and software. As career changes and ongoing career development become more common, the market for online post-secondary school learning has also exploded.
The opportunities for educators, learners, policy-makers, and entrepreneurs have never been greater–or more nebulous. We’ve only just begun to see what is possible.
21st Century Skills
While few dispute the value of formal schooling, many question whether current classroom curriculum is relevant to the skills today’s students will need in tomorrow’s jobs. With standardized testing now the main means of evaluating schools, teachers, and students, there is concern that teachers may feel compelled to “teach to the test” rather than teach the skills the tests supposedly seek to assess. This has directly correlated to increased work loads and stress levels for many students from K – 12, and there’s little evidence that it’s helping, particularly for K – 6 students (NEA, 2014). Furthermore, it’s widely felt that current K – 12 curriculum has been too slow to respond to changes in the needs of the modern workforce, especially when it comes to the technical instruction, which has already become such an important part of the professional, skilled jobs available. Parents and students can take matters into their own hands via online learning and apps that teach basic coding skills, but this quickly becomes an access issue as not all students have Internet or a computer at home. To not offer web development and computer science at the pre-college level is of course an issue that impacts the North American economy but perhaps even more importantly, it’s an issue that impacts equality–tech literacy is increasingly as important for students to have as mathematics, reading, and writing. Those students who do not have access to such education will find themselves ill-prepared for life in the 21st century.
Tech literacy is not about giving every student an iPad and hoping for the best, as one school district recently discovered.1 Tech literacy is getting students, well, literate in the hardware, software, and architecture of our modern digital world. It means getting computer science classes into the K – 12 classroom so that students will have the foundational knowledge to succeed in university and the workforce. To that end, a California legislator recently introduced Bill 416d65726963612043616e20436f646520 (hexidecimal code for “America Can Code”), which would designate certain computer programming languages as “critical foreign languages.” It should also be noted that tech literacy is not just about coding but also about helping students understand their relationship to technology, and teaching them to use it as a tool to enhance and support their learning across disciplines. Many teachers are experimenting with allowing laptops, smartphones, and tablets in the classrooms — the theory being that students need to learn to use these devices respectfully and contextually.
Online learning leaps forward
Perhaps a product of our obsession with self-improvement, the lifelong learner has emerged as an important concept in the 21st century classroom and workplace. This term describes not a lifetime of formal schooling but rather a positive disposition toward acquiring new knowledge and skills. And with an incredibly rich online ecosystem of content at everyone’s fingertips, there’s never been a better time to embrace this.
Still, there remains the issue of organizing this content in a comprehensible, meaningful way. While the Internet has been an incredible democratizer of knowledge, the academy endures for its expertise and ability to instruct in a digestible, narrative, and thematic way. The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) has emerged as a chimera of both worlds, giving any learner the ability to take a course on nearly any subject at a low cost or for free. Companies such as EdX and Coursera partner with some of the most prestigious universities in the world to deliver rich content and supported learning. Such courses are not, as of yet, for university credit, but as they gain credibility and traction, this is expected to change.
Online learning is also making its way into the K-12 classroom via the Flipped teaching model. As its name suggests, in this model the traditional classroom is inverted. Students receive content via online lecture at home, with in-class time spent spent on structured, personalized help. In this way, teachers can spend valuable classroom time supporting student learning, tailoring instruction as needed. Teachers are able to assess student comprehension of the online portion with built-in analytics tools, allowing them to adjust lesson plans and assignments. The data on whether this model has long term positive effects on student learning — particularly for younger students — is still emerging but seems promising.
People are also incredibly hopeful about MOOC applications in underserved areas all over the world. True, the high speed Internet infrastructure must first exist, but companies like Google and Facebook are hard at work developing solutions. While some question the motivations of such broadband projects, the benefits should far exceed the concerns. Soon, no matter where a student may be, he or she will have access to the Internet’s vast stores of knowledge and the opportunity to be educated by the top institutions in the world.