Back to School - How Digital Technology is Changing Education

Sep 8, 2016
12 Min Read

Back to School— How Digital Technology is Changing Education

For both children and parents, the beginning of a new school year is a major milestone. The most exciting parts of going back to school for most kids are all the changes it brings about— a new grade, new teachers, new classmates, and maybe even a new school. But the changes don’t stop there. Each year there are innovations and techniques that change classroom life.

Digital Transformation in the Classroom

Today’s students are preparing to enter a global workforce undergoing a massive digital transformation. This shift is prompting many schools to change how they think about not only what students need to learn, but how they should be learning.

Digital transformation in the classroom cannot happen without high-speed Internet connectivity. But getting schools online is not without obstacles. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education launched an initiative called ConnectED, aimed at connecting 99% of students to broadband within five years.

Joseph South_Dept of Education

Joseph South is the Director of the Office of Educational Technology within the U.S. Department of Education. He reports the results of ConnectED have been remarkable: “In the last two years, 20 million more students have access to broadband in their classrooms. That is a huge shift in the digital landscape of students and teachers.”

Educators are using this technology to broaden the scope of traditional classroom teaching. South explains, “Teachers can use powerful software to help them personalize learning so that each student can progress at the pace that is right for them, rather than just teaching to the students in the middle of the class. They can connect their classroom with other classrooms in far-flung parts of the country via live video to work on joint science experiments or to learn about communities very different from their own. They can explore world-class museum collections and study primary resources from pivotal historical events. They can use virtual reality to immerse themselves in cultural sites around the country or the world.”

Internet access also plays a role in bridging socioeconomic gaps in the education system, by leveling the playing field and providing disadvantaged schools and students with equal access to digital learning resources that can augment what their district is able to offer.

Improving Outcomes through Data Analytics

Companies use data analytics to track operations, sales, marketing, and customer experience. Schools can also leverage analytics to track performance and improve outcomes. By analyzing data collected through the students’ use of technology in the classroom, teachers can have a better understanding of what individual children and classrooms need.

South says, “The more precisely you can understand how a learner is misunderstanding a concept, the more quickly you can help them course-correct. Technology can help us diagnose those deficiencies much faster and more precisely than a teacher would be able to by herself across a classroom of 30 students.”

Data analysis doesn’t replace teachers’ professional insight, but South explains that it provides them with a valuable tool: “I have no doubt that a great teacher, given enough time, can do as well or better as most data systems in diagnosing and helping students. But a teacher simply doesn’t have that kind of time,” explains South.

Digital Growing Pains

Teaching in today’s digitally-immersed classrooms requires a paradigm shift for educators and administrators. There's a steep learning curve for teachers accustomed to more traditional approaches.

“Just because you can upload a cat video to your social network doesn’t mean you know how to use technology effectively in a classroom,” says South. “Many teachers would like to branch out more into digital learning but simply lack the professional learning experiences they need to feel confident and prepared to lead a classroom full of students into uncharted territory. It often takes over the shoulder support and coaching from another teacher who has made the leap to help a teacher to do it the first time.”

Digital transformation in the classroom requires a cultural change, in addition to the technological changes. It can be difficult for schools to accept that they may need to reallocate funds away from less efficient practices to invest in technology. To help schools through this transition, the Department of Education, in partnership with Alliance for Excellent Education, launched Future Ready. South reports over 2200 school districts have taken the Future Ready pledge to transition to digital learning, doing so in a collaborative manner that includes all stakeholders.

A thorough roadmap for how schools can improve student’s Internet connectivity is included in the OET’s Future Ready Schools: Infrastructure guide.

A Device in Every Hand?

Many districts are moving towards a “1 to 1” technology model, which seeks to provide each student, from kindergarten through high school, with a laptop or tablet. Such initiatives are not without controversy. Time recently published an article asking whether tech companies are pushing personal devices not in the interest of education, but in the interest of sales.

Even South emphasizes that schools shouldn’t give kids devices just for the sake of being hip. He says it’s important that schools are leveraging laptops and tablets to provide students with new, meaningful ways to engage with the curriculum: “Technology doesn’t have to be transformational. We can go right on doing the same worksheets on a computer that we did on paper. So when I hear about a 1 to 1 initiative, my first question is: what are they using the devices for? What pedagogy are they enabling? Is it any different or better than the one they had before the technology arrived? Are the students getting more help, more small group instruction, more exposure to high-quality content, more targeted practice? Or is the classroom functioning essentially the same as it did before you had to plug 30 devices into the wall every night?”

He adds, “The best 1 to 1 initiatives are deliberate about recasting the role of the student from being a passive consumer of information to becoming a digital creator. In these classrooms, students use technology to create, to communicate, to solve, and to share. They open up a wide diversity of approaches a student can use to demonstrate their knowledge and accomplish the classroom objectives. Students find these environments incredibly empowering and engaging.”

The idea of providing students with their own devices is concerning to some educators and parents, who worry that schools could be fueling technology addictions. This fear is backed by research recently conducted by CommonSense Media which shows that 66% of parents feel their teens spend too much time on devices and 52% of kids agree.

South says it’s important for educators and parents to differentiate between recreational and educational uses of technology: “There definitely needs to be limits. But it's also important to consider whether a student is using the screen passively as a very expensive television or game console, as a way to kill time, or if they are using the device actively as a tool to accomplish something productive— to explore their interests, to make something useful and expressive and helpful to others. If they are doing the latter, that is much different than zoning out, and should be treated differently. That said, all of us need time away from screens, engaging the physical world around us and engaging each other face to face.”

Is There an App for That?

The digital transformation of education offers entrepreneurs opportunities to develop new tools to help educators and students. For this reason, the OET designed the Ed Tech Developers Guide.

South says, “The guide highlights ten opportunities where ed tech entrepreneurs and developers can have a significant impact, such as closing opportunity and achievement gaps; improving education, professional development, and productivity; increasing family engagement; designing effective assessments; and making learning accessible to all students.”

The guide stresses the importance of involving educators at every stage of development. After all, even in the midst of dramatic changes, education has always been and must always be about equipping teachers with the best tools possible to prepare students to be leaders in society and in the marketplace.

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