Remember, Ed-tech is Really a Tool for Teachers

Emerging Technologies and Edtech December 10, 2014

Most writing about education technology focuses on the students’ experience. It emphasizes how computerized and game-based learning platforms can benefit students. These benefits are certainly real, but focusing on students alone reveals only half the picture. An accurate depiction of the potential benefits of digital learning technologies also needs to take into account the ways technology can help teachers. Learning, after all, is the product of a collaborative relationship between teacher and student.
Put your paranoia aside; edtech is not about robotic teachers. So far, I have not met anyone who wants to replace teachers with tablets. Most people know that great edtech does not attempt to supersede what good teachers already do so well. Words like “disruption,” which drive entrepreneurial and business magazine sales, have no place in edtech. Instead, great innovators understand that education technology, at its best, provides tools that enable teachers to do their current job with increased ease and efficiency. Teachers know how to teach and have done it well for millennia, but there are ways to make their job easier, and technology can help address human shortcomings and challenges that are unique to the 21st century.
For example, prior to the development of new digital and adaptive learning technologies, providing personalized instruction and assessment in the classroom was difficult. Currently, keeping pace with the targeted and individualized social media and web conventions to which the children in developed parts of the world have become accustomed is nearly impossible without predictive algorithmic tools. This is why a number of edtech developers are working on developing games and apps that offer adaptive learning experiences.
“Adaptive” is one of edtech’s big buzzwords. Folks act like it is some great innovation. But there is nothing revolutionary about adaptive learning strategies. Everyone knows that the best educational experiences have always been personalized, multi-disciplinary, and data-driven. The difference between good teaching and bad teaching – whether in a classroom, in an apprenticeship model, jobsite training, or in a parent/child relationship – depends on adaptive instruction. With or without tech, exceptional teachers understand their pupils and mentor directly to the individual personalities in their classrooms. They contextualize learning in an interdisciplinary way that maximizes the relevancy for particular pupils. They make decisions about content and method based on ongoing formative assessment.
When a teacher knows that one student is an athlete, for instance, the content may be delivered through sports metaphors. An artist in the classroom might be most successful when geometry is taught through the context of drafting. Prior knowledge about the student’s abilities is taken into account. The best entry point to any subject is always a familiar context. Therefore good teaching has always involved contextualized framing and personalized assessment.
The only thing new about adaptive technologies is the precision with which they empower teachers to do this job. Imagine empowering teachers by providing tools like the ones Google uses to personalize search results. is one non-profit that is already offering free, simple-to-use algorithmic technology to educators around the world. Tools like these increase efficiency, guarantee smaller margins of error, and reduce the guesswork involved in providing differentiated instruction.
Consider how technology might minimize the difficulty involved in juggling specific and personalized contextual preferences in a classroom of 25 kids by identifying individualized learning objectives on a daily basis, imagining useful measurements of incremental achievement, continuously monitoring for mastery, and constantly undertaking ongoing formative and substantive assessments. In the traditional classroom, all of this is happening on-the-fly while five-year-olds dance around the room building with blocks and singing at the top of their lungs. It is not easy.
Now imagine the compounded complexity for administrators who are responsible for the hundreds or thousands of students in a single school. Consider the superintendents responsible for tens of thousands in a district. Policy makers may be accountable for hundreds of thousands in each state, region, or province. Politicians and ministers need to think about millions within a single nation. And world leaders must figure out ways to do what’s in the best interest of 1.9 billion global children.
Luckily, game-based and other adaptive learning technologies will help teachers, administrators, policy makers, and politicians untangle the complexity that makes widespread personalized instruction and assessment seem unfathomable. New educational technologies can adapt instructional sequencing for students while providing precise ongoing student-specific data for teachers. Adaptive learning technologies can eliminate the need for high-stakes testing. By isolating skills and iterating contextualized instructional sequences, adaptive learning technologies can create efficient and precise data with which teachers can change and improve curricula so that it is always tailored to the needs, strengths, and challenges of individual learners.
Remember, teachers, you should not be scared of edtech. There are no androids, cyborgs or artificially intelligent instructors lurking around the future’s corner. Instead, tomorrow promises to bring better blackboards, automatic grade books, and innovative classroom activities. Edtech offers sophisticated tools that will help teachers be more impactful by dedicating more time and energy to doing what they love most: teaching children in a personalized way that empowers each individual.