Most arguments for edtech focus on the ways in which new digital tools will help students. While learners will certainly benefit, the science fiction fear of robot teachers is exacerbated when we forget that edtech is fundamentally a tool for teachers. Great learning tools help teachers do their jobs more effectively by providing more data.
However, when I speak to groups of teachers, I’m often surprised to discover that they are afraid of assessment data. This paranoia is not born out of a lack of confidence–they’re not afraid that data will show poor performance. Instead, they worry (correctly) about the impact that high-stakes standardized assessment will have on students’ motivation and performance.
Unfortunately, this fear has become an obstacle that often prevents teachers from adopting technologies that were built to eliminate a dependence on harmful standardized assessment metrics while increasing instances of personalized, or differentiated instruction.
In order to understand how these technologies are meant to function, consider the traditional student-teacher relationship. Maintaining a personalized or differentiated learning approach is easy in one-on-one and face-to-face relationships. New learning objectives, concepts, and skills are intuitively broken down into pieces that can be easily digested by individual learners. Each piece is presented in a way that feels contextually relevant–using metaphors that appeal to the individual. When the pupil doesn’t “get it,” the teacher instantly adapts his or her approach. Teachers are constantly performing on-the-spot formative assessments and adapting accordingly.
Great teachers adapt their teaching in this way thousands of times a day…for a few of their students. It just isn’t feasible to do it for everyone. No matter one’s intentions, teachers are human, they have limits. Therefore, for a variety of reasons, certain students in a traditional classroom reap the benefits of the instructor’s personalization skills and other students don’t.
At first, in the early grades, it is not so much that some students are neglected as it is that the teacher can’t figure out how to reach them. The collaborative learning relationship just doesn’t take hold. Teacher and student cannot find a common vocabulary with which to relate to one another.
Unfortunately, the lack of a common vocabulary is just the beginning. Research has shown that the development of vocabulary–early language acquisition–is directly correlative to both the quantity and quality of words that a child is exposed to between birth and three years old. That’s not surprising. However, there are “meaningful differences” in both quantity and quality of words heard by infants that cut pretty clearly across socio-economic class lines. And since early vocabulary exposure is also a predictive factor in early literacy skills, relative economic difference is a primary determining factor of academic success. After all, the student who doesn’t learn to read by third grade is very quickly behind in all of his or her classes. Textbooks, in all subjects, require reading.
Classroom teachers, therefore, find themselves in a tough situation. The students who need the most personalized attention are also the hardest ones to reach. After all, the experience we colloquially refer to as “mutual affection” often comes down to a matter of common vocabulary between individuals. Put simply, the students we connect with are often the ones with whom we share the most likeness (or, language). In the best case scenario, the one’s who get the most attention are the one’s who validate our efforts with frequent successes. We all prefer positive reinforcement. We’re only human.
Fortunately, computers aren’t human. Used appropriately, video games and adaptive learning technologies offer tools that can empower teachers to do their jobs more effectively, more precisely, and more equitably.
Even on his or her best days, human teachers are not capable of recording and assessing as many data points as a computer for even a single student, let alone an entire classroom full of students. But imagine what the best human teachers would be able to do in a classroom when equipped with the kinds of personalized assessment data that digital learning technologies can provide.
Critics of digital learning technologies fear that teachers will be replaced with robotic avatars. They envision classrooms full of students staring at screens. I imagine a different, more optimistic future. I believe game-based assessments and digital adaptive learning technologies will provide an opportunity for teachers to more effectively act as mentors–as sherpas, as facilitators. I imagine a future where teachers can more easily and equitably adapt their own teaching style, curriculum and course planning in ways that keep them closely connected to their students.
What’s more, technology serves as a tool that allows teachers to leverage their own time, because technology delivers these insights and analytics in very useful forms that allow them to focus their precious resources on helping students.
Read more articles from Jordan Shapiro: Exploring a Rich World of Learning With Technology and Gaming