New technology is poised to disrupt America’s schools, and then the world’s
IN A small school on the South Side of Chicago, 40 children between the ages of five and six sit quietly learning in a classroom. In front of each of them is a computer running software called Reading Eggs. Some are reading a short story, others building sentences with words they are learning. The least advanced are capturing all the upper- and lower-case Bs that fly past in the sky. As they complete each task they move through a cartoon map that shows how far they have progressed in reading and writing. Along the way they collect eggs which they can use to buy objects in the game, such as items to furnish their avatar’s apartment. Now and then a child will be taken aside for scheduled reading periods with one of the two monitoring teachers.
The director of North Kenwood-Oakland school says this sort of teaching, blending software with human intervention, helps her pupils learn faster. It also allows teachers at this school—which, like other charter schools, is publicly funded but has some freedom to teach as it likes—to spend more time teaching and less time marking written work and leading pupils through dull drills of words and numbers. On top of that the school gains an accurate, continuous record of each child’s performance through the data its various programs collect and analyse.
The idea that technology can revolutionise education is not new. In the 20th century almost every new invention was supposed to have big implications for schools. Companies promoting typewriters, moving pictures, film projectors, educational television, computers and CD-ROMS have all promised to improve student performance. A great deal of money went into computers for education in the dot.com boom of the late 1990s, to little avail, though big claims were advanced for the difference they would make.
These claims were not entirely false: some bright, motivated children did use new technologies to learn things they would have missed otherwise. In many classrooms, too, computers have been used to improve efficiency and keep pupils engaged. But they did not transform learning in the way their boosters predicted. It is wise, therefore, to be sceptical about the claims made for the current wave of innovation. Yet there are also reasons to believe that a profound shift is occurring.
Over the course of the 20th century mass education produced populations more literate, numerate and productive than any the world had seen before. But it did so, usually, in an impersonal manner, with regimented rows of children chanting their times-tables as Teacher tapped the blackboard with a cane. Schooling could never be tailored to each child, unless you employed lots of teachers.
Teaching programs that monitor children’s progress can change that, performing a role more like that of the private tutors and governesses employed long ago in wealthier households. Data derived from each child’s responses can be used to tailor what he sees or hears next on the computer screen. The same data also allow continual assessment of his abilities and shortcomings, letting schools, teachers and parents understand both the pupil himself and the way human beings learn.
Such learning—called “adaptive” in the trade—is not the only advantage technology offers to today’s teachers and pupils. Online resources, from wikis to podcasts to training videos, are allowing both children and adults to pursue education on their own, either instead of learning in schools or colleges or as a supplement. It is, in the words of Bill Gates, who follows developments in this area closely and whose foundation funds some of them, “a special time in education”.
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