Over the past few years, we’ve heard a number of impassioned overtures from tech advocates pushing us education professionals to hurry up and get with the digital programme. What’s taking so long? Many of the people we serve are children born in the age of the smartphone, so shouldn’t we just get more technology in the hands in the students?
But it’s clear that technology alone isn’t enormously helpful - the real impact comes when we can put tech to work for teachers and students in a way that directly serves their needs. It’s all about effective implementation.
Here are three of the developments I’ve been hearing more about in 2015.
1. Access more areas
The biggest influence on the learning experience of a student is likely to be their teacher. Any talk of technology filling teachers’ shoes is much hyped and overblown - it can’t, it won’t, nor should we want it to. But technology can certainly help to extend a teacher’s reach, and in areas where subject specialists are in short supply, that digital connection can mean the difference between learning a language from text and practising it with a native speaker. Online learning programmes, such as Pearson’s online school, Connections Academy, increasingly offer a means for primary and secondary-level students to learn anywhere - at home, while training for the Olympics, in hospital - while still supervised by virtual teachers and maintaining some of the social elements of being in a physical school environment.
Massively-Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have opened up higher education materials and lectures to an audience whose only entrance requirement is internet access and a computer.
Selectively-Open Online Courses, like the one developed by the Harvard Business School (HBS), offer a more refined version of the MOOC model by only accepting those students who meet their specific entry criteria, generally charging a fee, offering greater expert educator support to users and awarding a certified qualification upon completion. I should think that we’ll see more bricks-and-mortar universities follow HBS’ lead as they struggle to compete with this democratisation of higher education.
2. Invisible assessment
How much do we really know about what any one student is learning? It’s time to get smarter about exams, and we’re starting to do just that. We ran a Pearson/Teach First survey of students aged 14 to 21 and those young people told us in no uncertain terms that end of year exams are not the way they want to have their learning assessed. They felt their future rested arbitrarily on their performance on one given day. When we asked what assessment method worked best for them, most said they just wanted confirmation they were learning the course material and staying on target. A well-designed online learning game - such as SimCityEDU, which we developed alongside GlassLab Games - can achieve those objectives, capturing real-time analysis of the actions a student takes and interpreting patterns in data to assess how the player understands important concepts. In time, learning games like this should lead to decreased reliance on end-of-term and end-of-year exams, since teachers and students will be getting ongoing information as to what has been learned and what still needs more work.
You’ll find plenty of start-ups and companies like Pearson exploring what’s possible in that space; many of us firmly believe that measuring impact should be baked into all edtech products and platforms during the research and development phase, testing and iterating based on insights from the earliest opportunity to ensure we can help each student achieve the outcomes they need to make progress.
3. Make, do and learn
We’ve been hearing a lot about the resurgence of maker education - the kind of hands-on learning that encompasses craft, design, electronics and programming, lending itself to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) subjects in particular. This is by no means a new discussion, especially in the US, but it’s only in the past few years that we’ve seen a greater emphasis on tailoring it to specific outcomes for education. The research is fairly unequivocal - maker education has not only made STEM subjects seem more accessible to students who might ordinarily be put off, but has also proved itself to be a powerful way to learn.
There’s no shortage of entrepreneurs doing wonderful things to bring STEAM subjects young students via maker ed, such as Kano, purveyors of the computer you build yourself, and Technology Will Save Us, whose DIY tech kits are bought for or by more girls than boys (a rare stat in the world of tech, at any age). Over in the basement of historic Somerset House here in London, you’ll find Makerversity, a maker space for small businesses, but also with teaching and learning at its heart. The team recently developed Makerversity DIY, a set of maker tools for teachers, tailored specifically to bring maker education into core subjects.
It’s an exciting time for the education industry as we discover more ways to use the power of technology to help more people to get access to a better quality education, wherever they are in the world. At Pearson, around two thirds of our products and services now have a digital element to them - the likelihood to delivering the same quality of learning material to a high-tech classroom in San Francisco as to a rural village in Rajasthan is better than ever.
But for all these technological advances in education, it remains clear that to be truly impactful, technology needs to be fully integrated in a way that supports teachers and enables students. As the OECD puts it: "Technology can leverage great teaching; technology can’t displace poor teaching". The real measure of the impact of any new technology must be its ability to help students achieve better learning outcomes.