All too often, technology is treated as a silver bullet for perceived problems in education. This sometimes leads to knee-jerk investments, using scarce resources to invest in software or hardware without a clear notion of how either might actually empower learning. Instead of having more technology as a goal, we should have more human interaction, personalization, access, and content mastery as the goals, and then think about what tools can get us there.
The 18th century Prussians were one of the first societies to think about truly public education—making (relatively) high-quality education available, for free, to most anyone. Horace Mann helped bring a similar model to the U.S. in the mid-1800s, and it provided similar benefits: public education for all. But the Prussian model had its tradeoffs. To reach many students at a low cost, the system relied on moving everyone along at the same pace, and left little room for content mastery or personalization. If students didn't learn the concept in the time allocated, too bad. They would get a bad grade on the test and the class would move on to more advanced topics, despite clear gaps for some students in foundational areas. The model centered on students passively taking in information during one-pace-fits-all lectures. Talking, questioning, or even moving was discouraged. This may have produced workers well-suited for the Industrial Revolution, but it stifled curiosity and innovation, and made education an impersonal experience for both students and teachers.
Two hundred years later, there have been improvements, but mainstream schools still rely on this centuries-old Prussian architecture, despite the fact that modern society needs innovation more than compliance. But given that hundreds of years have passed, perhaps we don’t have to make the Prussian tradeoff anymore. Can we imagine an education model that is both scalable and accessible, while at the same time engendering student creativity, innovation, and mastery of content? Here are a few ways I think technology can serve this goal.
A huge innovation in the Prussian education model was delivering information to students: teaching them basic facts and knowledge. Technology has made it such that, in the not-too-distant future, nearly all academic content will be available online, for free, on any device. Not only that, but unlimited online guided practice and feedback will free students from the limits of textbooks, and free teachers from the drudgery of writing and grading problem sets. If high-quality content can be effectively delivered via technology, teachers can devote more time to creating innovative experiences, leading Socratic dialogs, or coaching students one-on-one in more targeted and focused interventions.
Beyond academic content, there is an increasing recognition that students need a broader set of social and emotional skills to succeed in life, like metacognition, critical thinking, persistence, and self-regulation. But because teachers today have to spend so much time on content delivery, assessment, and classroom management, there isn’t much time to coach and guide students to build these critical skills. Technology can help to address this in two ways. First, technology platforms themselves can encourage these skills—for example, a student might receive motivational messages while working through a difficult set of math word problems, encouraging persistence even as the student is struggling. Second, technology can free up teacher time previously spent on administrative tasks, enabling teachers to spend more time working with students to build these crucial skills.
Teachers can use technology-based assessments to inform their instruction. These assessments can quickly produce data and surface patterns that help teachers identify where students are faltering and intervene with targeted coaching immediately, before the student falls too far behind. Teachers can also use this information to revise their lessons plans and approaches.
Technology can, finally, help address the scale of the need. Teachers and students across the world can benefit from more personalized teaching and learning. Ed-tech solutions have the potential to reach many, many more kids at a relatively low cost, especially as smartphones, broadband, and cellular coverage become ubiquitous and more affordable. Even in low-income communities across the world, an increasing number of students, teachers, and classrooms are equipped with computers, tablets, and smartphones. Khan Academy alone reaches about 12 million students each month, and there are a number of other ed-tech organizations that are working to achieve similar scale.
To be clear, people are the most important part of any classroom. If given the choice between a great teacher and the world’s most advanced education technology, I’d pick the teacher any day for my own children. Fortunately, we don’t have to choose between teachers and technology. Technology is best used when it empowers teachers and students to create personalized, accessible, creative learning experiences. We just have to be careful to view it as a means to this end, rather than an end unto itself.