Where is Remote-Learning Headed Toward?

Education Technology Insights | Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Education technology can instantaneously detect when a student solves a problem or generates a correctly functional computer program in particular fields, such as mathematics and computer science.

FREMONT, CA: Over the last two decades, people in favor of education technology have made grand promises: half of all secondary school curricula would be online by 2019; videos and practice problems will allow students to study mathematics at their own pace; only ten mega-institutions of higher education will exist in 50 years, or that typical student left alone with internet-connected computers will be able to learn almost anything without the assistance from teachers or schools.

Then, in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic prompted people worldwide to turn to online learning as schools serving more than one billion pupils were forced to close. Although it was education technology's big moment, most students and families found remote learning a letdown. Why has education technology looked so drab at a time when the world most needed it?

There has been a long history of educational software, but there have always been two fundamental problems. The first is that the majority of people rely on a personal connection to stay motivated. Someone can see and respond when a student closes their laptop in frustration in a classroom. When the same thing happens while using a piece of educational technology, human ties are severed.

Although well-designed online learning environments can foster meaningful interactions and online learning has the potential to go beyond traditional classroom boundaries, many online students find it challenging to stay focused in practice. The complexity of curricula is the second issue. On any given day in a school, one instructor might introduce a new sound-letter mapping in phonics, another would wrap up a plate tectonics course, and a third might lead a Don Quixote seminar. Many teachers can stroll down the hall into a new lesson to teach content from a different subject. However, new material, tools, resources, and assessments must be generated and disseminated for each new curriculum topic in education technology.

Assessments are also a difficult task. Education technology can instantaneously detect when a student solves a problem or generates a correctly functional computer program in particular fields, such as mathematics and computer science. One may reward students for accurate responses, direct them to resources when they make mistakes, and construct the feedback loops of education, assessment, and iteration that are necessary for effective learning.                                

Sadly, the same strategy does not work in all situations. Computers can rapidly evaluate a correct numerical response when we ask pupils to determine how far a tectonic plate may move given a definite speed and duration. However, when students are asked to write a paragraph explaining how plate tectonics function, computers are unable to distinguish between accurate, partially correct, and erroneous solutions. Computers cannot accurately assess how humans reason from evidence, yet reasoning from evidence is at the heart of education.

Education technology has long promised to improve education, but at most, it has produced specialized tools for specific areas of study. There are no online tools that are superior to a physical textbook for broad swaths of school learning. Each technology solution is also a human capital issue: integrating technologies into learning necessitates providing time for teachers and students to experiment with and become accustomed to new tools, routines, and pedagogies. For most teachers, the journey to more effective teaching with technology looks more like tinkering: a deliberate and steady process of determining the proper tool or technique for specific children in specific situations.

 

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