In Applying Tech to Education, We Can’t Mistake a Clear View for a Short Distance

Work StationsDigital textbooks, online lectures, innovative software, learning games, laptops, tablets, and smartphones have all made it possible to customize content, enhance instruction, and improve assessment in the educational arena. This convergence of possibilities could really revolutionize the way students learn. But the landscape is decentralized and complicated, and leveraging what’s possible to really move the field of education forward will not be easy.  

To explore these challenges and opportunities, the Center for Social Innovation, Stanford’s School of Education, and the LEAD Commission recently cohosted a symposium on technology in education here on campus. The presenters were as diverse as the field. Four, however, stood out to make a significant difference. Each represents a different approach and set of priorities, and highlights key questions as we work to bridge the huge gap between technology’s potential and today’s reality.

Education Superhighway targets the infrastructure problem, for without speedy, reliable internet access in schools even the best innovations won’t ever reach most of our nation’s students. The nonprofit’s founder and CEO, Evan Marwell, shared the startling fact that 80% of America’s 100,000 schools – serving 40 million students – don’t have the internet connectivity infrastructure to take advantage of digital technology. We need to understand the starting point before designing appropriate solutions, so Marwell has launched the “national school speed test” to crowd source data on which schools have good access to broadband and which do not. They also plan to support schools to get better pricing and terms for broadband service. Currently, the nation’s 14,000 school districts approach this as fragmented individual interests, but by joining together and aggregating their purchase decisions they can better leverage the 1.5 billion dollars they’re already spending on internet access and infrastructure.  Education Superhighway’s work is not flashy, but it’s necessary. Without addressing the fundamental question of access, all the momentum around new applications and content is like a frenzy to build cars with no place to go.  

So much of the symposium, while exciting, featured endeavors that directly target students outside of the traditional classroom. That can work to supplement the school day, but ask any adult what got them excited about learning and you’ll surely hear about a great teacher who brought learning to life. Learn Zillion stood out because they “believe that the teacher is the right unit of change,” explained cofounder and president, Alix Guerrier. Learn Zillion has developed an ever-growing library of 1500+ lessons in math and ELA (English Language Arts) that includes activities, commentaries, and assessment modules to help teachers better teach core curriculum requirements in the classroom. After all, kids are still in classrooms 6+ hours a day looking to teachers to guide them through the learning process. 

Apple’s education initiative centers on iTunes U and iBooks, targeting higher education. John Couch, the company’s vice president of education, talked about his work to get iPads into the educational environment, and to empower educators to create content and better manage the learning process. And if anyone can figure out the right tools, interface, and design, of course it’s Apple. But who’s going to use these innovations? Their mission isn’t about improving access to quality education across all strata. Case in point: Couch touted a recent announcement by the United Arab Emirates to provide iPads for all university students and teachers – not easily replicated in most contexts. iPad access and Apple’s new applications will be great for those who can afford it, and will hopefully elevate the design and usability aspirations of other innovators in the space. But I don’t think their tools will ever be widely accessible to the kids who most need them, and content designed specifically for the iPad will be inherently limited in its reach. 

In contrast, Coursera aims to give everyone access to the world-class university education that has so far been available only to a select few. They do so by partnering with top universities around the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. Cofounders Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller are both Stanford professors who are excited by the way technology can make top courses more widely available. As an example, one of Ng’s Stanford courses is capped on campus at 400 students. He put it on Coursera and reached 100,000 students, including many from India and a single mother of two who would otherwise not have access. Since its launch one year ago, 1 million users are already accessing Coursera’s online classes, and benefiting from the translation, captioning, lesson segmenting, assessment and feedback tools, and online community features of the platform. If information is power, Coursera is on track to empower people on a global scale. 

It has been decades since talk about technology’s potential to disrupt and revolutionize education started to buzz. The potential to level the playing field, increase access for all, and improve student outcomes is enticing, but for some reason the hype often overshadows delivery on these promises. It’s clear that there’s no one solution, and certainly not just one tool or app that is going to resolve the injustices, ineffectiveness, and inefficiencies in today’s educational arena. To really make progress will take a broad look at the sector’s challenges and opportunities, starting with the basics – the need for sound infrastructure and for capable, supported teachers.  

We should be careful not to mistake a clear view for a short distance. The social innovations that have scaled for broad impact in the past 30 years required collaboration, time, tenacity and investment. Hopefully, a decade from now, we’ll be able to look at real change and regard technology as just the disruption that was needed to improve learning both inside and out of the classroom.


Thanks for the wonderful

Thanks for the wonderful insights and for generating the analysis. We must continue to question and look at the issues critically, with a view to bridging the gaps and restoring sense to the approaches taken. Ben.

Thank you for this great perspective!

Thank you for this great perspective! Take a look at this paper from Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group: Regards, Joel

Learn Zillion

Learn Zillion is a sustaining innovation (a la Clay Christensen)because it produces a "new and improved" teacher who will continue to impart information to students in the same way it has been for thousands of years. The disruptive innovation that technology enables is to put students in charge of their own learning in a mastery-based context that will become more mainstream when the Common Core Standards take effect. The disengagement of the 21st century students that plagues our education system is based on the fact that they view and practice the acquisition of knowledge in a way that is at odds with traditional teaching. So until we change the paradigm, we will continue to get the same results we have gotten since the publication of "A Nation at Risk" in 1983. Good teachers will always be at the heart of shaping the next generation. But imagine how many more of them there would be and how empowered they would be if technology delivered basic content and they became the connectors of dots able to differentiate what they can provide for each one of their students.

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