A rush of new technologies

A combination of forces is creating an inflection point for technology to redefine the process of learning and the structure of schools, Ted Mitchell, CEO of a venture philanthropy organization and former president of the State Board of Education, told a conference on math and technology at Stanford University on Thursday. “The market is ripe for disruptive innovation.”

Because they offer a new potential for personalized learning, the new tools can be an antidote to budget cuts that have increased class sizes and made it much more difficult to respond to the needs of individual students, Mitchell said. “Teachers are working hard with what they have. They need help, and (the new) tools are part of the solution.”

A dozen of the new math tools were featured at the conference, sponsored by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, and Mitchell’s NewSchools Venture Fund. (See Kathy Baron’s accompanying story on the renewed debate over Algebra I.) They included everything from engaging games for elementary students to open source digital textbooks and networking platforms for teachers.

Some of the new technologies, Mitchell observed, are diagnostic, detecting individual students’ weaknesses and then assigning content to fill in gaps in knowledge. “They recognize that kids come to school with unequal levels of preparation,” he said. That’s why “personalized learning is essential.”

NewSchools Venture Fund has shifted its funding from charter schools to new technologies that he described as “synergistc innovations that make school systems more effective.” Of the dozen and a half startups that NewSchools funds, Mitchell cited two that have gone farthest in challenging the structure of learning. At the School of One, encompassing three schools in New York City, students work individually on their own “learning map” and don’t attend classes per se. Software algorithms schedule what students learn daily, based on individual needs. It’s a fundamentally different school structure that demands a different approach to teaching.

Contrasting the School of One is the force of one, Salman Khan, whose 2,700 instructional YouTube videos in the online library of Khan Academy have gone viral; an estimated 4,000 schools are independently using the videos in the classroom. NewSchools is funding pilot programs in 20 California schools, helping teachers in diverse combinations of schools weave Khan into their curriculum. Because they enable students to progress at their own pace, the videos are changing the nature of teachers’ relationship with students, Mitchell said.

The conditions are ripe for new technologies. Three-quarters of students have access to tools connected to the Internet; between cell phones and cheaper computers, tools are “ubiquitous,” he said. Reflecting a generational shift, new teachers are arriving competent with new technologies and anxious to use them. And Common Core standards, which California has adopted, have created a national market for technology developers. The new standards have created a new opportunity to engage teachers in developing curriculums around robust and intellectually challenging  material, Mitchell said. “This is a moment of real difference.”

Obstacles to implementation

Other conference speakers  tempered Mitchell’s enthusiasm with caution while acknowledging technology’s potential impact.

If districts had $100,000, they should put it not into technology but into improving content, said Jeremy Roschelle, director of the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International. “There is no magic to the use of technology; studies prove that.” Technology must be integrated into the curriculum and must be accompanied by training of teachers, he said. “Isolated buckets of money don’t work.”

Pat Sabo, a math teacher for 35 years and a National Education Assn. delegate, warned of a “reality gap between what the state and local agencies say we’re going to do and what we’re prepared to do.” Noting that there is one computer for every four students in California schools, with most of those four years old and without technical support at the schools, she warned policy makers, “Do not set policies with ideals that cannot be met.”

Mitchell’s successor as State Board President, Michael Kirst, said that the state must remove obstacles to the adoption of digital textbooks. The seven-year adoption cycle of curriculum materials no longer makes sense, he said. But as for the explosion of new technologies, he said, “There needs to be a system to evaluate what math tools actually raise student achievement.”

Of course, there’s no state money now for computer hardware and new technologies, but Kirst and others expressed optimism  that the explosion of software for cell phones and low prices for stripped-down computers, like the Google Chromebooks, will make access cheaper.

Gerry Shelton, former chief education consultant to the Assembly Education Committee, cautioned against relying on younger teachers – who breathe technology like air – to bring it into the classroom. “In recent years, they’re the ones we’ve be handing pink slips to. I’ve had a feeling that we’re losing a generation of teachers.”

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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