By Tom Curley
How did we get here?
People have been singing the praises of and attacking new technology’s place in education for millennia. The printing press would bring about the end of humans’ ability to memorize anything, while at the same time giving access to knowledge to anyone who wanted it. Television would rot our brains and allow teachers to be beamed to every home on the planet. New technologies that harness the internet and artificial intelligence are not immune from this sort of conversation, and with good reason.
What follows is a brief review of some of the major forms of current educational technology, with their benefits and pitfalls as tools for teaching and learning….
The early promise of the internet was indeed utopian: this system will democratize information, making anyone with a connection able to find anything they need to know. The Wikipedia revolution gave us a wonderful demonstration of the pros and cons here. Yes, people with expertise can share it, but others with an agenda (or a bad attitude) can make it wrong. That said, where do you turn for quick information about anything? How tall was Andre the Giant? How many books did Isaac Asimov actually write?
If the early imagining of the internet was a collection of curated encyclopedia articles and scholarly journals, the crowdsourcing boom gave everyone a chance to both show their expertise and learn from others. Perhaps the best example of this is YouTube. For everyone I know, from youngsters to grampas, YouTube is the first resource when trying to learn a new skill. This, at its core, is EdTech because we are using technology to get educated. Most of us feel like that’s not enough because it’s all too scattered, there’s no structure, and it’s not a class.
Learning Management Systems
These are about as fun as they sound. You may have encountered them through your child’s school, as they are commonly the system used by schools to coordinate classes, centralize homework, and build in submitting assignments and grades. Schoology and Canvas are two large ones, but there are many more. The great thing about them is that they can aggregate all of a student’s information in one place. From the teacher’s perspective, it makes it easy to standardize submissions of assignments, and students can usually check their grades easily throughout a grading period. From the parents’ perspective, they can provide good information about what is being assigned, whether the child is turning in their work on time, and sometimes they have access to their child’s grades, as well. (This is a double-edged sword, and most schools don’t turn on that access to remove parental pressure from teachers.)
But as for learning, an LMS doesn’t really open any new doors. It’s a great organizational tool that harnesses the power of the internet, and it can help teachers use their time more efficiently. There are no real educational benefits here, though. An LMS doesn’t create valid problems that students can solve, nor do they tend to make collaborative work much easier. And none of them has any new way to “deliver content” to students that can make much of a difference.
What about Khan Academy?
Khan Academy is a brilliant experiment in free teaching and learning, and it holds the promise as one of the best ways to deliver a fairly traditional curriculum in a fairly traditional manner to anyone who has internet access. Salman Khan started it to help his cousins with their math class, and it took off from there. It is a really great resource for supplementing what students get at school, or if there are classes they’d like to take that aren’t offered nearby. I have assigned sections of his courses to my students because I trust the quality of the information, and their lessons are clearly presented.
Massive, Open, Online Courses, available from groups like EdX, MIT Open Courseware, Coursera, and the list goes on. There are some truly wonderful offerings available as MOOCs. It is totally possible to give yourself a decent college education in many subjects using MOOCs, as long as you never want to talk to a professor, grad student, or even another human being at all. The biggest problem with these courses is the lack of any real way to substantiate that you have done any of the work assigned. Paying for them and submitting papers is one way to beat that problem, but there is still no substantive feedback from someone with a background in the subject matter.
It could be that this lack of accountability is why so many people start MOOCs, but don’t finish them. I would recommend using online courses for students who are extremely organized and passionate about the subject, but almost no one else. The exception would be if the student was able to work one in as an independent study, wherein they met regularly with a teacher or tutor who could check on their progress, review any written work with them, and generally act as a human guide through the learning process. This slight addition of the human touch makes a huge difference, so if you are looking into online courses, think about ways to build something like that in.
There are apps out there that claim to be able to teach you just about anything. Just as with online courses, however, building in accountability is a really important step to take, as is looking at reviews from credible sources (read: not just other users).
Where our mobile devices can really help us is in reviewing information that we want to put in our long-term memory. Apps like Memrise, AnkiWeb, and Quizlet do a good job at reinventing the old flash card learning techniques. The best of these apps put the question to you right when you’re likely to forget it, making you work harder to recall the information. That work doesn’t feel like learning, but it’s actually in those moments that you cement information in your memory.
Sapere aude! Dare to know!
There has never been a better time to educate yourself! We have so much information, great teachers posting free videos, and colleges making their courses available to anyone. The current state of learning was unimaginable even in the first phase of the internet, and it’s well worth exploring. BUT BE CAREFUL! As you are probably well aware, people with many different agendas can make their offerings look quite legitimate, so make sure you are getting your education from a reputable source–preview the materials, read some reviews, and keep your radar on for anything that seems like it doesn’t quite fit.