As many educators across the country struggled to adopt technology tools in the rush to remote learning over the last several months of the school year, teachers are reporting that their ability to effectively use technology has improved markedly.
Whether this will usher in a greater use of technology not for its own sake but to help create more active, tailored learning experiences that engage learners remains an open question.
To facilitate that, education technology companies will have to do a much better job of creating tools that not only bolster these types of experiences, but fit into the busy lives and priorities of teachers.
As Larry Berger, CEO of Amplify, reminded me and Diane Tavenner, CEO of Summit Public Schools and a Forbes contributor, recently in a conversation we recorded for our Class Disrupted podcast, there are at least three key items that education technologies must offer for teachers.
1) Save teachers time;
2) Extend the reach of teachers;
3) And deepen their understanding of their students.
That list implies that education technology must help teachers with something that they are prioritizing or doing on a regular basis. It cannot layer “just one more thing” on top of a teacher’s already busy workday.
When Berger speaks of extending the reach of teachers, he means that technology can’t be “some field trip to somewhere else where they’re not going.” It must extend their reach in ways they find productive.
And finally, the technology must help teachers learn about and get to know their students so that they can more effectively serve their students.
Many companies offer products or services that they could see would improve student learning—if only teachers would just use them correctly, they complain. But what they miss is that it has to help teachers accomplish something they are already trying to do at least as efficiently, if not more so.
Berger and his team nailed this with the first offering they created when their company was called Wireless Generation. Wireless Generation offered a mobile education assessment solution to help teachers understand their students’ reading abilities, something they were already doing. And it allowed them to do so with greater ease such that it improved and simplified teachers’ lives, rather than further complicated them.
Once that’s accomplished, Berger said there are five key things that education technology can offer to improve student learning.
First, enable quicker feedback and more of it to enhance student learning in the same way a tutor could.
Second, technology can create experiences that are hard or impossible to do in a traditional environment. For example, “If a science teacher said, ‘I have an idea. Let’s dump 100 million tons of methane into the atmosphere and see if it warms up,’” Berger said, “that would be frowned upon by the principal. But in a simulation, you can do that, and you can see what happens.”
Third, technology can create data that helps other parts of the system improve by understanding where do students get stuck and the like.
Fourth, when technology is used well, Berger said it can enable greater productivity. That is, it can automate certain manual and laborious processes.
And fifth, Berger said technology can enable more personalization and self-direction by responding to what a student needs to learn next. In the interview he suggested that there are cautions to this approach, presumably in giving students choice that lacks the scaffolding they need to succeed or personalizing in ways that are not helpful to unlocking student learning by tailoring to “learning styles” or outdated notions of how students in fact learn.
How teachers and schools use digital-learning tools in the school year ahead will be worth watching. Will they use it to replicate what happened in the traditional classroom or will they use it in ways to improve student learning beyond what traditionally occurred? And will technology companies understand what will motivate teachers to actually use their tools and build accordingly?
Berger’s advice is important. Just because teachers gained comfort with technology over the last several months does not mean that “everything will change” for the better going forward.