Last Monday, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and committee member Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado co-sponsored a briefing on innovation in public education through the use of learning technologies. More than 50 Senate staff members came to hear from a panel I moderated that featured leaders in the ed tech field.
The panelists, Dr. Stephen Elliott (founding director of the Learning Sciences Institute at Arizona State University), Jennie Niles (founder of the DC-based E.L. Haynes Public Charter School), and Jeremy Roberts (director of technology for PBS Kids Interactive), all concurred that the promise of technology to transform education has fallen short of expectations for the past two to three decades. However, they also all agree that we are finally at a time where many factors are converging to overcome historic barriers: increasingly ubiquitous broadband, cheaper devices, digital content, cloud computing, big data, and generally higher levels of comfort with technology among the general population.
The panelists spoke compellingly about how their institutions are taking advantage of existing technology applications, products, and services to drive new ways of teaching and learning, whether inside elementary schools, college campuses or family rooms. For example:
- PBS can use information as discreet as how long a student spends reading a passage or hovering over a wrong answer to determine what a student knows, what misconceptions he or she may have, and most importantly, what type of lesson might help that student learn best. With this information in hand, parents can make better-informed decisions about how to support their child’s learning based more and more on evidence rather than guess-work.
- E.L. Haynes is leveraging technology to empower teachers and enable truly differentiated instruction. The school incubated a new online system for math instruction after discovering that there were very few learning resources that met their needs (i.e. aligned to standards, instructionally excellent, engaging and available anytime-anywhere). The system has been picked up by other schools across the country, demonstrating the potential for broad adoption of well-designed tools and resources. Haynes has also partnered in the development of a comprehensive web-based student information system able to track each student’s real time academic progress and other critical data. As a result of these efforts, teachers have more time to work directly with students and the information to target assistance where it is most needed.
- Arizona State University (ASU), the nation’s largest public university, faced a convergence of funding cuts, a growing student body with significant developmental education needs, and pressure to retain and graduate more students. ASU brought together researchers, practitioners and entrepreneurs to solve these challenges and turned the university into a model testbed site for scalable technology solutions. These partnerships produced a technology-enhanced developmental math course that significantly improved outcomes, as well as a monitoring tool (featured in a New York Times article last week) that tracks and supports each student’s progress towards graduation. ASU is now educating more students at a lower average cost per student and has raised its retention rate from 77% to 84%.
While these examples show the promise of existing technologies, they are also evidence of the largely untapped potential of technology to transform learning and improve outcomes. Participants also discussed the role that the proposed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education (ARPA-ED) could play in filling this critical gap and why the private market has failed to do so on its own.
An ARPA-ED would be modeled after DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which catalyzed the development of world-changing technologies such as the Internet and GPS. ARPA-ED would similarly focus on transformative research and development, pursuing projects such as digital tutors that are as effective as the best human tutors to support teachers in bridging the gap for every student; courses that improve the more students use them, and new ways to assess student progress that are as compelling and fun as video games.
As historic barriers fall and we attempt to accelerate the pace of improvement of our education system, rethinking the role of technology and leveraging new forms of R&D presents the opportunity to transform learning and teaching versus just “reforming” it. If we are successful, we will not only regain America’s leading position in educational performance and attainment, leap-frogging our global competitors; we will create new enterprises that push our nation to the forefront of a growing $5+ trillion sector.
Jim Shelton is the Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education.