Educational technology – a real solution?

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We start this week by sharing one example of the development of personalised learning through the use of educational technology. Some argue that personalised learning through educational technology (that responds to and provides for diverse student needs) is an essential next step for scaling quality learning, while others suggest that while useful, it may not be a panacea. As we’ve seen in recent posts, any development in learning through educational technology also requires the infrastructure to support it, such as quality professional development, staff to lead implementation, tech. support, appropriate devices and high speed internet.

Yet the search continues, and this tool developed by Learner Positioning Systems (LPS – provides us with a glimpse of how app developers are catering to learner variability by translating learning sciences research into models for designing products and practices that meet the needs of diverse learners. It’s open-source, free, and has a strong team behind it. Have a look at the video.

A key emerging aspect of personalised learning is the provision of online learning programmes that provide instruction based on need, with differentiation and extension for students. Surprisingly, one of the major players in this market, TenMarks by Amazon, has announced that its winding down it’s operations effective June 30th, 2019.

Amazon acquired TenMarks for an undisclosed amount in 2013, and was at that time in use by 25,000 schools in 7000 districts. It was part of Amazon’s strategy to become a major player in the education market, and the decision to close is unexpected as many were expecting further acquisitions following the expansion of the TenMarks service to include writing in 2017.

Amazon is likely to continue exploring opportunities within the education market with app building and cloud storage offerings, but its decision to wind down TenMarks following a review hints at challenges at making it financially self-sustaining.

So what are the implications for learning? We can think of a couple to start:

a. Schools may need to start paying more for online learning services if the free or low-cost model is not viable, especially if they do not want their students targeted by advertising.

b. Decisions to shut down lower-performing business units are routine within the tech. industry, but can cause major disruption for teachers and students.

c. How essential are these programmes in realising learning that is focused on the particular needs of individual students? Are they absolutely necessary, or a ‘nice to have’?

As we’ve seen in previous posts, the ed. tech. industry has faced many challenges in entering the education market, and it will be interesting to see which service the current users of TenMarks migrate to. It is apparent that educational technology and AI-driven learning will continue to grow in scale and complexity, but the question of who pays and how will remain.

Technology is transforming teaching and learning for the better. Or is it?

During the course of our research we often come across examples of how technology is changing how students are taught and assessed, but closer inspection leaves us with a few questions.

In this example, students are tackling the common core tests using ‘technology enhanced item types’. Instead of circling multiple choice questions using a pencil, students drop and drag boxes, select from drop down menus, and use equation builders instead of writing maths problems. The question is: what exactly has changed in how the students are being assessed?

Teachers are worried that in addition to the knowledge that students need to learn to pass the tests, they also need to understand the technology and practice using it. What appears to be pervasive in this discussion is anxiety and fear – “… teachers wondered how they’d ever get their students prepared.”

There’s more:

“Teachers began to worry that without repeated exposure to the new item types, students would perform poorly on testing—not because they hadn’t mastered the material, but because they hadn’t mastered the technology.”

“Common Core testing season is right around the corner, so you want to spend some time making sure your students have the technological skills that will be required of them.”

It appears that the use of technology in this instance has simply added more to teachers’ workloads for little observable benefit to students and their learning. This is a well intentioned article designed to help teachers with a real problem – they are accountable for their students’ results and want them to do well.

So what is the purpose of all this? Does it make marking faster and easier? Does it improve teaching and learning? What is the benefit of incorporating technology into traditional pedagogical practices? How does it help students and teachers? Are we discovering technologically advanced ways of maintaining the status quo?

In keeping with our testing in education / use of technology theme, here’s something from Australia that we’ve been following for a while – NAPLAN.

We’ve visited schools in Australia in which the entire academic effort and sense of worth as a school community is based on their NAPLAN test results (Google it), and over the past year or so the conversation has turned to whether these tests should be conducted online and marked by ‘robots’ (AI).

The conversation itself has been fascinating given the ‘high stakes’ culture around these tests. Controversy appears to have started when someone suggested automating the marking process in addition to human marking. The result? Principals were ‘angered’, academics cautioned that things might go wrong, and allegedly the integrity of the entire testing process was at stake.

Politicians got involved. The NSW Minister for Education Rob Stokes declared that “To put my position more plainly: there will never be machine marking of writing tasks while I am NSW Education Minister.” In December, the national Education Council declared it over – there would be no robot marking of tests.

But now it’s back. Recent national studies have been ‘overwhelmingly positive’ in their feedback of online NAPLAN testing and marking. It is extremely accurate, students were ‘engaged and incredibly positive’, teachers now have ‘enriched’ data, and Ministers are under pressure to accept this new reality. Minister Stokes has now panned NAPLAN in general, and is seeking to replace it (a good thing?) with a micro-auditing system called ALAN, which appears to rely heavily on formative assessment but is time-intensive.

Leaving aside whether NAPLAN is a good thing or not, this has been an interesting observation of change and taking a baby step towards the future within education. The very idea of change, regardless of whether the empirical evidence suggests it’s necessary or a good thing or not, generates intense national interest, inspires divisive debate, sees massive expenditure and copious amounts of anxiety and fear. And it’s not over yet – as we’ve seen in previous posts, resistance to innovation is built into the system, and the debate will continue.

How does this bode for the systemic disruption that’s necessary for national education systems to adapt to our rapidly changing world? Can it possibly happen?

Although a few years old now, this is still an interesting listen about the booming market in educational technology. It’s part of a spreading innovation series under the auspices of the World Economic Forum, and looks at why promised improvements in educational outcomes through the use of digital technologies are not happening as expected.

In theory digital technologies provide the opportunity to educate children well at scale and at cost through a combination of software that personalised and democratises learning, hardware, and data analysis that provides powerful information to inform evidence-based policy.

So why is this technology not being rolled out as quickly as hoped? Here are some key takeaways:

1. The story of a company named Amplify, which despite having an entire curriculum pre-loaded on a tablet overestimated the company’s ability to penetrate a traditional, government-protected, risk-averse field such as education. It was a powerful product, but constraints such as Internet access, political resistance and the cost of the tablet didn’t help.

2. A key problem is that the technology with its shiny product is often at the centre, with issues such as delivery and infrastructure underestimated.

3. Innovation within the use of technology needs to come from those who understand how students learn and what barriers to learning exist – interventions need to be designed by them and not silicon valley.

4. Changing the way teachers work, especially in developed countries, is very difficult. Teachers need to be activators of learning – this is important and skillful and hard to do well.

5. Technology is a powerful enabler of personalised learning and can change the nature of the teacher’s role, but it does not replace the teacher.

6. Innovators and players within the educational technology space need to stay in for the long run.

7. It looks as though the potential for innovation within education technology is more likely to happen in the developing world, due to fewer systemic constraints to overcome and ambitious emerging economies likely to take risks.

Educational technology is clearly a big part of our learning future, but it’s certainly not the whole story. The role of the teacher will remain key, but teaching practices must evolve from traditional instructional methods to a role in which the teacher is mentor and facilitator within a dynamic learning environment.

The research conducted and insights gained during the writing of this article have inspired the Indigo Schools Framework, the details of which can found in the Primer on our Resources Page. Send us an email at or complete the form below if you’d like to learn more about how the Indigo Schools Framework can be successfully applied within your school. Also be sure to follow us on Facebook and Linkedin for our latest updates.

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