Quality Teaching Needs Quality Support

Our guest authors today are Ulana Ainsworth, a special education teacher at Curtis Guild Elementary School in Boston, MA and Jodie Olivo, a fifth grade teacher at Nathanael Greene Elementary School in Pawtucket, RI.

Among the most underserved populations in education are teachers themselves. Until now, most applications of technology in the schools have focused on students. Student access is critical, but leaving out the most critical person in the room –the teacher –is a huge mistake. Working with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and other education leaders, IBM committed to changing that this fall with the launch of Teacher Advisor With Watson, a totally free online tool that uses IBM’s innovative artificial intelligence technology. IBM’s Teacher Advisor enables teachers to deepen their knowledge of key math concepts, access high-quality vetted math lessons and acclaimed teaching strategies, along with annotated video all integrated together, giving teachers the unique ability to tailor those lessons to meet their individual classroom needs.

IBM technologists worked directly with teachers and other education experts over a two-year period to develop this new tool. TeacherAdvisor.org will help strengthen teachers’ ability to instruct students with varying degrees of preparation in elementary school math – the gateway to learning more complex concepts. The technology has been trained by some of the nation’s leading math experts. And with more training and teacher more use by teachers, Teacher Advisor will continue to learn and improve.

"We Need Teachers, Not Computers"

I’ve been noticing for a while that a lot of articles about education technology have a similar ring to them: “Must Have Apps for K12 Educators," “What Every Teacher Should Know About Using iPads in the Classroom," “The Best 50 Education Technology Resources for Teachers." You get the drift.

This type of headline suggests that educators are the ones in need of schooling when it comes to technology, while the articles themselves often portray students as technology natives, naturally gifted at all things digital. One almost gets the impression that, when it comes to technology, students should be teaching their teachers.

But maybe my perception is skewed. After all, a portion of the education news I read “comes to me” via Zite, Flipboard and other news aggregators. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that that these types of software applications have a bias toward certain types of technology-centered stories which may not be representative of the broader education technology press.

So, is it me, or is it true that the media sometimes sees educators as a bunch of technological neophytes, while seeing students as technological whizzes from whom teachers must learn? And, if true, is this particular to the field of education or is something similar seen in regard to professionals in other fields?

The Real “Trouble” With Technology, Online Education And Learning

It’s probably too early to say whether Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a "tsunami" or a "seismic shift," but, continuing with the natural disaster theme, the last few months have seen a massive “avalanche” of press commentary about them, especially within the last few days.

Also getting lots of press attention (though not as much right now) is Adaptive/Personalized Learning. Both innovations seem to fascinate us, but probably for different reasons, since they are so fundamentally different at their cores. Personalized Learning, like more traditional concepts of education, places the individual at the center. With MOOCs, groups and social interaction take center stage and learning becomes a collective enterprise.

This post elaborates on this distinction, but also points to a recent blurring of the lines between the two – a development that could be troubling.

But, first things first: What is Personalized/Adaptive Learning, what are MOOCs, and why are they different?

Becoming A 21st Century Learner

Think about something you have always wanted to learn or accomplish but never did, such as a speaking a foreign language or learning how to play an instrument. Now think about what stopped you. There’s probably a variety of factors but chances are those factors have little to do with technology.

Electronic devices are becoming cheaper, easier to use, and more intuitive. Much of the world’s knowledge is literally at our fingertips, accessible from any networked gadget. Yet, sustained learning does not always follow. It is often noted that developing digital skills/literacy is fundamental to 21st century learning but, is that all that’s missing? I suspect not. In this post I take a look at university courses available to anyone with an internet connection (a.k.a. massive open on-line courses or MOOCs) and ask: What attributes or skills make some people (but not others) better equipped to take advantage of this and similar educational opportunities brought about by advances in technology?

In the last few months, Stanford University’s version of MOOCs have attracted considerable attention (also here and here), leading some to question the U.S. higher education model as we know it – and even envision its demise. But, what is really novel about the Stanford MOOCs? Why did 160,000 students from 190 countries sign up for the course “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence”?

The Challenges Of Pre-K Assessment

In the United States, nearly 1.3 million children attend publicly-funded preschool. As enrollment continues to grow, states are under pressure to prove these programs serve to increase school readiness. Thus, the task of figuring out how best to measure preschoolers’ learning outcomes has become a major policy focus.

First, it should be noted that researchers are almost unanimous in their caution about this subject. There are inherent difficulties in the accurate assessment of very young children’s learning in the fields of language, cognition, socio-emotional development, and even physical development. Young children’s attention spans tend to be short and there are wide, natural variations in children’s performance in any given domain and on any given day. Thus, great care is advised for both the design and implementation of such assessments (see here, here, and here for examples). The question of if and how to use these student assessments to determine program or staff effectiveness is even more difficult and controversial (for instance, here and here). Nevertheless, many states are already using various forms of assessment to oversee their preschool investments.

It is difficult to react to this (unsurprising) paradox. Sadly, in education, there is often a disconnect between what we know (i.e., research) and what we do (i.e., policy). But, since our general desire for accountability seems to be here to stay, a case can be made that states should, at a minimum, expand what they measure to reflect learning as accurately and broadly as possible.

So, what types of assessments are better for capturing what a four- or a five- year old knows? How might these assessments be improved?

The Uses (And Abuses?) Of Student Data

Knewton, a technology firm founded in 2008, has developed an “adaptive learning platform” that received significant media attention (also here, here, here and here), as well as funding and recognition early last fall and, again, in February this year (here and here). Although the firm is not alone in the adaptive learning game – e.g., Dreambox, Carnegie Learning – Knewton’s partnership with Pearson puts the company in a whole different league.

Adaptive learning takes advantage of student-generated information; thus, important questions about data use and ownership need to be brought to the forefront of the technology debate.

Adaptive learning software adjusts the presentation of educational content to students' needs, based on students’ prior responses to such content. In the world of research, such ‘prior responses’ would count and be treated as data. To the extent that adaptive learning is a mechanism for collecting information about learners, questions about privacy, confidentiality and ownership should be addressed.

Technology In Education: An Answer In Search Of A Problem?

In a recent blog post, Larry Cuban muses about the enthusiasm of some superintendents, school board members, parents, and pundits for expensive, new technologies, such as “iPads, tablets, and 1:1 laptops."

Without any clear evidence, they spend massively on the newest technology, expecting that “these devices will motivate students to work harder, gain more knowledge and skills, and be engaged in schooling." They believe such devices can help students develop the skills they will need in a 21st century labor market—and hope they will somehow help to narrow the achievement gap that has been widening between rich and poor.

But, argues Cuban, for those school leaders “who want to provide credible answers to the inevitable question that decision-makers ask about the effectiveness of new devices, they might consider a prior question. What is the pressing or important problem to which an iPad is the solution?"

Good question. Now, good enough? I am not so sure. It still implicitly assumes an iPad must be a solution to some-thing in education.

Today's Forecast: Cloud Computing In Education

It’s hard to tell whether cloud computing is "the next big thing" or just another buzz word, but, according to a recent survey of 5,300 organizations in 38 countries, change is already taking place: "the promises of reduced cost, improved performance and greater scalability" are driving interest in "moving to cloud."

But what does cloud computing mean to those of us who care about education, teaching and learning?

When an organization "goes cloud" it means that the organization no longer deals directly with many of its computing/IT needs – e.g., software, updates, storage etc. The key to understanding this model and its broader implications is to appreciate the transition it represents: from viewing computing as a product to viewing it as a service. Much like public utilities, IT resources are delivered to users through the internet, just like electricity is distributed to our homes through the power grid. Users pay according to their consumption level, and the service provider takes care of the rest – see here.

Evidently, by moving to the cloud, organizations (including schools and universities) can save on IT infrastructure and maintenance. Some have noted that the model could also bring about changes in the IT sector, perhaps require a different type of (and/or fewer) IT professionals. Second, cloud computing should also help increase accessibility to educational content and convenience. For example, if lessons and assignments are be posted and stored in the cloud (i.e., on the shared server), students can work from anywhere, collaborate/interact with their peers etc.

But what else is cloud computing?