VANCOUVER — There is almost no aspect of life that has not been fundamentally changed and re-ordered over the past 100 years through new technology and innovation. Think for instance, of how we communicate, travel, work, and even rest, and you’re hard pressed to find one aspect of life that has not been materially altered by technology.
Yet there is one significant aspect of society where very little has changed over the last century: education. It is the one area where a worker, in this case a teacher, from 1913 could be transported to 2013 and adapt quite easily to the modern world. For all intents and purposes, we educate our children in much the same way we did a century ago, in a one-size-fits-all manner. Specifically, most of our education system still relies on a teacher (or professor) formally instructing students in a classroom setting.
Technology is poised to change this by revolutionizing the learning process.
The development and quickly emerging technology of interactive adaptive software holds the potential to dramatically change how we think about and deliver education. Adaptive learning software tailors the learning experience to individual students in terms of both their strengths and weaknesses. This enables students to individually progress through material at a pace commensurate with their understanding and aptitude in a particular subject matter rather than the current situation where some students are left behind while others are bored because the lessons are delivered in a one-size-fits-all format.
The key to this individual education is the adaptive nature of the technology. As students work through problems, material, and even game-like simulations, the software monitors and assesses their answers and response times. It determines when students are ready to proceed to the next section and equally as important, when more time is needed on existing material.
In addition, such systems constantly provide teachers with real-time results for each student. This allows teachers to more frequently monitor how students are progressing and intervene when needed. It allows teachers to become more effective individual coaches for students.
Using such technology, teachers can now engage their students in a more personalized, individual manner rather than the traditional, one-size-fits-all approach.
Such technology is not simply a theoretical exercise. There are a host of real world examples of innovative educators and schools employing such technology to improve education for students.
One of the best known is the Khan Academy in the United States. Students using this system review lessons and material through online videos outside of the classroom and then engage with teachers on the materials in the classroom. This approach is meant to focus in-class time on areas where students need assistance.
The use of this technology is likely to expand in the U.S. as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have announced tens of millions of dollars in grants to support similar technologies across the United States.
Recently, McGraw-Hill Education brought this cutting edge technology to Canada with SmartBook. These first of their kind adaptive E-books are able to modify material and questions based on student responses.
There are hurdles to this new technology, however, not the least of which is a better understanding of its potential and how best to employ it in the education system. Hopefully these questions will be answered as more and more educators experiment with different adaptive learning technologies.
There are also practical barriers. Many teachers remain opposed to such technology simply as a function of the degree to which it can change the status quo. School boards and provincial governments also need to better understand the possibility of such technology and begin implementing policies that allow for experimentation and reform rather than protecting the status quo.
We very well may be at the cusp of a revolution in education based on technological change. Preliminary indications are that emerging technologies can markedly improve many of the problems observed in education. While challenges and barriers remain, understanding the potential of this new technology is paramount to secure policies that facilitate experimentation and innovation in education. The possibility of vastly improving education through new technology, as has been observed in so many other aspects of life, is real and immediate.
Jason Clemens and Frazier Fathers are co-authors of Education and Technology: A Primer, available at www.fraserinstitute.org.