Frederick M. Hess is director of educational-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Bror Saxberg is chief learning officer at Kaplan, Inc. They are the authors of Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age: Using Learning Science to Reboot Schooling. This appeared in National Review Online, December 16, 2013
The book provides an invaluable template for how to best think about digital learning. Promising education technologies won’t “fix” schools or replace terrific teachers. Instead, they make it possible to reshape the teacher’s job, so that teachers and students have more opportunity for personalized, dynamic learning.
How can we expand on the book’s transformation of education? Well, the book has real limitations. Students learn best when eye and ear work in tandem — but books are a silent medium. Books are fixed, providing the same experience to every reader, every time. The material and language will inevitably be too difficult for some readers and too easy for others. Books can’t offer a live demonstration or a new explanation to a confused reader.
Online materials can be rapidly updated, are customizable to a student’s interests and reading level, and feature embedded exercises that let students apply new concepts and get immediate feedback. Virtual instruction makes it possible for students to access real, live teachers unavailable at their school; this can be a haven for some students, especially those reluctant to ask questions in class. Researchers have found that intelligent, computer-assisted tutoring systems are about 90 percent as effective as in-person tutors.
None of this will happen just by giving out iPads or mouthing platitudes about “flipped classrooms.” Rather, it requires getting three crucial things right. First, new tools should inspire a rethinking of what teachers, students, and schools do, and how they do it. If teaching remains static, sprinkling hardware into schools won’t much matter. Second, technology can’t be something that’s done to educators. Educators need to be helping to identify the problems to be solved and the ways technology can help, and up to their elbows in making it work. Third, the crucial lesson from those getting digital learning right is that it’s not the tools, but what’s done with them. When they discuss what’s working, the leaders of high-tech charter school systems like Carpe Diem and Rocketship Education, or heralded school districts like that of Mooresville, N.C., brush past the technology in order to focus relentlessly on learning, people, and problem-solving.
All of this is too often missed when tech enthusiasts promise miracles and tech skeptics lament that technology is an “attack on teachers.” What to make of such claims? The book didn’t work miracles or hurt teachers. It did allow us to reimagine teaching and learning, even if we’re still struggling to capitalize on that opportunity five centuries later. Here’s hoping we do better this time.