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In Education, Technology Changes Everything and Nothing

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A technological revolution is happening in the world of education; it is changing schools for the better. But, it will never change the definition of and need for great teaching. That is what attendees of The Atlantic's second annual Technologies in Education forum learned and discussed Tuesday.

You would think that a room full of "who's who" technology experts, online and gaming companies, and futurists would "talk tech." We had that conversation to be sure. But the intriguing part was that the discussion kept returning to the basics of great classroom teaching. There was widespread agreement among the participants that technology will change everything and nothing. Essentially, what we do with technology has to have fundamental underpinnings in what the best teachers in the world have done for decades.

There is a lot of talk about the problems with education in America, and for good reason. Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, noted that for all of the money spent on education, there have not been meaningful gains. As a country, we have been investing more money per student, while outcomes have been flat. Faced with access, completion, and cost challenges, we have turned to any potential solution. Many education policymakers hail technology, in particular, as the savior. According to Gallup research, however, public support for technology in education is still mixed at best:

• In the 2011 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll, we asked, "Would it be best for the school to hire a more effective teacher who was only available to teach over the Internet or would it be better to use a less effective teacher who could teach the class in person?" Fifty percent said "less effective teacher in person," while 46 percent said "more effective teacher online."
• In the 2011 Lumina Foundation/Gallup Poll, we asked people to react to the following statement: "Online colleges and universities offer high quality education." Ten percent strongly agreed and 10 percent strongly disagreed, while 76 percent gave more middle-of-the-road responses.

Gallup has spent decades studying great teaching and the innate talents of the best teachers. The fundamentals that make for a great classroom teacher are the same fundamentals that make for a great online course or gaming experience. Here is what the best teachers do:

They are relational: They develop student-to-student, student-to-educator, and student-to-parent relationships.

They are hopeful: They inspire students with energy and enthusiasm for the future.

They are insightful: They see each student as an individual and get to know his or her unique identity and nature.

Simply put, great teaching is about emotionally engaging the learner in a way that is individualized.

Our opportunity to innovate and improve education is deeply tied to these fundamentals. A great teacher is a great teacher -- whether she is real or avatar.

At the forum, Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS, talked about the enterprise's evolution from television to Web and remarked, "at the end of day, it is about telling a story," regardless of the medium. Sandra Calvert, director of the Children's Digital Media Center at Georgetown University, later added that the key question she always asks in her technology-based work is a classic one: "Who is the character?" (She referred to the fact that kids learn more from a known character such as Elmo than an unknown character.) Alexander Repenning, computer science professor at the University of Colorado, said that pedagogy matters most, not the technology. The future, in other words, is all about getting the fundamentals right.

The Atlantic forum highlighted that the debate about great technology vs. great teachers is unnecessary. Instead, the conversation needs to be about technology and teaching.

So now education leaders need to create a seamless interplay between teachers and technology. This will not be easy, but the forum attendees at least left with a clear sense of purpose. Calvert strongly supported the idea that great technology needs to come with great teachers noting, "online relationships form weaker bonds than in-person relationships." Joel Levin, a classroom teacher and expert in education gaming applications, noted that his value as a teacher comes from "drawing out the connections between gaming and real life for students. ... Without me there, it has much less meaning."