THE BLOG

Technology: The Next Giant Leap in Education?

09/20/2013 06:03 pm ET | Updated Nov 19, 2013
  • Nancy Conrad Chairman of the Conrad Foundation, entrepreneur, innovator, and philanthropist.

Last week I received the Leap Motion Controller. This little device, only three inches by one inch, allows for the operation of a computer with the simple wave of a hand. In only a few minutes of playing around with the hands free controller, something quite monumental occurred to me -- the future is now! Just a few short decades ago, a device like this was unfathomable, and now here it is -- well within our reach.

Technology is evolving exponentially and is being used for far more than simply keeping in touch with friends and family on Facebook. It is revolutionizing every aspect of our lives. There are apps to help us eat healthier, sleep better, organize more efficiently, and that's just the beginning. Doctors can treat us faster and easier. We can finally leave the house without our wallets and we'll never forget our keys again. We are becoming hyper-efficient.

But hyper-efficient at what? Managing our own lives? What good is being hyper-efficient if we ourselves aren't evolving?

That's where the opportunity in education comes in. If we were to integrate technology into education the way we do into our daily lives, the results would be staggering. How do I know this? Well, I, along with industry and academic leaders have been witness to it. We have seen the magic that happens when we give students the tools and the resources to work independently and with one another in an open innovation environment. Within this platform, the innate curiosity and imagination of students are set free and, once liberated, some of the most creative, functional, and revolutionary ideas are born.

Here's just one of the over 400 commercially viable ideas that have been harvested: In 2011, a team of five high school students from Miami were inspired to develop a new technology to provide safe, clean water to populations in need. In 2013, their idea became reality and the final destination for their water purification device was a small clinic in Nigeria with only three beds that serves a population of 500,000 people. Before the delivery of their water purification system, babies born in this clinic were washed with dirty water. Now, with the help of these students, these children are brought into the world bathed in fresh, clean water. Seems like using technology and an open innovation platform is a no-brainer, right?

Well, surprisingly, there are plenty who argue against technology in our children's lives. They say it's making them less focused on school and more distracted by violent video games, their next Facebook post or drafting their next tweet. But what if it is the other way around? What if students who lack the access to technology in the classroom become bored, uninspired and disengaged? According to Project Tommorow's Speak up 2012 National Findings, a high percentage of the digital learner generation has unmet expectations of using technology in the classroom. It may be that these are the same students who become disenfranchised and despairing -- becoming today's " Lost Generation".

Although there is some controversy around these rankings, the United States is globally ranked fairly low for achievement and ranks highest for incarceration and teen pregnancies. We have one of the highest per capita education budgets in the world, but are still lagging globally in the STEM fields. And how are these rankings measured? That would be through test scores. We are spending billions of dollars of state and federal funds on tests that often do nothing other than stifle the creativity and innate interests of students -- teaching the test rather than presenting students with an enriching and engaging curriculum. These tests don't measure their deep learning skills, and they don't align with the new Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Students are constantly made to feel as though they will never succeed unless they measure up to a certain test score. These expectations are absurd, unrealistic, and neglect the importance of the integration of neuroscience with learning. The fact is, all students learn and achieve differently. Have we undermined our students as individual learners and instead become experts at measuring mediocrity?

What if each "next big thing" made its debut in our classrooms? What if technology-based learning was the norm in our schools? In 2010, high school chemistry teacher Marc Seigel flipped the focus of his curriculum to make technology the star of the show. Similarly, Knewton brings technology and neuroscience together to forge a student centered education technology platform. Other experiments such as MIT's Fab Lab and Khan Academy have also deployed technology into the classroom environment. There are some obstacles that need to be worked out, but with funding from the right places, or the deployment of existing resources, these systems could easily become the new norm. If so, would students be more excited to go to school each and every day with classrooms that incorporated interactive learning technologies? Would they be eager to stay once the final bell has rung? I say, yes--a resounding yes! Today's youth are the digital natives; they are our most techno savvy generation and are comfortable with self-directed learning and discovery. Often, they are far more comfortable than their educators and administrators, who are digital immigrants.

What if we reallocated federal funds to increase access to current and innovative technology in classrooms? The use of new technologies would encourage design thinking skills and innovative skill sets and would align with the new standards being implemented in schools. What if we diverted the focus from a pre-determined standard that students felt they needed to measure up to, and instead equipped classrooms with revolutionary technology-based learning systems that encourage students to engage in choosing and building their education tools and resources? The results would be mind blowing. The Conrad Foundation Spirit of Innovation Challenges have observed that the ideas, innovations, and products that students create are brilliant, creative and solve a multitude of global problems in sustainability to the benefit of humanity.

We have the power to bring these opportunities and technologies to students. This just may be the way to innovate and sustain our own knowledge-based economy.

What are we waiting for?