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Vineet Madan

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The Digital Transformation of Education: A 21st Century Imperative

Posted: 04/27/2012 1:14 pm

Over the past several years, the education debate in America has increasingly become a conversation about technology. As we've seen the benefit of having tablets and smartphones in our lives, we've started to pin to it our hopes for our nation's education system, as well. Recently this talk has reached something close to a fever pitch. In January, Apple announced that it would be working with major education companies (including McGraw-Hill) to develop academic titles specifically for the iPad, inspiring a wave of blog posts and tweets hopeful for education's rescue. The FCC took things one step further in March, convening a meeting in Washington with several key players with the goal of driving adoptions of digital textbooks in K-12 schools across the country.

However, as with any movement, critics have emerged. Some question technology's real ability to improve student learning outcomes -- things like pass rates, graduation rates and overall academic performance -- suggesting that what we're really doing by bringing technology into the classroom is entertaining students who are otherwise prone to boredom and apathy. Others worry about the cost of all this technology, especially during times of constrained budgets.

As we push forward with the digital transformation of education, it's worth taking a look at just how greatly technology can impact teaching and learning in this country -- and what's at stake, not just for our students but our society as a whole.

Creating a More Engaged Classroom

For many of us, technology plays a crucial role in how we obtain and process information and apply our knowledge on a daily basis. As a father who often finds himself having to share his smartphone and tablet with his three young sons, I can tell you that for our students, things are no different. And because children are often exposed to technology at an early age, their cognitive abilities are even more wrapped up in technology than ours.

So why would we want to ask them to curb these impulses once they enter the classroom? One thing I've learned throughout my career in education is that students thirst for connections between what they're learning in the classroom (and how) and what they see happening in the real world. Bringing technology into the classroom helps them draw these parallels and keeps them interested in what they're learning. It also provides options for students with different learning styles.

Increasing engagement is about much more than simply entertaining our students with new devices and whiz-bang multimedia; it's about accomplishing the very real task of connecting them more closely to their coursework, to their teachers and to each other. Technology enables biology students to touch, spin and explore the structure of a molecule as they're reading about it in a text, watch a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King as they read about the civil rights era and ask questions of their classmates and complete their homework assignments all in a digital environment. By fostering these connections, technology can enhance and increase students' learning interactions, leading to better performance.

There's also a collateral benefit to student engagement. Teachers working with students who are more deeply engaged in what they're learning can spend less class time reviewing the basics and more time exploring advanced concepts and promoting critical thinking by leading thought-provoking discussions.

Making Personalized Learning a Reality

To teach our students effectively, we first have to learn about them. One of the best ways to do this is to use technology to collect data that tells us where they're strong and where they're weak, how they learn best, and use this data to create personalized pathways to help students build their knowledge and skills.

The single hottest trend in education technology is the popularity of adaptive learning systems. These systems use student assessments to gather performance data and point students to course content that's specifically targeted to help them build their knowledge and skills. Formative assessment programs work in a similar way, only they provide insights directly to teachers, allowing them to more efficiently personalize their instruction for every student. When we talk about making the classroom smarter, this is what we mean.

Teachers and professors are critical to providing personalized learning. What technology like adaptive learning and formative assessments are designed to do is to allow them to deliver it as efficiently as possible.

Technology is helping to improve student performance -- and long-term success

The simplest reason why we should continue our push to bring technology to our classrooms is also the best one: it works. According to the U.S. Department of Education and recent studies by the National Training and Simulation Association, technology-based instruction can reduce the time students take to reach a learning objective by 30 to 80 percent. In the world of higher education, where technology is adopted at a much faster rate than in K-12 schools, adaptive learning systems such as LearnSmart have already been shown to have a significant impact on student pass rates, retention rates and overall academic performance.

This improved level of performance has implications far beyond the classroom. Today we live in a global, digital society, and increasing students' exposure to technology can not only help them develop the skills they need to succeed in it but open them up to a world much greater than their own.

Technology, like all investments, comes at a cost. If technology can really make a meaningful impact on student outcomes, the question then becomes: How much are we willing to pay for these results? If we're serious about improving the performance of our students at the K-12 level, we need to have an equally serious conversation about how to fund this type of technology. In the business world, it's tough to imagine a company that wouldn't make investments in technology and digital infrastructure that would better position it to achieve its goals.

A Roadmap to Our Digital Future

Solving the education crisis in America will take more than simply putting tablets in every classroom. To realize the promise of all that technology has to offer, we must listen to feedback from our teachers and make sure that they have the training and support they need to implement this technology effectively.

Additionally, we still must be concerned about equity. If technology has the power to improve student learning outcomes, we need to make sure that all students have access to it. While falling tablet prices and the proliferation of innovative pricing models to help get digital content into students' hands more affordably are helping, we must commit to a continued investment in education technology. As next year's elections approach, this is an issue that both sides of the aisle should be agreeing on.

Building the digital future of our education system requires a major commitment from school administrators, teachers, parents, policymakers and education companies. As technology evolves and the data proving its effectiveness becomes clearer and more abundant, it's my hope that all of these groups will work together and treat technology not as a luxury but as the 21st century imperative that it's truly become. The tools to transform education are finally in front of us; now it's time to put them to work.

 
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