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Author: Alex Krasser, Ed.M, HGSE

Let’s start with a timeline.

In the 1850s, one-room schools, where students of all ages were taught together, were the norm. But around that time, school systems across the United States saw how efficient factory work had become, and began to remodel their schools in a similar fashion. By 1870, nearly all students were being separated by age and taught a prescribed curriculum. And in 1905, a group of elite educators created both the class period of 50 to 55 minutes and the core high school curriculum, mainly focused on English, history, math, and science. 

In 1903, the first powered aircraft took to the sky. Just 65 years later, we left the Earth entirely, crossed 250,000 miles of the vacuum of space, and landed on the moon. The computers that guided Apollo 11 to the lunar surface in 1969 were 100,000 times less powerful than the device you use to play Wordle each morning.

Over the past 120 years, technology has advanced to an astonishing degree, but our systems of education have barely budged. Today, students are learning in a system that was established when the airplane was just two years old. Countless learners are suffering as a result. 

Students of a given age are not a monolithic bloc; every learner has their own unique interests, strengths, and areas for improvement. So when there are dozens of students in a classroom, it’s impossible for one teacher to fully meet their individual needs. Teachers are doubly hamstrung by the modern emphasis on standardized testing and by a curriculum whose contours were largely determined before many fields of study were even invented. As a result, students may feel alienated and disengaged by a system that’s supposed to prepare them to thrive as adults.

When a pandemic struck in 2020, technology enabled schools to shift millions of students to remote learning. But educators didn’t have the time or bandwidth to adapt to this new format. Instead, they had to force a 150-year-old education model onto a video-conferencing software designed for business use. By most accounts, it didn’t work. 

Technology is a powerful tool. But like all tools, its success depends on how it is wielded. It has revolutionized countless industries. Whether it will enhance — and potentially even reshape — our systems of education depend on how thoughtfully we can design and implement it.

The Impact of Personalization and Online Courses

Educational technologies can treat learners like the individuals that they are. Rather than having to rush to keep up with classmates — or stagnate as they wait for others to catch up — students can move through edtech activities at their own pace. They can pause or review sections they didn’t understand, or demonstrate their mastery and move ahead as needed. They can gain agency over their own learning, making decisions about activities and content that can impact their learning journey. 

As students learn more about the content, technology can learn more about the student. By collecting, analyzing, and responding to data about student performance, edtech can provide the type of personalization that has been proven to be essential for learning. It can identify areas for improvement and provide targeted activities to address these needs.

Edtech and e-learning can also work in concert with teachers to provide personalized support. Technology can bear the burden of content delivery and provide activities to help students construct their own knowledge. Thus freed from the role of lecturer — and informed by the aforementioned student data — teachers can devote more of their energy to serving as a learning guide, providing educational, emotional, and psychological support for students as they navigate challenges.

Pedagogy and Online Learning for Students

The multimedia aspects of edtech activities offer a wide range of powerful pedagogical approaches. To understand how, let’s take a quick look at one of the most accepted educational theories to date: constructivism. 

Basically, constructivism states that students are not empty vessels to be filled; rather, they must actively construct their own understanding. A good constructivist activity builds on a student’s prior knowledge and experience, and challenges them to accomplish some goal by using the content or skills in question.

Edtech and online learning platforms can satisfy this in a variety of ways. Most students today are considered digital natives, having grown up in a media-rich world. So edtech can literally meet them where they are: on a screen, online, or in a game. It can engage them with fun, familiar formats, like colorful animations, influencer-infused videos, or a wide range of gaming styles. It can figuratively meet students where they are by gathering some information about students’ prior knowledge, preferences, and interests, and adapting content (within reason) accordingly. 

More to the constructivist point, online education can leverage familiar gaming mechanics that actively engage students in the experience. In addition to using gamified elements fine-tuned to keep the students’ attention — like badges, points systems, leveling up, and so on — edtech can incorporate authentic interactivity, where learners must apply what they’re learning to navigate various scenarios and make decisions that have an impact. And once they’ve made these decisions, edtech can provide immediate feedback, helping students to understand how successful they were and how to improve next time.

For example, Scratch — the immensely popular block-based coding language — immediately shows students what their code actually does. They can easily spot what works and what doesn’t, and make changes accordingly. It helps them feel a sense of ownership, growth, and mastery, and provides a sense of satisfaction that can motivate them to come back for more.

Scratch allows students to express themselves, and other types of media can activate other aspects of a student’s identity. Many successful video games embed players in an engaging narrative, assigning them both a role and a goal within the world of the game. By weaving content knowledge and skills into such a narrative — and having students leverage what they’re learning to achieve narrative-driven goals — the activity can accomplish both content and skill-based objectives. 

What’s more, these narratives can engage students not just intellectually, but emotionally as well. A story about how climate has impacted the lives of a given species, for example, can open a window into deeper scientific content, including food webs, the carbon cycle, and weather patterns. Assigning the student the role of a wildlife conservationist (or manufacturing industry executive) could take this a step further, immersing them in a real-world analog where they have to navigate their goals, norms, ethics, knowledge, and skills to achieve success. With careful scaffolding and reflection, this sort of narrative-driven immersion can provide a robust learning experience. 

The impact of these activities can be enhanced by embedding social elements such as discussion and debriefing. Situativism — another popular learning theory — emphasizes that all learning occurs within a social and cultural context. Picture an apprenticeship or afterschool activity like drama or football, where students work together to learn how to succeed in a real-world activity. Again, we can look to Scratch as a prime edtech example. Scratch provides a rich online community, where students can build on each other’s work, discuss, collaborate, seek help, and guide others through thorny challenges. 
By empowering students to interact with content in fun and meaningful ways, edtech and online training courses can engage students in their own learning experience. It can also help students feel that their education is grounded in the 21st century, rather than rooted in the past.

Real-World Relevance

Technology is advancing at a dizzying pace; so too is the world of work. Many of the jobs that today’s students will take on as adults don’t yet exist. So one of the most important tasks for our education system is to teach students the skills they’ll need to adapt in an ever-changing world, including critical thinking, creative problem-solving, collaboration, and communication. 

Edtech tools, like video chats and collaborative documents, can help students tackle projects with their peers, even if they live on the other side of the globe. What’s more, these virtual, cross-cultural experiences closely mirror the shifting job landscape as an increasing number of positions switch to remote work. These projects can encourage critical thinking and creative problem-solving while addressing pressing real-world issues head-on, like misinformation, climate change, and urbanization. 

By leveraging technology, students can feel that they’re an active part of our rapidly changing world, not trapped in some 150-year-old school system. Of course, many of today’s teachers and educators are putting in great efforts to achieve these goals. They’re well aware of the problems, but systemic issues are notoriously difficult to address. 

Edtech alone is not the answer, but it is here to help. It can engage the whole student: mind, body, and soul. It can treat them as an individual and tailor the experiences to their needs. It can empower teachers to do what they do best: to develop supportive relationships with students and guide them as they grow. It can meet students where they are, engage them in their own learning through interactivity and compelling narratives, and connect them with a like-minded community that can help them grow and thrive. Educational technologies can do all these things, but only if we design them thoughtfully and implement them intentionally. 

Over the coming century, technology will continue to advance at a rapid pace. I sincerely hope our systems of education are able to catch up.

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