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Are Technical Innovations Enough to Save Education?

We all know about the great work being done by both the headliners and the very small businesses in terms of introducing technology into the classrooms. We have gone from chalkboard to whiteboard and from smart board to tablets. Whatever we have thought about MOOCs, their arrival on the scene woke up the sleeping giant of online learning, and now innovators such as Canvas Infrastructure have challenged Blackboard for one and are making a name for providing tools for universities to get more classes and programs online. This is all good. In K-12, we have gone from Oregon Trail to Minecraft and all sorts of newer games to teach competencies such as problem-solving and specific skills like reading, math and science. Classroom teachers use platforms such as Edmodo and others tools to share resources with one another and to offer content and content creation capability to their students. Soon more teachers will be incorporating cellphones into the toolset that they and their students access in order to support the learning process. This is all great progress. But let’s explore what we really mean by innovation when it comes to education.

Is technology innovation?

We are all familiar with the fairytale history of Introduction to AI, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig’s Stanford University Massively Open Online Course that garnered an enrollment of 160,000 students from around the world in the fall of 2011. When the course ended, 23,000 students from 190 countries finished the course. Then the debate started over the merits of MOOC-style learning.

Is “access” innovation?

The connectivist concepts inherent in MOOC learning and the sheer volume of students enrolled in these offerings contribute to defining the role that MOOCs play in innovative educational practices. Being able to reach so many students in so many countries fulfills one highly regarded mission, that of access. And there are those who would argue, as Dan Friedman did in this article on TechCrunch, that access is something that we may already have been solved by iTunesU with over 1 billion downloads of its courses.

How can we measure learning innovation?

Since early on, people have been asking how much knowledge is actually retained in the MOOC model and how many students remain engaged and complete the programs. Critics point to figures that show 4 to 6 percent of people who registered the classes actually completing them. However, in analyzing completion data for nine HarvardX courses, researcher Justin Reich observed that a large percentage of students actually sign up for classes with no intention of completing them. Looking at self-reported data, Reich concluded that only 58 percent intended to earn a certificate, and amongst those 22 percent actually did.

Over time, learners will tell us what they need (or provide it themselves).

It may be more interesting to look at how MOOCs are evolving and the changes being made to the courses, sometimes by the learners themselves, in order to make them more effective. One example from early on in the MOOC game relates the challenges learners experienced in using the existing

discussion boards to better understand course material and work through course assignments together. One inventive student coded a piece of software that enabled everyone to more effectively scan discussion subject headings without leaving the page where the video was playing. It’s one small example among many, but it shows how learners in the course were actually contributing their talents to making learning more effective.

How people actually use technology and adapt it within the learning situation seems to be the biggest measure of innovation there is.

Innovation in K-12

Within the K-12 realm, there’s a lot of technology being introduced to support an existing (albeit relatively new) educational model. With the new technology come new business models and new ways of operating. The partnerships between technology companies and schools are powerful examples of ways to leverage the latest technology within the schools.

But as long as we’re stuck supporting a model of education centered on high stakes testing, it’s difficult to register these practices as entirely positive innovations. Creating a platform for blended learning is a great step in the right direction. Being able to personalize learning with programs designed to tailor learning to individual needs is one of the best uses of technology that we are seeing in edtech today. But when the majority of that learning is focused on performing better on the next exam, it loses its edge.

Innovation in education has to be innovation in learning practices that contribute to learners becoming more capable of thinking for themselves. Some of the partnerships that we’ve written about previously support innovation in K-12 learning, including Tools at SchoolsThe Future Project, and Betaversity. These are organizations that focus on design thinking, entrepreneurship and maker spaces respectively.

The Innovation Challenge for 2015

We have such a solid foundation of change on which to build the successes of the coming year.

  1. In higher ed, it would be great to see more online programs that leverage technology to offer courses with optimized facilitated learning opportunities. In addition to the technology and instructional design to make that happen, we also need business models that enable cost-effective course development and tuition costs, and means of faculty resourcing in order to build and facilitate the courses.

  2. In PK-12, let’s leverage that foot we have in the door to create technology assisted learning opportunities to build problem solving and critical thinking skills.

  3. In both spaces, let’s work to offer more hands-on learning activities to prepare students for real world challenges as they prepare to enter the workplace of tomorrow.

Stay tuned to Designs2Learn for more on learning design for social impact.

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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

Designs2Learn blogs were originally published on a separate site devoted solely to educational issues. 

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