Digital Providers: Let Great Teachers Drive Technology Use, Get Results

By and 08/24/2015

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What should we take away from News Corp.’s recent announcement that it is writing off losses stemming from its digital education wing Amplify, ceasing its production of tablets for schoolchildren, and selling off its educational software and assessment services? We can guess some likely responses. Some will say it shows the folly of for-profits’ involvement in public education, or that digital learning is an overhyped distraction.

We have a different take: Amplify’s struggles are the predictable result of the hope that infusing schools with devices and software will, by itself, transform student learning. Amplify’s school district customers bought the company’s tablets and placed them in students’ hands, but most otherwise left the conventional, one-teacher-one-classroom school model in place.

A hallmark of that model is dividing students into classrooms with solo-practice teachers. About 25 percent of those teachers produce the level of gap-closing, life-changing growth that students need consistently to catch up and leap ahead to rising international standards. These teachers are also more likely to develop students’ higher-order thinking. In the rest of the classrooms, students have teachers who work hard but—working alone—don’t induce the kind of learning growth and critical thinking that students need.

Flooding this set-up with tablets and digital software might help some students some of the time: ones who are held back mainly by lack of content access, and who are very self-motivated and undeterred by normal learning and life challenges.

But digital tools alone leave the majority of students without excellent teachers in charge of their learning, and far too few students will make the substantial gains they could with great teachers’ guidance.

It’s tempting, but wrong, to think that content-adaptive instruction alone will replace excellent teaching. In the digital age, great teaching will matter even more than it has up to now, not less. As we wrote on the Clayton Christensen Institute’s blog in 2011: “As digital tools proliferate and improve, solid instruction in the basics will eventually become ‘flat’—available anywhere globally. Three big factors will increasingly differentiate student outcomes: (1) development of students’ self-motivation (2) effectiveness addressing learning barriers, like time-management, emotional disruptions, and social pressures that affect learning even among advantaged children; and (3) students’ higher-order capabilities like analytical, conceptual and creative thinking, especially as applied to solve real problems.”

In that world, the schools, districts, states, and nations that excel will be the ones that give more of their students access to teachers who are excellent in these ways.

None of this happens if districts just buy devices and ship them to schools. It happens only if schools, ideally with heavy involvement from teachers themselves, redesign roles and schedules to capitalize on digital instruction’s most potent value: the power to free great teachers’ time to help more students and to help other teachers excel.

As we’ve previously blogged here and here, and explained more fully in this book chapter, digital tools can open enormous opportunities to free teachers’ time, and let the best teachers help everyone excel. If students spend an age-appropriate amount of time learning independently with adaptive software like Amplify’s, excellent teachers can gain the time to teach more students without increasing class sizes, or to help even more students by leading teaching teams and developing their peers on the job. Those peers also gain flexible time they can use to learn from their excellent colleagues and to collaboratively analyze student work and data, and to plan what’s next for students. Teachers who reach more students directly or by leading teams can earn more within recurring budgets, advancing their careers while continuing to teach.

In that kind of school model, all teachers can focus their face-to-face time with students on higher-order learning and motivating personal engagement. More teachers will be capable of engaging and motivating students with leadership from their outstanding teachers.

As for digital education companies: If digital tools enable teachers to earn more for reaching more students and their peers, teachers will gain a stake in acquiring those tools and using them to achieve strong outcomes. They will clamor for the devices and software that successfully free their time and open the chance to advance in their careers without leaving teaching. That, much more than any marketing campaign by an ed tech company, is what will increase the speed and positive impact of education’s digital future.

– Bryan C. Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel

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