Education and Technology

Stephen DeAngelis

November 12, 2013

Robert Atkinson, President of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, laments the fact that American technology companies are just as dependent on foreign-born scientists and engineers as they were twenty years ago. [“A short and long-term solution to America’s STEM crisis,” The Hill, 11 March 2013] He lists a litany of reasons for this conundrum which include:

“In 2008, more than three times as many high school students took the art history advanced placement test as did the computer science test. In addition, from 2000 to 2007 non-STEM bachelor’s degrees grew 50 percent faster than STEM bachelor’s degrees. Yet, the nation’s STEM workforce has grown more than 50 percent faster than the number of STEM degree recipients. Even more disconcerting, the Bureau of Labor Statistics states the U.S. economy is expected to add at least 1.2 million computing jobs from 2010-2020. At the current pace, U.S. universities won’t produce even half the number of U.S. computer science graduates needed to fill those positions.”

Since we can’t produce science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workers at will, Atkinson is correct when he writes, “For the long-term we need to reform high school and college education to remedy the chronic shortage of STEM graduates.” In fact, I don’t think that he goes far enough. I think we need to start much earlier getting students excited about STEM subjects. That’s why I helped establish a non-profit organization called The Project for STEM Competitiveness and its first program is aimed at middle school students.

Some pundits believe that by introducing more technology into the educational process interest in STEM subjects will increase. For example, Terry Heick writes, “While learning by no means requires technology, to design learning without technology is an exercise in spite — proving a point at the cost of potential. And it’s difficult to forget how new this is. Fifteen years ago, a current high school sophomore was born. So was Google.” [“30 Incredible Ways Technology Will Change Education by 2028,” TeachThought, 19 March 2013] Among the technologies he discusses are massive open online courses (MOOCs). Unfortunately, most MOOCs are aimed at college students (with the possible exception of courses offered by the Khan Academy — see my post entitled Teaching Problem Solving Skills in Math and Science, Part 2). Jon Marcus reports, “The so-called MOOCs, or massive open online courses, offered by the two behemoths based at MIT and Harvard (edX) and spun off by Stanford in the case of Coursera, combine free classes ranging from genome theory to introductory guitar with the convenience of learning at any time or place.” [“Crazy about ‘MOOCs’: Are online courses the future of learning or overhyped?NBC News, 3 October 2013] But online courses play an important role in the next technology discussed by Heick — blended learning.

The Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation defines “blended learning as a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace; at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home; and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.” The Institute reports that there “are four models of blended learning that categorize the majority of blended-learning programs emerging across the K-12 sector today. These four models are: Rotation, Flex, A La Carte, and Enriched Virtual.” You can learn more about each of these models on the Institute’s website.

Other technologies that Heick believes will have major short-term impact include adaptive computer-based testing, learning simulations, and game-based learning. Following closely on the heels of those technologies, Heick sees the introduction of digital literacy, custom multimedia content (e.g., educational YouTube channels), improved testing tools, open source learning models, better measurement methods, and more use of visual data (rather than numerical data). He believes that by 2020 cloud-based education will be the norm. Around that same time period, he sees “seamless peer-to-peer and school-to-school collaboration,” as schools begin to function more like “think tanks to address local and global challenges such as clean water, broadband access, human trafficking, and religious intolerance.” He is not alone in believing that problem-based education will be more effective than the current curriculum-based model. My colleagues and I had problem-based learning in mind when we founded The Project for STEM Competitiveness. Heick also believes that new forms of learning will be adopted (e.g., “entrepreneurial learning, invisible learning, question-based learning, and open source learning”) as well as alternative methods of formal education including self-directed learning studios.

By the year 2024, Heick believes “personalized learning algorithms will be the de facto standard in schools that continue the traditional academic learning approach.” Other algorithms will probably play a larger role in education as well since many analysts see Big Data playing a larger role in education systems at all levels. “New technologies allow schools, colleges and universities to analyze absolutely everything that happens,” writes Mark Van Rijmenam. “From student behavior, testing results, career development of students as well as educational needs based on changing societies. A lot of this data has already been stored and is used for statistical analysis by government agencies such as the National Center for Educational Statistics.” [“Big Data Will Revolutionize Learning,” SOA World Magazine, 19 May 2013] Van Rijmenam concludes:

“The overall goal of Big Data within educational systems should be to improve student results. Better students are good for society, organizations as well educational institutions. Currently the answers to assignments and exams are the only measurements on the performance of students. During his or her student life, however, every student generates a unique data trail. This data trail can be analyzed in real-time to deliver an optimal learning environment for the student as well to gain a better understanding in the individual behavior of the students. It is possible to monitor every action of the students. How long they take to answer a question, which sources they use, which questions they skipped, how much research was done, what the relation is to other questions answered, which tips work best for which student, etc. Answers to the questions can be checked instantly and automatically (except for essays perhaps) give instant feedback to students. In addition, Big Data can help to create groups of students that prosper due to the selection of who is in a group. Students often work in groups where the students are not complementary to each other. With algorithms it will be possible to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each individual student based on the way a student learned online, how and which questions were answered, the social profile, etc. This will create stronger groups that will allow students to have a steeper learning curve and deliver better group results. All this data will help to create a customized program for each individual student.”

Matt Levinson, Head of the Upper Division at Marin Country Day School, agrees with Van Rijmenam that personalized education is what will characterize the future of learning. “We live in an age of personalization and customization,” he writes. [“Personalized Learning, Big Data and Schools,” edutopia, 9 September 2013] As an educator, he knows that “education is facing enormous pressure to adapt to technology as educators figure out how to meet the needs of students in a personalized, meaningful and timely manner based on best practices.” He believes that technology is the only way the dream of real personalized education will be achieved. I agree with the pundits who believe that personalization should be the hallmark of our education system. Personalization means that each student can move forward at the right pace, using the right tools, to achieve their maximum educational potential. We owe that to our students.