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Reflections from BETT: The Promise & Practice of Using Technology in the Classroom

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In my role at HMH, I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to see how people approach education around the world. I’m able to gain insight into the shared challenges many of us face, such as developing infrastructure – whether that means increasing internet connectivity in schools or improving roads in rural areas to boost student attendance. I also get to learn about how these challenges are met depending on where I am in the world, and see innovative solutions in action, such as a school in the Philippines that (despite intermittent electricity) is using mobile connections to download educational curriculum that can be used offline. These experiences are inspiring, thought-provoking and humbling, but they are also motivating. The challenges we face today are great, but so is the opportunity in front of us to solve them.

Last week, I was in London attending BETT, one of the largest edTech gatherings in the world. It was an energizing experience; over 30,000 teachers, innovators and leaders in education gathered together to share their experiences and discuss how integrating technology in the classroom can enable a more dynamic learning environment.  Together, we thought not about how to get tablets into the hands of more students, but about how those tablets (or computers, laptops, mobile phones) fit into a larger strategy to enable education in all parts of the world. There is no question about the promise of technology to transform learning. The real question, however, is how do we unlock that promise and turn it into reality? How do we use technology as a tool to create real improvements for students around the world?

There are no easy answers. Yet seeing so many people and ideas come together in London was encouraging, because it is clear that there are answers. The transformation of learning is underway and in the spirit of BETT, I would like to share three areas to consider when looking to maximize the effectiveness of using technology in the classroom:

1. Content

There is a lot to think about when it comes to digital content. Move beyond the notion of the simple transformation of a printed page to a screen, and explore a program’s digital features to assess whether the curriculum is really using technology to improve something for your students. Ask yourself: are there interactive components? Can learning paths be personalized, and if so, how would that play out in class? Would it lend itself to a “flipped” model? One of the big areas of discussion at BETT was how technology can enable a complete rethink in terms of how we structure teaching, with less emphasis on presenting information in class and more on encouraging more engaging investigative learning (Professor Sugata Mitra’s ideas around “Big Questions” are worth looking at). These ideas are already being pursued in classrooms around the world, but in the midst of all this change, do not forget the biggest question of all when it comes to content: is it effective?

2. Accessibility

We’ve grown in leaps and bounds when it comes to technology – 87% of American adults now use the internet. There is, however, still work to be done. Many schools and libraries are working to improve access to broadband internet, and teachers routinely express concern about whether their students have access to appropriate technology at home. If you are looking at adopting a new digital program, consider: does it require constant internet connection or can it work offline? What are the broadband requirements needed for it to function well? Is there video embedded? One of the most exciting things I took away with me from BETT was seeing the incredible technological solutions that allow innovative curriculum to reach students through the internet, but do not require constant access to it. I’m thinking in particular of a company called Tip Tap Tap that has designed a simple wooden desk that can have content embedded directly onto its surface. There are some real game-changing solutions out there. Look for them, especially if you have connectivity challenges in your school.

3. Data

A final theme at BETT that raised significant interest was, perhaps unsurprisingly, big data. At its best, data can provide insight and empower better decision-making, whether at a state, district, school or classroom level. Despite the hype, I still find the promise of data to be very exciting. To turn that promise into reality means determining at the start what it is you want to achieve, and ensuring you have the tools needed to achieve it. Otherwise, you run the risk of being data-rich, yet information poor.

To avoid this outcome, make sure you understand what you have to work with before you embark on any form of data analysis.  I spoke with a number of partners, government employees, and educators about this issue and the key message I took away with me was the importance of doing your homework to ensure you use data to achieve better outcomes. It sounds deceptively simple; just conduct an audit of what information you have available to you and articulate – in one sentence if you can – what it is you wish to achieve with that information. Then identify the right data management solution that will enable you to reach that goal. That is no doubt harder than it sounds, but it is possible.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the ways technology is driving advances in education. It is, however, three areas where technology is fueling change now. Giving them thought and consideration is important if we in the education industry are going to make that change as meaningful and effective as possible. Our goal, after all, is a learning transformation, not a digital one.

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Timothy L. Cannon, Ph.D. is the Executive Vice President of International Operations and Global Strategic Alliances at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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