Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Tablets and Technology in "Flipped" Classrooms

I was excited to reach The Economist’s section on Educational Technology (EdTech to those who insist on abbreviating everything.) I was really excited about the “flipped classroom” idea of students doing their learning at home with iPads, and working on problems in class while the teacher circulates and helps them along.

The model makes sense to me. Technology can track students’ progress individually, and allow them all to progress at their own pace. It brings the benefits of special education to everyone, and should make it much easier to practice inclusion. My son is extremely good with the iPad, so I pictured him fitting right in with his peers.

Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it.

I like idyllic. I wish I’d left it at idyllic. But I got excited. I Googled. I read. I thought.

Then the Luddite in me (who I feel guilty about - I work in tech, after all) started to ridicule the whole idea. “Pick up a book”, he said. “The children can take it home with them. They can read it at home, then work on problems in class. They can track their progress with a bookmark.”

I hate arguing with my Luddite. His opinions always sound so down-home sensible. But he dismissed smart phones as a stupid fad, so he’s not always right.

The companies selling EdTech, it seems to me, are doing what companies do. They are trying to make money. I respect that. I’m trying to make money too.

But companies sell what they know how to make, and that’s not always what people really need. Right now the technology industry is all excited about “Big Data”. That means that they store all sorts of information about you and they use fancy algorithms to figure out what to sell you. A few companies are trying to apply the same ideas to learn a lot about students and then figure out what to teach them.

But computer learning lacks common sense (which is why I sometimes get shown ads for feminine hygiene products,) so I have some reservations about trusting fancy algorithms to decide what a child should learn next.

“Big Data” also loves to show graphs. You can graph right answers, wrong answers, hints, knowledge maps, and even made-up things called “energy points.” But do teachers learn more from looking at lots of graphs than from looking at the work their students produce?

One geometry teacher commented on the article to explain how much technology had helped him. He created the video content himself, compared his (her?) students’ quiz scores with the previous years, and saw improvement. Obviously s/he is a really involved teacher who is striving to do better every year. I don’t think any amount of technology is going to make lousy teachers get similar results, though.

So I guess I end up where I usually do on technology. It’s a tool. Teachers still have to teach. Students still have to learn. Administrators need to support the process without getting in the way and/or wasting money. And a lot of money has been wasted over the years buying computers to avoid being “left behind” by the supposed revolution in education.

I think for my own son, computers are the only way to go. Hopefully this new supposed revolution will create lots of material he can access. Maybe it can even bring about the idyllic scene I like to picture as his future classroom.

But my Luddite has doubts.