Which Education Technology Innovations Are Winners? Losers?

Arnold Kling, writing for The American — the online magazine for the American Enterprise Institute — is right when he says that in some ways, the education industry has stagnated over the past 150 years. After all, it’s hard to imagine that anyone time-traveling to the present from a century and a half in the past would recognize many of the institutions he would take for granted, bar a classroom. Some are now saying, however, that technology is about to do to a classroom what 150 years of progress hasn’t done: revolutionize it. Are they right? According to Kling, only in part.

Kling draws on his own experience as a high school teacher and a businessman to sort out which technological advances currently making noise are truly here to stay and which ones are just a flash in the pan.

The first thing Kling disposes of is the idea that massive online open courses, the hugely popular free internet offerings from some of the best universities in the country and the world, will be the revolutionizers of higher education that the press is currently touting them to be. Kling’s point is already becoming clear from the fact that over 90% of those who sign up for MOOCs never complete them.

We should not be surprised that MOOCs do not benefit most of those who try them. Students differ in their cognitive abilities and learning styles. Even within a relatively homogenous school, you will see students put into separate tracks. If we do not teach the same course to students in a single high school, why would we expect one teaching style to fit all in an unsorted population of tens of thousands?

An online course that has been designed at Stanford is likely to best fit the students who are suited to that particular university. The other beneficiaries are likely to be students who have the right cognitive skills and learning style but happen to be unable to attend college in the United States.

Kling breaks down new technology into three categories: Loser, Winner and Magic Bullet. MOOCs are definitely a Loser. So is gamification, smart boards and in-class feedback devices commonly known as clickers. Looking at what Kling considers to be technology Winners, it’s easy to understand where he thinks the future of technology lies. Teachers shouldn’t be be looking to exploit digital improvements to figure out how to successfully teach bigger and bigger classrooms as MOOCs allow them to do. They should instead look at how to make instruction more personal, via tablets, videoconferencing and flipped classrooms, thinks Kling.

To put this another way, I believe that the future of teaching is not one-to-many. Instead, it is many-to-one. By many-to-one, I mean that one student receives personalized instruction that comes from many educators. To make that work, technology must act as an intermediary, taking the information from the educators and customizing it to fit the student’s knowledge, ability, and even his or her emotional state.

Kling believes that tablets can serve as a replacement for anything that students use in the classroom today. As he puts it, a tablet can take the place of anything in a backpack “except lunch.” Specifically, the tablet’s greatest potential is as a textbook replacement, especially because it has the ability to become an adaptive textbook that tailors itself to the students’ skills and abilities. It is individualized learning at its best.