It’s coming at us. Don’t you feel it? Even if you have dug a nice hole in the sand for your head, surely you feel the rumblings of the massive wave of technological innovations, or supposed innovations, about to hit classrooms. 21st century education. Blended learning. Flipped classrooms.
About all of this, I am an agnostic. As a person who loves class discussion, writing and human interaction, I’m a skeptic. As a person who cannot be separated from my laptop or my iphone without a fight, I’m a realist. And as a person who began my career long, long ago at a tiny ed tech startup, I’m excited. O brave new world!
So as Mom and I navigate the exhibition hall outside the convention, I gravitate immediately toward the handful of tech companies hawking wares—only three, as far as I can tell. Here’s a thumbnail of what they have in store for you:
Pearson: I am an extreme skeptic about Pearson’s dominance of the market, particularly with the LAUSD, but I must say that what they show me is intriguing.
It’s iPad-based but can run on any platform. If you’re familiar with the Scholastic program Read 180 for struggling readers—a very effective program that can really boost students’ reading comprehension—they’ve basically taken that format and put it online, with some interesting upgrades.
The program has an actual class structure similar to Read 180’s: first, fifteen minutes of pleasure reading on the program’s e-reader. What’s cool about this is that at least in theory, a teacher could load in tons of high-interest titles at all levels without having to invest in an in-class library. Kids would have whole libraries at their fingertips right there in class and you could track their progress.
After 15 minutes, the kids read from the all-class book. No advantage here that I can see to actual books except possibly cost savings later on. Can it track student’s progress? Can it be annotated? I assume so. These would be essential details.
Then a class discussion using the iPads that I think wouldn’t be of interest to anyone but a first-year teacher or a sub, but I’d have to look into it more closely to see what the content is.
Then some opportunities for differentiated individual work based on student reading and writing levels—similar as far as I can tell to other software doing this kind of skill-based testing. Here again the devil is in the details. Do these programs really work with each student at his or her level? Is the content clear, useful and scaffolded? How engaging are the texts?
What I really liked about this in its ideal form is that it would be a great way to differentiate and track reading comprehension in a really individualized way without enormous paperwork. I uber-love that it would bring so many high-interest books into the classroom.
That would be in its ideal form. But does the content measure up? Impossible to tell. They’re going to link me to a short tester pilot. I’ll keep you posted.
At the opposite end of the world-domination spectrum is WriterKey, “a web based application designed to improve the teaching, learning and assessment of writing across the curriculum.” Developed by what appears to be one guy, Doug Silver, whose wife is an English teacher, the program’s aim is to tame the monster that ruins most English teachers’ lives: grading papers.
Basically, the program integrates a variety of paper-writing and grading tools into one place, quite handily, I must say. Students can draft papers on it, seek help from each other and the teacher, and then can turn in their final paper on any platform, phone, laptop, iPad, you name it. You, the teacher, then read the paper online, highlight commendable or objectionable parts and affix standard notes from a very long list of possibities: “explain further,” “sentence fragment,” etc. You can add specific commentary in a text box.
Even more impressive, if students are confused or need more help, they can click for an explanation of the concept, then click further to link to video lessons or further teaching.
Finally, the student will not even get to look at his grade until he has read through your comments and addressed them (or whatever set point you decide is best). This feature seems brilliant to me.
Students can also workshop pieces by creating their own standardized questions for feedback from peers, uploading papers and swapping.
What I like about this program is that it really streamlines the grading process. In terms of content, I think it’s about the same as a regular pen and paper process, but the simplicity of having everything in one place is really great. You’d never lose papers, you could keep and track every draft, and you could really track problem areas for large numbers of students as well as easily mix and match differentiated groups to work on different skills later.
Silver told me he’s going to let me link to a trial run of the product, which I’m looking forward to. I’m eager to compare it to turnitin.com, which he says offers similar functions. The key for each would be that it’s smooth, user-friendly and easy to customize for your own students.
The final software I looked at was a vocabulary drill program. It was cute, but to me offers no meaningful upgrade on any other drill and kill program. In-class games are more fun, and being able to customize definitions and sentences for classes is key. I’m not yet a fan.
But looking at these programs, I’m excited about the first two. What LA needs, immediately, stat, is universal internet access not only at schools but in every family’s home. None of these innovations will be usable without fast, consistent internet access. Software is happening faster than our ability to run it. We need to create an infrastructure—now.
Here, in California, where Silicon Valley is the epicenter of tech development and a fountain of wealth, why are these companies not being pressured to make statewide universal internet access happen, quickly and affordably for everyone?