Are these five educational technologies really ‘success stories’?

In South Korea, robots like this are helping to teach language skills to young students.

Robots that teach students language skills and free online courses that reach hundreds of thousands of students simultaneously are among the educational technologies touted as “success stories” in a new report from Brookings Institution researchers.

The Washington, D.C.-based public policy group used the release of its report to hold a panel discussion about how educational technologies can benefit students—and what the future holds for ed-tech innovation.

While most people would agree the five technologies cited in the report hold promise, not everyone would characterize them as “success stories” just yet.

Educational technologies can be used poorly or effectively—and those who use them effectively know that a teacher helps students make connections between what the technology shows them and how this relates to learning, said Marcia Linn, professor of development and cognition for UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, during the panel discussion.

“A good use of technology means that your students aren’t learning just facts anymore,” Linn said. “Students, with the use of technology, can begin to enhance their own learning and become cognizant of the fact that they’re responsible for their learning.”

“The next generation of educational technologies is facilitating substantial change,” said Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution and founding director of the group’s Center for Technology Innovation. “Educational technologies are evolving beyond lecture and group work to games, simulations, and augmented reality. Software is creating environments where students can direct the creation of their own knowledge with nearly invisible prompts from teachers.”

West is the co-author, along with Joshua Bleiberg, of “Education Technology Success Stories,” a Brookings report that says time and cost savings and better assessments are among the reasons ed tech has flourished in the last decade. The report highlights five educational technologies in particular that have “demonstrated the ability to improve efficiency and effectiveness in education systems.”

One of these is Robot Assisted Language Learning (RALL), which holds the potential to keep costs down in resource-intensive language subjects that can strain school budgets, the report argues.

Robots, like those used in some South Korean schools, can aid in language teaching by helping students with repetition and memorization, because grammar and vocabulary is a defined structure, and robots can be programmed with advanced speech recognition software. Along with speech prompts, robots used in South Korea use facial expressions to communicate with students.

Studies suggest that RALL leads to “large improvements in student speaking, but not listening skills,” the report says, adding that RALL will continue to be important because scarcities in qualified secondary language teachers likely will persist into the future.

The report also cites massive open online courses, or MOOCs, as another ed-tech “success story.” It says MOOCs have the potential to “disrupt higher education, improving outcomes for students and expanding learning opportunities,” especially because tuition has increased steeply over the last few decades, and the resulting cuts have hurt students and restricted access by poorer students.

While there’s no denying the explosive growth of MOOCs in the last few years—fueled partly by new MOOC platforms such as CourseraedX, and Udacity—the report makes no mention of common MOOC criticisms. For instance, some worry that MOOCs cannot provide the same intimate experience as a traditional classroom, and MOOCs also have notoriously low retention rates.

Here are the other three ed-tech “success stories” highlighted in the Brookings report:

• Minecraft. “The internet has facilitated but not changed the standard teaching techniques: lecture, group work, individual reading, and slide presentation,” according the report. The computer game Minecraft is a new way for teachers to instruct students—a dynamic game that has “nearly exhaustible flexibility.”

Minecraft is a “sandbox” computer game that is open-ended, with no defined narrative or game-play objectives. Players approach the game similar to the way children play with Legos or blocks. Players gather resources and build things with those resources, and the worlds that the game generates for players are unique and large.

According to the report, Minecraft has several features that allow it to serve as a teaching tool, including teachers’ ability to conduct a lesson in a virtual world. More about the game and teachers’ use of it has a teaching platform can be found in the report.

• Computerized Adaptive Testing (CAT). According to the report, the technology of standardized testing has changed very little over the past 50 years. CAT could revolutionize the field owing to its greater precision and practical advantages over traditional test formats. By combining two old technologies of computers and adaptive algorithms, CAT has more reliable test scores that paper-based testing (PBT); CAT scores have greater reliability that PBT; CAT costs significantly less to administer than PBT; CAT takes student less time to complete, freeing up instructional time; CAT has the option to include confidence-boosting test items; and CAT is easier to use for special education student, says the report.

“Plato once said that you can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation,” said Valerie Shute, Mack & Effie Campbell Tyne-endowed professor in education at the Department of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems for Florida State University, during the Brookings panel.

• Stealth Assessments. Stealth assessments embed formative assessments into games. Shute and her colleagues developed the first stealth assessment with the intention of capturing data “unobtrusively.” They collect data about student learning, which teachers can then use to improve and individualize instruction.

“Stealth assessments capture different data than high stakes assessment because the student’s behavior changed when engaged in a game as opposed to when focused explicitly on an assessment,” according to the report. “Students’ willingness to play stealthy assessment games out of the classroom could provide a huge boon to teachers, because it would provide data without using class time.”

Stealth assessments are especially important, says the report, because education reform efforts have focused on developing the infrastructure to gather large data sets on student learning.

Follow Associate Editor Meris Stansbury on Twitter at @eSN_Meris.

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