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Remote learning technology just isn’t good enough and it won’t be anytime soon

Home schooling in the coronavirus pandemic was the time educational technology shone, but shortcomings have caused it to break its promise, says Justin Reich

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4th November 2020

By Justin Reich

PROPONENTS of educational technology have made remarkable promises over the past two decades: by 2019, half of all secondary school courses would be online; Videos and practice problems can allow students to learn math at their own pace. in 50 years there would only be 10 mega universities left; or that typical students, left alone with Internet-connected computers, can learn anything without the help of schools or teachers.

In 2020, people around the world had to turn to online learning as the coronavirus pandemic closed schools that cared for more than 1 billion students. It was the big moment in educational technology, but distance learning has been a disappointment for many students and families. If the world needs it most, why did educational technology seem so lackluster?

Educational software has a long history, but there have been two major challenges. The first is that most people rely on human connections to keep their motivation going. In a classroom, when a student closes their laptop in frustration, someone can see them and respond. If the same thing happens while using an educational technology product, human connections with it are broken.

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Well-designed online learning environments can foster meaningful relationships, and online learning can cross typical class boundaries. In practice, however, many online students have difficulty staying focused.

The second challenge is that the curricula are complex. On a given school day, one teacher can introduce a new sound-letter mapping in phonics, another complete a unit on plate tectonics, and a third conduct a seminar on Don Quixote. Many teachers can walk down the hall to a new lesson to teach various classroom materials. However, each new educational technology curriculum area requires new content, tools, resources and assessments to be developed and disseminated.

Reviews are also a delicate challenge. In some areas, such as math and computer science, educational technology can instantly detect when a student is solving a problem or creating a properly functioning computer program. We can reward students for getting the correct answers, move them to resources when they do something wrong, and create the feedback loops for instructions, assessments, and iterations necessary for good learning.

Unfortunately, the same approach doesn’t work as well in other areas. We can ask students to calculate how far a tectonic plate could move at a given speed and time, and computers can immediately interpret a correct numerical answer. However, when we ask students to write a paragraph explaining how plate tectonics works, computers cannot reliably identify correct, partially correct, and incorrect answers. Computers cannot reliably evaluate how people reason from evidence, and thinking from evidence is at the core of school education.

Educational technology has long promised to transform education, but at best the subject has developed individual tools for niches of the curriculum. For much of school-based learning, we don’t have online tools or resources better than a printed textbook.

Any technological solution is also a human capital problem: in order to incorporate technology into learning, teachers and students need time to play with and get used to new tools, routines and pedagogies.

For most teachers, the path to teaching more effectively with technology is less a transformation than a tinkering: a slow and steady process of determining the right tool or approach for specific students in a given context.

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