Remote-Learning Technology Just Isn't Good Enough

EDUCATION technology administrators have made amazing promises over the past two decades: that by 2019, half of all high school courses will be online; videos and practice problems can allow students to learn math at their own pace; in 50 years only ten institutions of higher learning would remain, or those ordinary students who were left alone with computers connected to the internet could learn anything without the help of schools or teachers.


Then by 2020, people around the world were forced to turn to online learning as the coronavirus epidemic closed schools serving more than 1 billion students. It was a great time for educational technology, but for many students and families, studying far away was frustrating. When the world is desperately in need, why does education technology seem so scarce?


Educational software has a long history, but over the years there have been two major challenges. The first is that most people rely on human connectivity to keep their motivation. When a student closes his or her laptop in frustration in class, someone may see it and respond. When the same thing happens while using an educational technology product, human communication is also blocked.


Well-designed online environments can promote meaningful relationships, and online learning has the potential to exceed general classroom limits, but in reality, many online readers find it difficult to concentrate.


The second challenge is that the subjects are complex. On any given day at school, one teacher can bring in a new sound mapping, another complete a unit on plate tectonics, and a third will conduct a meeting at Don Quixote. Many teachers can walk down the hall and enter a new course to teach different reading materials. But throughout the new education technology curriculum, new content, tools, resources, and testing must be developed and disseminated.


Testing is also a thorny challenge. In some fields, such as math and computer science, educational technology can be acquired as soon as a student solves a problem or develops an efficient computer program. We can reward students for finding the right answers, directing them to resources when things go wrong, and building responses for instruction, assessment, and repetition required for good learning.


Unfortunately, the same method does not work well in other areas. We can ask readers to calculate how far a tectonic plate can travel if given a certain speed and time and computers can quickly check the correct numerical answer. But if we ask students to write a section describing how plate tectonics work, computers may not be able to accurately identify the correct, incomplete, and wrong answers. Computers cannot accurately assess how people interact with evidence and reasoning is evidence of learning.


Educational technology has long promised to transform education, but better yet, the field has developed tools for individual learning materials. What happens most in school reading, we do not have the online tools or resources that are better than a textbook.


All technological solutions are also a human problem: integrating technology into learning requires giving teachers and students time to play and getting used to new tools, routes, and teaching methods. For many teachers, the path to effective teaching of technology seems unchanging, and it is like immersion: a slow and steady process in identifying a tool or the right approach for some students in a particular context.




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