Can Technology Help Students and Save Education in California?


Click here to watch a video of PRI’s recent panel discussion on ed tech and blended learning in the classroom.

Much of the debate in education over the last few years has centered around issues of standards, curricula and testing. While very important, these issues should not obscure the possibilities offered by new models of delivering instruction, especially those involving education technology.

To explore these critical questions, the Pacific Research Institute recently held a panel discussion of educators, school officials and lawmakers at the State Capitol. The event drew a large crowd of education leaders, and key legislative staff on both sides of the aisle. You can watch the event at the link above.

Technology in education means much more than having computers for students to take standardized tests or having electronic whiteboards to assist teachers when they lecture. Technology is being integrated into innovative instructional methods, which are proving successful in a growing number of schools in California.

Many of these new models use the Internet and cutting-edge software that adapts to the learning level of the individual student. The term “online learning,” which more and more schools are using, is learning from sources on the Internet, including books, videos, lessons and software. Online instruction is instruction between the instructor and the student via the Internet.

One very promising use of online learning occurs in schools using the so-called “blended learning” model. According to the California-based Christensen Institute, blended learning is a program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction. Students usually have some control over time, place, path, and pace of instruction. Finally, some part of the instruction occurs at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.

A number of California schools have successfully implemented different variations of blended learning to raise student achievement. At our event, we heard from Paul Escala of Grimmway Academy, a K-8 public charter school in rural Arvin in Kern County. He talked about how they use a blended-learning rotation model where students spend part of the day in traditional classrooms and then rotate to a computer lab where they use software programs such as Compass Learning for math and English, Reading Express and myON Reading to receive personalized instruction tailored to the individual interests and needs of the student. Based on the data generated by the software programs, teachers can pinpoint students’ learning problems and assist those students in overcoming their learning obstacles.

The performance of Grimmway’s mostly low-income Hispanic students under California’s former STAR testing system was impressive. More than eight out of ten students in a number of grade levels scored at or above the proficient level in mathematics.

Newly-elected Assemblyman Kevin Kiley talked about his experiences motivating students and using technology in the classroom at Manual Arts High School in South Central Los Angeles.

Summit Public Schools in Sunnyvale in Santa Clara County uses a blended-learning “flex” model. Cognitive skills such as writing are taught by teachers, but students also spend 16 hours a week acquiring other skills and knowledge through the use of the school’s online resources.

Key to student learning are so-called topic playlists, which include guided practice problems, presentation, videos and more. Students take short assessments to determine if they have mastered the content and can then move on to new topics.

According to U.S. News and World Report, which did a lengthy story on Summit earlier this year, each student has “a Google Chromebook and a dashboard that shows where they are on each subject: topics they have mastered turn green, those they still need to master are red.” “They work on what they choose,” said the article, “at their own pace, using the playlist options that fit their learning style best.” But, “their mentor teacher can always see where they are and nudge them if they’re falling too far behind.”

These technology-assisted innovations have resulted in Summit students considerably outperforming average California student proficiency levels.

Senate Republican Leader Jean Fuller, herself a former classroom teacher and school superintendent, and teacher and author Catlin Tucker, both talked about the fact that a major Achilles heel for blended learning and other technology-assisted learning models has been lack of adequate teacher training.

In Los Angeles, the expensive experiment to give students iPads for their schoolwork crashed and burned. While there were several reasons for the disaster, the U.S. Department of Education highlighted the fact that teachers were badly trained on how to use the iPad and the associated curriculum. According to a Los Angeles school district contractor: “Teachers were not trained in the system to manage the devices.”

In contrast, in Singapore, all teacher trainees are required to take coursework that will give them the skills to use technology to facilitate student learning. Thus, all secondary schools in Singapore use blended learning models, and, not coincidentally, Singapore is a world leader in classroom achievement.

With the revolution in education technology, the future is now. The question, however, is whether we are ready for that future. I am hopeful that the issues we discussed at our event will provide a catalyst for the necessary policy changes to fully utilize education technology in every classroom in California.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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