EdTech Objectives - Classical and Progressive Uses of Technology in the Classroom

A Tale of Two Education Technologies

There are countless ways to think about the role of technology in the classroom. If you ask educators to define education technology or describe its benefits, you’d likely get as many answers as respondents. How can we be strategic and effective in using technology if we are not sure of why we are using it or considering what tool or strategy is most effective in reaching our goals?

Old School/New School

While there is no simple answer to these questions, I like to think about two divergent strands in education technology, which I’ll call the ‘Classical’ and the ‘Progressive.’ The former allows us to use technology to better accomplish the goals that schools have traditionally set out to accomplish, while the latter allows us to redefine and expand the expectations we have for our instruction and our students. While proponents of these two educational objectives can sometimes seem more polarized than red and blue states, there are good reasons to use technology for both.

Can technology really foster progressive education?

To some, the idea of technology in the classroom conjures ideas of students sitting in their desks, eyes glazing over, as they complete hours of questions asking them to find the main idea of the last paragraph or to find the median value in a list of numbers. While it is possible for a poorly-implemented EdTech initiative to become a dystopian nightmare, it certainly doesn’t have to be.

Technology opens up new ways to employ project-based learning and collaboration in the classroom. Alice Keeler’s blog is a virtual library of tips and tricks for using Google Apps for Education to promote student-centered and collaborative learning. In “Transforming Learning through Student Content Creation,”  Adam Schoenbart explains how creating artifacts engages students in creativity and higher-order thinking. Applications such as Garage Band, Explain Everything, and iMovie allow students to create work that looks and feels almost professional, and there is a growing body of evidence that project-based learning increases student engagement and helps kids apply their learning to real-world situations.


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So why not just let students learn through creating?

While progressive methods fill some needs that were not met through traditional education, it’s also important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In “From Evidence to Great Teaching” Professor Robert Coe describes how student engagement, interest, and motivation are not reliable indicators that learning is actually taking place. PBLs can be conducive to learning, but not all project-based learning is created equally. Simply giving students some paper and markers (or an iPad to draw on) does not automatically mean students are learning academic skills, creativity, or collaboration. While we don’t want the focus of education to be on measuring and categorizing students, we can’t just close our eyes and hope for the best, nor can we completely disregard grade-level milestones for student skill development.

Using cold, hard technology to facilitate soft, fuzzy outcomes.

When a student is expected to learn skills or content that is outside of her comfort zone, the experience is painful. Whether our students are feeling frustrated and embarrassed at being overwhelmed, or they are bored of work that is not challenging, we owe it to them to alleviate this pain. We also have a responsibility to students and their families to help them understand whether the work they are doing is typical of a student their age. As much as we want to avoid labeling our students or telling a family that their child is not doing as well as his peers, if a student is below grade level in math or reading, we do them a disservice by not making them aware of the issue. Eventually, they are going to come up against some form of reality (SAT scores, school admissions, advanced courses), and they are better off finding out sooner than later so they can address the issue.

We can use technology to help us differentiate education in a way that has never before been possible. Benjamin Bloom conducted a famous study of the “2 Sigma Problem” which basically concluded that two educational techniques could drastically improve student outcomes. The first was mastery learning: students only moved on to more difficult concepts once they had mastered the foundational concept. The other was one-to-one instruction. The reason this was called a ‘problem’ was because there was no way to construct such an educational environment with one teacher and 30 students.

Khan Skills Chart

Image of Khan Academy (from Graphite.org)


While we still can’t provide a tutor for every student, we can use online learning platforms to create a mastery path for each student. Online problem sets and data visualizations help teachers drill down to student strengths and needs on an almost miscroscopic level and to deliver individual assignments based on this data. Students can work on a skill for as long as they need to achieve mastery, and they can make use of hints and videos when they need help. Teacher-coaches can also use the data to identify when a student needs one-on-one support.


What do you think?

Do you agree that it is important to balance classical and progressive forms of education? Is technology the right tool to accomplish these educational objectives? Get in touch