Can computers enhance the work of teachers? The debate is on

Updated: 2017-09-06 08:03

Can computers enhance the work of teachers? The debate is on

Using computers to do homework and study has become a routine for students in cities all over the world. [Photo provided to China Daily]

In middle school, Junior Alvarado often struggled with multiplication and earned poor grades in math, so when he started his freshman year at Washington Leadership Academy, a charter high school in the US capital, he fretted that he would lag behind.

But his teachers used technology to identify his weak spots, customize a learning plan just for him and coach him through it. As Junior started sophomore geometry, he was more confident of his skills.

"For me personalized learning is having classes set at your level," Junior, 15, says in between lessons. "They explain the problem step by step. It wouldn't be as fast; it will be at your pace."

As schools struggle to raise high school graduation rates and close the persistent achievement gap for minority and low-income students, many educators tout digital technology in the classroom as a way forward. But experts caution that this approach still needs more scrutiny and warn schools and parents against being overly reliant on computers.

The use of technology in schools is part of a broader concept of personalized learning that has been gaining popularity in recent years. It's a pedagogical philosophy centered around the interests and needs of each individual child as opposed to universal standards.

The Education Department poured $500 million into personalized learning programs in 68 school districts serving a half million students in 13 states plus the District of Columbia. Large organizations have also invested in digital tools and other student-centered practices.

At Washington Leadership Academy, educators rely on software and data to track student progress and adapt teaching to enable students to master topics at their own speed. Sophomores used special computer programs to take diagnostic tests in math and reading, and teachers then used that data to develop individual learning plans.

"The digital tool tells us we have a problem to fix with these kids right here and we can do it right then and there. We don't have to wait for the problem to come to us," says Joseph Webb, founding principal of the school, one of 10 schools to win a $10 million grant in a national competition aimed at reinventing US high schools.

Math teacher Britney Wray says that in her previous school she was torn between advanced learners and those who lagged behind significantly. She says often she wouldn't know if a student was failing a specific unit until she started a new one.

In comparison, the academy's technology gives Wray instant feedback on which students need help and where.

Still, most researchers say it is too early to tell if personalized learning works better than traditional teaching.

A recent study by the Rand Corp found that personalized learning produced modest improvements: A 3 percentile increase in math and a smaller, statistically insignificant increase in reading compared with schools that used more traditional approaches. Some students also complained that collaboration with classmates suffered because everybody was working on a different task.

Some teachers are skeptical. Marla Kilfoyle, executive director of the Badass Teachers Association, an education advocacy group, agrees that technology has its merits, but insists that no computer or software should ever replace the personal touch, motivation and inspiration teachers give their students.


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