Innovate, don’t digitize

Teachers working with a cell phone

The US Department of Education released a report that lists the 10 most promising opportunities for educational technology to improve education. This list is meant to assist technology developers as they create new applications for improving learning.
EdTech Developers Guide

According to the report, these are the top ten opportunities for technology to transform teaching & learning:

  1. Improving mastery of academic skills
  2. Developing skills to promote lifelong learning
  3. Increasing family engagement
  4. Planning for future education opportunities
  5. Designing effective assessments
  6. Improving educator professional development
  7. Improving educator productivity
  8. Making learning accessible to all students
  9. Closing opportunity gaps
  10. Closing achievement gaps

This list, which covers almost every aspect of education – from students to families to teachers, from content to skills and assessment to leveling the playing field – exemplifies the powerful potential of educational technology. In other words, it seems as if the possibilities of educational technology are endless…. if we can innovate in the right ways.

Over the past decade the emphasis in the US has mostly been about getting technology into the hands of students and teachers (although this is not to say that there haven’t been many people also working to innovate.) As a country, we’ve come a long way in doing that. According to the report from the National Center for Education Statistics (2010), approximately 97% of teachers have one or more computers in the classroom every day. Also, 93% of computers in classrooms have Internet access every day; and, 96% of computers or digital devices brought from home for use in the classroom have Internet access every day (NCES, 2009). The actual percentage of students who have a digital device that has Internet access while at school may be even higher given that over half of students in grades 6-12 indicate having access to the Internet in the palms of their hands using 3G/4G enabled mobile devices (Project Tomorrow, 2013). Further, the ratio of students-to-computer has decreased from 11 to 1 to 1.7 to 1 in the classroom every day (Gray, Thomas & Lewis, 2010).

Now that we’ve made such great strides in getting technology into schools, the current trend is to work to understand how teachers and students are using the technology, which uses result in gains, and which implementation models are most effective. A better understanding of these factors will help teachers and students use the technology most effectively and help developers create innovations in educational technology.

As we transition towards this new focus on usage, we should keep in mind the following  (as stated in the US Dept of Ed’s report): “Innovate, Don’t Digitize”. Whether we are educators, researchers or educational technology developers, this particular phrase is one  that we should all keep top of mind in our work. Why? Because sometimes it’s too easy to  lose sight of innovation and stick with the old ways of working instead.

It’s understandable – generally speaking when you have new technology, the simplest first step is to basically take content or tasks and make them digital without fundamentally changing anything. One could take a textbook, for example, and scan it to make an electronic version or create an e-text. Or one could take a task, such as writing an essay and require students to type it into a computer rather than write it out on paper. Although I see why we do these things, there is so much more we can do with technology than simply digitizing. The promise of educational technology comes from true innovation rather than simple digitization. In Pearson’s Research & Innovation Network we are working to innovate and to do so in ways that are research-based because, after all, not all innovation means improved teaching and/or learning. Innovation for its own sake is not the point. The innovation itself must be grounded in what we know works and tested in its new innovated format to make sure it’s effective. For more information on some of this work, take a look at the Insight project, the Alternate Reality Learning Experience and Mars Generation One.

Hopefully through creative and innovative approaches to educational technology development and deployment the top 10 opportunities reported by the US Department of Education can be fully realized.


About Liane Wardlow
Liane Wardlow

Liane Wardlow, Ph.D.

Liane Wardlow, research scientist, focuses on designing and implementing research studies examining e-learning in on-ground and on-line K-20 classrooms. She also works collaboratively across research centers on a multi-state research project measuring the use and effects of digital technology on teachers’ instructional practices and students’ learning outcomes. Prior to joining Pearson, Dr. Wardlow worked as a research scientist at the University of CA, San Diego in the Department of Psychology, and for the US Department of Education in the Institute for Education Sciences. Dr. Wardlow holds a master’s degree in Education from the University of Southern California and a doctorate in Experimental Psychology from the University of CA, San Diego.