Can technology bring more human contact to teaching?

Three teens sitting next to each other working at a laptop

k-12_female_teacher_helping_male_student_laptopStudents in the class are sitting at individual computers working through a game that introduces basic algebra courses. Ms. Reynolds looks at the alert on her tablet and sees four students with the “letters misconception” sign. She taps “work sample” and the tablet brings up their work on a problem. She notes that all four seem to be thinking that there are rules for determining which number a letter stands for in an algebraic expression. She taps the four of them on the shoulder and brings them over to a small table while bringing up a discussion prompt. She proceeds to walk them through discussion of examples that lead them to conclude the value of the letters change across problems and are not determined by rules like “c=3 because c is the third letter of the alphabet.”

I’m going to argue that this vision, that has a heavy reliance on technology, has more human contact than many (though certainly not all) classroom activities done with less technology in the classroom. Ms. Reynolds is able to target individual students’ individual misconceptions more specifically and has more interaction with them.

Technology can help make the human connection. We need to build systems that do so.

Dan Meyer posted an example of a technology that allows students to submit an answer and a photo of their work that teachers can then use as prompts for discussion. I completely agree that examining this student work is essentially for getting at their understandings and misunderstandings. We need to make student work products, even when done on technology, available to teachers. He also writes that “most machine-graded systems hold back students with wrong answers.” This is a problem with the system design, not machine-grading. We can create machine learning systems to identify misconceptions. What happens next depends totally on what we tell the system to do. Do we want the student to move on? Do we want to alert the teacher? Do we want them to go to a different set of exercises? This decision is part of building an “instructional model” on which a technology system should be based.

What is an instructional model? It is a way of defining what should happen for students with different profiles. It controls the curriculum and its sequencing. If a student looks like this, what should happen next? Too often, this next is just “what problem should they get next,” but it doesn’t have to be. We can tell the technology to go get some human help.

What is a profile? It is our estimate of the knowledge, skills, and attributes we are interested in. Note that the last thing on that list is “attributes.” This list isn’t just about content proficiency, but also things like “mindset”, motivation, and engagement. Do we know how all of these things should impact our instructional model? No, but we are researching that now and technology can help us do that.

So, while I am often a technology champion, I do think that technology can create more human classrooms.


About the Author
Kristen DiCerbo, Ph.D.

Kristen DiCerbo, PhD

Kristen DiCerbo, PhD, was a principal research scientist for the Center for Learning Science & Technology within Pearson’s Research & Innovation Network. Dr. DiCerbo’s research program centered on digital technologies in learning and assessment, particularly on the use of data generated from interactions to inform instructional decisions. She has conducted qualitative and quantitative investigations of games and simulations, particularly focusing on the identification and accumulation of evidence. She previously worked as an educational researcher at Cisco and as a school psychologist. She holds doctorate and master’s degrees in Educational Psychology from Arizona State University.