The “Unexpected New” of Education Technology

Male student working on desktop computer with teaching

I often get asked not what I do (because it is pretty technical), but if I like my job. And, I have to articulate how exciting and rewarding it feels to see how my research introduces new ways teaching and learning can be done or fixes problems for our teachers and students. The simple blunt answer is, it feels freaking awesome. After all, I do what I do because I’m interested in pushing the boundaries of technology and I’m passionate about advancing education.

Last year, we collaborated with one of our K12 education products, designing, building and evaluating adaptive capabilities that provided personalized practice opportunities for students. We also built analytical features that empowered the instructors in closely observing the progress of their students as they followed their individual learning pathways. At the end of the year, we piloted the system “in the wild” and observed its use – live – in the classrooms, with about 400 students and teachers.

The students liked the fact that the technology focused on providing personalized teaching aligned to their individual strengths and weaknesses. The teachers were very receptive to the analytical capabilities that enabled them to follow closely the progress of each individual student, and appropriately intervene, as needed, just-in-time. Hearing them voice their appreciation made us feel great; it was a confirmation of good work.

However, as we observed the teachers and students, there was something else that happened that makes me feel even more excited about my work. I call it the “unexpected new” of education technology. It is what emerges as a side effect of introducing innovative and disruptive (in a positive way) technology into the classroom.

In one class, with the real-time reporting capabilities we had introduced in the system, while observing his students progress through an adaptive practice assignment the instructor would start to call out individual students and say something like:

Great job Justin!! You mastered dividing fractions. I told you math is not too difficult for you.

Being curious about what was going on, the students ran to the front of the classroom and took a peek to see what was on the teacher’s screen. Once they realized, that even though there were almost 30 students in the class, that their teacher was following intimately their individual progress, even though they were all getting different assignments, they became very excited.

The fact that the teacher could track each students’ mastery from red through yellow to green (so to speak) through each learning objectives in real time, made each student feel important. It confirmed to them that they were receiving personal attention, teaching and support that they wanted and needed. The teacher was seeing visual indicators of their success and they were being rewarded and congratulated on their work as they were learning.

From then on, the atmosphere in the classroom was quite different. What was prior a chatty computer lab became a much more silent and focused study room.

With this monitoring, students took pride in their progress. In fact, if they mastered objectives earlier than their peers, the teacher asked them to help their peers who had not yet finished. Students even self selected to help out their fellow classmates who were struggling. And some of those that had not mastered objectives and recognized they were struggling asked for extra remediation to assure that they were “all green” on the teacher’s dashboard.

Since the students’ experiences were personalized to their individual strengths and weaknesses, they would see different problems, on different objectives, in different order. When students who had already finished their assignment, or completed a particular objective would see a fellow student struggle on a given objective they would go help. A collective problem solving student-to-student instructional model was emerging in the class. They knew they possessed different mastery skills, of different objectives, at different times, and they could help!

Initially, we thought we were piloting technology to simply get evidence that our algorithms could create learning experiences that adapted to the particulars of each student. We got that. But it was everything else that emerged as a side product that was amazing to us to observe. And I have stories to fill a hundred blog posts.

Because of the technology, the teachers started interacting with their student differently, the students began working with their teacher differently, and students began collaborating with, and supporting each other in new ways. The “goal and vibe” in the classroom was something entirely different from what we were expecting.

The technology not only achieved the original goal, but fostered a new way of teaching and learning. It facilitated the creation of a whole new classroom dynamic that was fun, exciting, rewarding and efficient.
This experience is to me what is the most exciting, most rewarding, thing about what I do. It is also a testimony to the endless possibilities of well designed, well intended, educational technology. It creates something new, an “unexpected new”, that has tremendous value.


Editor’s note: This blog post was originally published on Pearson’s Research & Innovation Network website.


About the Author
Johann Larusson, Ph.D.

Johann Larusson, Ph.D.

Dr. Johann Ari Larusson leads the Center for Digital Data, Analytics and Adaptive Learning at Pearson’s Research & Innovation Network. A key focus of Dr. Larusson’s interests, is to leverage innovative and perhaps unconventional ways of analyzing and exploring large sets of data, of any kind, traditional or unstructured. With data, new technologies can be built that provide new types of adaptive learning experiences, personalized to the specifics of each student. His research and applied work draws on a mix of disciplines including Learning Analytics, Educational Data Mining, Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL), Learning Science and Human-Computer Interaction. Dr. Larusson has authored and co-authored dozens of peer-reviewed and award- winning publications within his area of focus, edited the first book on Learning Analytics (published by Springer), was a founding member and chair of the First North East Regional Learning Analytics Symposium and has been awarded several patents focused on improving education technology via educational analytics and adaptive learning capabilities.