How Technology Will Revolutionize Testing and Learning

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The following op-ed is cross-posted from Scientific America

Greater broadband access will bring the latest digital tools to more teachers and students

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the future. It was located in Kristie Ford’s classroom in Detroit.

On the day I was invited, the class of fifth and sixth graders was a hive of activity and motion, which Ford did not need to closely direct. Instead as she talked individually with a few students, others worked independently in small clusters discussing their study of the solar system or sprawled on the floor constructing 3-D models. Still others were enmeshed in learning games and apps on laptops.

But as Ford and others at the Brenda Scott Academy for Theatre Arts made clear, the bustle was about more than fun and engaging tasks and cool technology. Underlying that surface appearance was a plan—backed by digital technology—to tailor learning to each student’s needs.

In traditional classrooms, students complete a lesson and move on to the next when it is time for the whole class to do so—regardless of whether they have mastered it or they are already well ahead. Here each student worked at her or his own pace, taking as much or little time as necessary to complete one lesson and then moving on to the next. Each child worked from an individual learning plan, and Ford could offer students material from a wide variety of digital sources—including traditional publishers, freely available “open” educational resources and her own original material.

The digital revolution has changed nearly every aspect of daily life—from how Americans shop, to how they communicate, to how they find a date. Schools—many of which have been slow to embrace innovation—are beginning to let in this digital revolution. For the students in Ford’s class, the benefits are clear. Yet what is happening at her school is not the norm, and the danger is that digital-learning tools could miss their potential to close long-standing learning gaps and instead disproportionately benefit students who already have the most advantages. That is why the Obama administration has taken steps to ensure access and equity in digital learning: with funding for innovations that tailor learning to students’ needs; with funding for new assessments that are part of a state-led effort to raise learning standards; and with a major five-year challenge from the president to give virtually every student access to broadband and wireless Internet. But it will take everyone—educators, technology developers, systems leaders—working together to make sure that students everywhere enjoy the opportunities that Ford’s students do.

Technology and Change

Today’s elementary school students will be completing college around 2030. Their careers will take them deep into the second half of the 21st century. It is a good bet that the economy they enter will rely even more on knowledge and technology than ours does today. Our schools must prepare students for that future, and we had better get it right. Their preparedness will decide our economic strength as a country.

Digital technology will play an important part in ensuring they are ready. For students and teachers alike, it will make the walls of school porous as never before. Teachers can connect with one another virtually, not just to share lesson plans but also to mentor and share strategies for effective teaching through online collaboration. Via Web-enabled communication and streaming video, students—particularly those who are geographically isolated or who are taking advanced courses with limited enrollment—can connect with experts who might be thousands of miles away and can use nearly limitless instructional resources.

Meanwhile developers are creating mobile learning apps that are useful almost everywhere. Many popular educational apps are co-designed by teachers and software developers. Technology is also making it possible to blend online and face-to-face learning, which enables teachers to group students flexibly and offers educators rich data on students’ progress.

Furthermore, sites such as Khan Academy have brought on-demand explanations of concepts—ranging from addition and subtraction to quasars and galactic collisions—to students’ mobile devices. And increasingly, students are accessing virtual simulations that allow them, for example, to take a virtual “walk” through an organic molecule as if it were a building.

The pace at which students are adopting new technologies is extraordinary. A third of the nation’s high school students pursue online courses, and millions of people are enrolled in Web-based college classes.

This is exciting stuff, although I do not believe that any single technology will reinvent schooling. Further, I emphatically do not believe that technology ever can replace teachers in any way. The vital human connection between educator and learner will always be the crucial spark in education. Technology, however, can enhance that spark by helping teachers to use their time and talents more effectively and to personalize the learning experience to the needs and interests of individual students.

Personalized Learning Through Technology

Among the most important directions for technology—and one that the U.S. Department of Education is working to accelerate—is supporting the efforts of teachers to tailor learning to the needs of each student. One of the most enduring, and valid, criticisms of our education system is that it has taken a one-size-fits-all approach to our kids in the face of their unique combinations of gifts and challenges. Personalizing learning is the idea that the pace, approach and context of the learning experience should be tailored to the needs and interests of individuals. It is easy (and common) to tell a teacher to adapt a lesson to the needs of each child, but hard to do it. Technology can help. By blending face-to-face and online learning, teachers can enable students to work at their own pace, be flexible in grouping students according to ability, and get a dynamic stream of information about where students are doing well and where they are struggling.

The Department of Education is taking active steps to support states and school systems that are working to become models for personalized learning. With support from a fund called the Race to the Top–District competition, 55 school districts across 11 states and the District of Columbia are demonstrating how they use technology to personalize education and provide school leaders and teachers with innovative tools.

Using Technology to Improve Assessment

Other federal initiatives aim to bring technological innovation to everyone’s least favorite part of school: testing. Over the next few years students will see the tests they take at the end of the year move online, if they have not already, and the tests will, frankly, get better. It is vitally important to assess students’ learning every year. Without that feedback, schools can fail to identify and help the most vulnerable students. Improved tests will also be critical for supporting the recent efforts by nearly every state to establish new and higher academic standards, including the Common Core standards initiative. The federal government is supporting that state-led effort by providing more than $350 million to two consortia of states that are creating tests to measure student mastery of those standards.

These new assessments will test students’ ability to read complex texts and solve real-world problems. They will also provide a better measure of whether students are on track to graduate from high school with the knowledge and skills to succeed in college and the workforce.

One consortium is developing an adaptive test—meaning that the difficulty of questions will change during the course of the exam, based on student answers. This type of assessment has the potential to allow for a more precise understanding of student skills.


Yet these new assessments will require major improvements. Over the coming years everyone interested in changing education will need to push further to find ways to design even better assessments. These tests will ask students to develop products or experiments; test hypotheses; analyze data; and support, justify and explain their reasoning. And over time we will see students work within real-world scenarios to solve problems with assessments that function almost like flight simulators. These tests will examine if students understand content and better gauge whether they can demonstrate critical thinking and apply learning.

Indeed, we are seeing other improvements in testing. This past May, for example, the Advanced Placement (AP) biology exam was updated to improve how it assesses students’ critical thinking about scientific issues. The number of multiple-choice questions has been reduced by nearly half, and the number of open-ended questions—requiring students to construct a thoughtful written response—has doubled. In the next two years we will see AP upgrades for chemistry and physics as well.

Breaking the Dam: Access to Broadband

What all these innovations in teaching and testing share is a dependence on technology—particularly, reliable, high-speed Internet connections. Yet today fewer than 20 percent of educators say their school’s Internet connection meets their teaching needs. In addition, although 91 percent of teachers have access to computers in their classrooms, less than a quarter say they have the right level of technology. Moreover, our teachers do not get enough training and support to integrate technology in their classroom and lessons.

Too often it is schools in low-income and rural communities that are on the wrong end of that connectivity gap. The divide grows even more pronounced when students leave school and go home. Alarmingly, a 2012 report from the Federal Communications Commission reveals that 19 million Americans—especially those in rural areas—do not have access to broadband in their communities at all.

That is why I am so excited about the president’s call in June for a five-year effort that will provide high-speed broadband and wireless to 99 percent of students. The ConnectED initiative also aims to improve the skills of teachers, providing every educator in America with support and training to integrate technology into classroom lessons.

The federal government has had a role in bridging the digital divide and ensuring that all students have access to the Internet since 1996, through the fcc’s E-Rate program. E-Rate has enabled the percentage of classrooms with Internet connections to increase to more than 95 percent, from 14 percent when it began.

Yet bandwidth has not kept pace with the rapidly increasing demand for classroom technology or high-tech applications that require faster, more reliable Internet connections. Currently far too many schools and districts struggle with slow Internet speeds, inadequate wiring and a lack of hardware. Indeed, the typical school has a slower Internet connection than the typical house in America; a school wired in the early years of E-Rate could be overwhelmed by students in just one classroom trying to stream video. Broadband Internet is the interstate highway for knowledge; ConnectED will build the on-ramps our schools and educators need.

Educators can help right now. Every school and district should take stock of its actual bandwidth capability by using simple tools to test and monitor Internet connection speeds, such as the one provided by Gathering and submitting this information will clarify our collective understanding of schools’ bandwidth needs and provide better data to help districts and states expand capacity.

The deficit of high-speed connectivity is a challenge we must meet. The upside to investing in quality digital infrastructure in schools is huge.

Expanding broadband in every school will mean that students will benefit from higher standards and the assessments that go with them, along with a new generation of learning technologies—without barriers of wealth and geography.

Bridging a New Digital Divide

Bandwidth is only the first challenge we must face in making technology a tool for equity. We also must commit, together, to make new technologies a force that lifts all students. It is no secret that affluent families will use their wealth to put the best learning tools in their kids’ hands. And studies have demonstrated that parents in more affluent communities tend to more closely supervise their children’s technology use—resulting in greater learning. The troubling possibility is that the digital-learning revolution could thus simply widen the opportunity gap between students who attend poorer and wealthier schools. For technology with such exciting, barrier-breaking possibilities, that would be a tragedy.

It is up to schools, districts, parents and technologists to figure out how to balance this equation—to make sure that teachers, especially in low-income communities, have access to cutting-edge technology and good guidance about how to choose tools that will work well for their students.

Classrooms such as Kristie Ford’s in Detroit have demonstrated what is possible. It is up to the rest of us to learn from her.