Ed tech that needs nothing but a TV and VCR?

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Tech Smart

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MIT BLOSSOMS, one of the most exciting and effective uses of educational technology to help high school students learn math and science, doesn’t boast the latest in artificial intelligence or adaptive algorithms. Its secret weapon is, rather, a canny understanding of human psychology—both students’ and teachers’. Technologically speaking, its basic model could be executed with an old television and VCR.

In fact, it was. BLOSSOMS was born a decade ago when Richard Larson, a professor of engineering systems at MIT and an early advocate of educational technology, visited a rundown school in rural central China. The classroom was lit by two bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling, and was so cold that students kept their coats on inside. It did have a used TV and VCR, which the teacher employed to play a video of a science lecture. She would show a few minutes of the tape, then turn it off and engage her students in a surprisingly dynamic, interactive lesson. This was followed by a few more minutes of the video, then back to interaction with the students.

Larson was intrigued by this homespun version of “blended learning.” Back in the U.S., he undertook an effort to create science and math videos that were designed to be interrupted, to be complemented by active learning sessions conducted by a classroom teacher. Larson himself starred in the first video, a lesson on triangles, random numbers, and probability that featured the professor sawing a yardstick into pieces. Today there are more than a hundred lessons available free on the BLOSSOMS website, covering topics in mathematics, engineering, physics, biology, and chemistry, all taught by experts in their fields.

Each lesson offers a series of brief video segments, plus a teacher’s guide to the classroom active-learning sessions. A lesson about mathematical models in epidemiology, for example, intersperses video segments explaining how infectious diseases are spread and controlled with role-playing exercises in which students see for themselves (via classmates who don red, green, or blue-colored hats) how taking preventive measures reduces the risk of contracting illness. The lessons are now used in schools all over the U.S. and countries all over the world, including China, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil.

Clearly, MIT BLOSSOMS (the name stands for Blended Learning Open Source Science Or Math Studies) isn’t gaining fans by virtue of whiz-bang technology. Rather, it exerts its appeal through an unassuming but remarkably sophisticated understanding of what it is that students and teachers actually need. It’s an understanding that is directly at odds with the assumptions of most of the ed tech universe.

Woodland Park fourth grade students near Norfolk, Neb., watch a video in class. (AP Photo/Norfolk Daily News, Dennis Meyer)

Woodland Park fourth grade students near Norfolk, Neb., watch a video in class. (AP Photo/Norfolk Daily News, Dennis Meyer)

For example: BLOSSOMS is not “student-centered.” In its Twitter profile, the program is described as “teacher-centric”— heresy at a moment when teachers are supposed to be the “guide on the side,” not the “sage on the stage.” The attention of students engaged in a BLOSSOMS lesson, it’s expected, will be directed at the “guest teacher” on the video or at the classroom teacher leading the interactive session.

BLOSSOMS is not “BYOD” — bring your own device. “When the BLOSSOMS lesson begins, the lids of students’ laptops go down and their smart phones go off,” says Richard Larson. “Students are looking at the video, at the teacher, or at each other, not at their own screens.”

And BLOSSOMS does not encourage each student to work at his or her own pace. The point of the interactive exercises is to have students work as a team, arriving together at the finish line.

All this is blasphemy in view of the hardening orthodoxy of the ed tech establishment. And all this is perfectly aligned with what research in psychology and cognitive science tells us about how students learn. We know that students do not make optimal choices when directing their own learning; especially when they’re new to a subject, they need guidance from an experienced teacher. We know that students do not learn deeply or lastingly when they have a world of distractions at their fingertips. And we know that students learn best not as isolated units but as part of a socially connected group. Modest as it is from a technological perspective, MIT BLOSSOMS is ideally designed for learning—a reminder that more and better technology does not always lead to more and better education.

BLOSSOMS is equally astute in its understanding of teachers. The program recognizes that many teachers are not content experts in math and science—but that they would like to be. BLOSSOMS feeds teachers’ hunger for professional development, for the opportunity to learn more themselves about the subject they teach.

The creators of BLOSSOMS also candidly acknowledge that many teachers are threatened by the technology moving into their classrooms—and that they have reason to feel that way. Champions of educational technology often predict (with barely disguised glee) that computers will soon replace teachers, and some school districts are already looking to ed tech as a way to reduce teaching costs. The message to teachers from the advocates of technology is often heard as: Move aside, or get left behind.

BLOSSOMS takes a more reassuring (some might say condescending) approach. Elizabeth Murray, project manager of the program, describes it as a “gentle bridge” to educational technology for teachers who might resist crossing that Rubicon. For his part, Richard Larson takes pride in the fact that BLOSSOMS is featured on the website of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union.

Should the creators of educational technology care so much about the tender feelings of teachers, especially those inclined to stand in the way of technological progress? Yes—because it’s teachers who determine how well and how often technology is used. As savvy businesspeople, ed tech entrepreneurs should know that the “last three feet” (as they say in retail about the sale of the product to the customer) are the most important, and in schools, those three feet are the distance between teacher and student. Ed tech enthusiasts who think they can do an end run around teachers will find that teachers are still the ultimate arbiters of what’s welcome in their classrooms: witness the interactive “smart boards” introduced with such fanfare into America’s schools, now functioning as so many expensive bulletin boards.

Ed tech proponents who think that technology can “disrupt” or “transform” education on its own would do well to take a lesson from the creators of BLOSSOM, who call their program’s blend of computers and people a “teaching duet.” Their enthusiasm for the possibilities of technology is matched by an awareness of the limits of human nature.

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Annie Murphy Paul

Annie Murphy Paul is an acclaimed science writer; the author of two previous books, The Cult of Personality and Origins; and the creator of the… See Archive

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