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Social media, video games, blogs and wikis are playing increasingly important roles in classrooms across the country. Some worry that incorporating more social media and other technologies into education is leading to too much computer time, as well as to a generation of students deficient in the face-to-face social skills needed to survive in the workplace. Proponents say schools need to find ways to use these technologies to improve teaching and learning, or else risk losing the attention of digital natives.

A paper released today by the Brookings Institution addresses how social media, blogs and video games are improving education by increasing access to people and information in various forms, including Twitter feeds, blog posts, videos and books. These tools are also increasing people’s ability to share information with networks and contribute their own thoughts.

In a panel convened at Brookings yesterday to discuss how technologies like social media and video games are influencing education, the hot topics of “analytics” and understanding student data were discussed. Constance Steinkuehler Squire, a senior policy analyst in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and an expert on the educational uses of video games, said that beyond increasing student engagement, video games create valuable “data exhaust” by tracking each student’s progress.

“The data you can get from a student interacting with the game is compelling,” Squire said in the panel yesterday. “And it opens up an entire new area of formative assessment—and the mapping of formative assessments and learning analytics—to a game-type environment, which has been of a lot of interest, both private and public.”

The idea is that the data collected by video games and social media sites can be provided, sometimes in real time, to teachers who can then use it to better understand their students and tailor instruction to meet individual needs.

Janet Kolodner of the National Science Foundation said that data collection will come to be about more than that. She mentioned that NSF just launched a project on “big data”—a term that encompasses the gathering of extremely large amounts of data to which analytics are applied to reach new insights—and said that big data will play a much bigger role in education in the future.

“Big data is also being used so that if we have kids learning in the context of games or kids learning in the context of tutoring systems, that the system will be able to analyze that student’s work and their understanding and be able to give the right kind of feedback at the right time to help them deepen their understanding,” Kolodner said.

Companies like KnewtonJunyo and the Learn Lab in Pittsburgh and are all creating such systems that are being used by many schools across the nation.

Another concern of multiple audience members at the panel was the idea that advances in digital technologies would make school as we know it irrelevant. They suggested a day might come when students wouldn’t go to a school building at all, but would instead learn exclusively from mobile devices and virtual teachers. Kolodner put their fears to rest.

“I don’t think schools are going to go away,” she said. “Parents need to work, and you need a place to put the kids.”

A wave of laughter spread across the room.

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