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using technology for learning

The New York Times last week ran an irresistible profile of Sylvia Todd, a ten-year-old who produces and stars in a YouTube show that features herself doing all kinds of science and DIY projects. She’s received over 1.5 million views and collaborated with Make magazine, with companies that make science kits for kids, and to speak to teachers; she even presented at the White House Science Fair and met President Obama.

Sylvia’s Maker Show is an example of what two education researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Rich Halverson and Benjamin Shapiro, call “technologies for learners”–as opposed to “technologies for education.”

“Technologies for education assume that the goals (or outcomes) of teaching and learning are stable, and that the challenge of technological innovation is to fashion efficient, viable, and successful means to reach these goals,” they write. This is a process-based model of innovation, where the goal is to make widgets faster, cheaper, and higher-quality. Examples of technologies for education would include adaptive learning software, computerized assessments, and student information and data management systems.

“Technologies for learners, on the other hand, are designed to support the needs, goals, and styles of individuals.” Learners like Todd use online multimedia production and social media to pursue their own interests, express themselves, and connect with others to exchange knowledge. This is what the DML Research Hub calls “connected learning,” and it mostly happens out of school–in Sylvia’s case, at home with her father in her spare time.

It’s no accident that technologies for learners thrive out of school. The authors note that the data-driven “accountability” rhetoric so dominant in education reform both is part of, and compels the spread of, technologies for education. But since the benefits of self-directed, creative, and project-based learning don’t necessarily show up on standardized test scores, accountability pushes schools away from technologies for learners. The authors suggest a research agenda that can start to provide evidence for the greater adoption of technologies for learners within schools.

I would go farther than Halverson and Shapiro to suggest that the hierarchical organization of school itself–the history of which goes back much farther than the accountability movement–makes it hard to open up and let student-driven learning into the system. I think it’s also fair to say that some of the goals and outcomes of school–for example, making sure everyone can read, write, and do arithmetic–are stable, while others are changing, and so it’s appropriate to adopt some technologies for education as well as technologies for learners. But I still think it’s a very useful distinction to draw.

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Anya Kamenetz is a journalist, the author of The Stolen Year: How Covid Changed Children's Lives, And Where We Go Now, and a senior advisor to the Aspen Institute's This Is Planet Ed initiative.

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