Unpacking the Box

Technology has become so prevalent in modern, mainstream educational systems over the last few years that it now seems redundant to consider EdTech as a separate topic for educators, since it permeates all areas of teaching. However, technology is more than a delivery system—it has the capacity to provide vast amounts of teaching resources suited to all different learning styles and to enable students to work at their own paces with interactive materials that interest them. However, experience in the language-learning field, where immersive self-study programs have promised fluency for all, has shown that most learners require the personal attention that only a well-qualified educator can provide to inspire them to succeed.

A few weeks ago, the winners of the $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE were announced (see p. 11). The idea behind the competition was to “challenge innovators around the globe to develop scalable solutions that enable children to teach themselves basic reading, writing, and arithmetic within 15 months.” The idea of using smartphones to help the world’s 250 million illiterate children learn to read and write is incredibly attractive, but the competition organizers were well aware that technology alone, even if it is open source, cannot solve the problem.

An infrastructure of educators, mentors, and technicians will be needed to implement the programs and motivate learning. Just to field test the education technology solutions in Swahili, reaching nearly 3,000 children across 170 villages in Tanzania, XPRIZE enlisted the help of United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the government of Tanzania to make sure that the apps actually got into the hands of children and that the technology worked. Now, the challenge will be to make these new tools accessible to the millions of children who need them and to ensure that they are supported as they strive for literacy. 

Of course, access to technology and basic infrastructure is much better in the U.S. and other more developed nations, but the XPRIZE reality illustrates the point that for EdTech to be successful, it requires the support and involvement of educators and other human-engagement specialists. Even the team behind Duolingo—which Apple chose as its iPhone App of the Year in 2013, was voted Best Education Startup at the 2014 Crunchies, and was the most downloaded app in the education category in Google Play in 2013 and 2014—is developing the app’s pedagogical side and promoting it as a blended-learning companion for classrooms.

EdTech offers learning opportunities that were unimaginable a generation ago, and as the sector matures, the importance of the educator to be the personal motivator, the “guide on the side,” and provide the social and emotional context for learning is now being universally recognized. Teachers need EdTech to help make their teaching as rich, multilevel, and exciting as possible, but EdTech needs teachers to make it work. 

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