Technology-Enhanced Learning

By 11/24/2014 Think Tank

As a powerful learning tool, technology enhances our capabilities in all domains. Not only can it help in surprising ways with things we still require from the past, such as test preparation, but it’s also a sine qua non for many new capabilities, such as database usage.

Technology offers by far the surest way to increase scores on standardized tests. Who these days would take the SATs or ACTs without using a test-prep app?

Instead of guarding high-stakes state achievement tests as if they were state secrets until the day they’re administered, why don’t we use technology to ensure that all kids can get nearly perfect scores by permitting them to take the test only after they’ve mastered the app? Teachers would no longer have to “teach to the test” because technology can. Human teachers could offer, rather, what humans are best at: empathy, questioning, guidance, coaching, and encouragement. Test prep, if we need it, should be left to technology. If we’re after higher PISA scores, why don’t all 14-year-olds have a PISA app?

There are now millions of highly useful public databases, yet our students are rarely taught that they exist, much less how to find, combine, and use them. Much data that scientists, governments, and organizations collect are there for the asking. There are, courtesy of the CIA and the United Nations, huge publicly available databases of statistics on every country. These enable the kinds of animated analytics that Hans Rosling is now famous for (see “Hans Rosling: Stats That Reshape Your Worldview.”)

When my 2nd grader needs to know the meaning of a word, I tell him to use my iPhone to ask Siri, an artificial intelligence program that’s always happy to look it up for him. Siri, in turn, uses the free online program Wolfram Alpha, one of the most powerful data analysis tools in the world. If you enter into the Siri (or Wolfram Alpha) search box, by text or voice, “arable land in world divided by world population,” in less than a second the phone or computer will find the relevant data; do the calculations; provide the answer—in square miles, acres, square feet, and hectares per person—and cite you its sources.

Today, technology like this puts many college-level questions with definitive answers within the reach of 10-year-olds. The technologies our students will be using in just a few years will be infinitely more powerful.

We need to start teaching our kids that technology is, in a great many cases, the best way to learn something. The best way to learn to solve real math problems is through technologies such as spreadsheets, calculators, and the software Mathematica, which force students to think about how to structure the problem. These technologies then do the calculations—the part that machines do best—enabling students to focus on whether the answer makes sense.

The only way to do almost all science today is with technology. No human can handle or analyze the volumes of data we now have and need. Ditto for the social sciences. The research study of the past focusing on 10 graduate students has been replaced by sample sizes of millions online around the world. Being perfect at language translation, spelling, and grammar is becoming less important for humans as machines begin to understand context and can access almost every translation ever done. Those who laugh at the mistakes that machines make today will no longer be laughing in a few short years.

Already, some of the best ways to study literature and theater involve technology—such as through videos, instant dictionaries, and shared commentaries and notes. I always carry with me (on my iPhone) all of Shakespeare and many other writers, dictionaries in multiple languages, thesauruses, books of quotations, videos of great actors reading important passages, and a huge collection of useful historical documents and maps. When I visit a new place, do I still need to find a bookstore to figure out what to do and see and get all the historical explanations? No, it’s all on the phone in my pocket!

The following two tabs change content below.

Marc Prensky

Founder & Executive Director at The Global Future Education Foundation and Institute
Marc Prensky is an American writer and speaker on learning and education. He is best known as the inventor and popularizer of the terms "Digital Native" and "Digital Immigrant" which he described in a 2001 article in "On the Horizon". He is the author of Digital Game-Based Learning (McGraw-Hill 2001), Don't Bother Me Mom – I'm Learning (Paragon House 2006), Teaching Digital Natives (Corwin Press 2010), From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom: Hopeful Essays for 21st Century Learning (2012), BRAIN GAIN: Technology and the Quest for Digital Wisdom (2012), and over 60 essays on learning and education. Marc Prensky is also a designer of learning games, and a well-known expert in the use of games in education.