How digital learning can (and must) help excellent teachers reach more children

by | September 12, 2011

Thanks to Michael Horn for letting us add onto his noteworthy post “Why digital learning will liberate teachers.” Here we want to second his point and add another: schools – and nations – that excel in the digital age will be those that use digital tools both to make teaching more manageable for the average teacher, and to give massively more students access to excellent teachers.

And not just in the obvious ways. Yes, directly through digital instruction. But also by freeing excellent teachers to reach more students in-person.

Today, only about 25 percent of U.S. classrooms have teachers whose students learn enough to close achievement gaps in a few years and make further progress like the world’s top students. Another 25 percent have lagging teachers whose students end up further behind. The rest have solid teachers – students on track stay on track, but students starting behind stay behind, and few get ahead. Overall, U.S. students end up pretty much where they started out in life, the antithesis of the American dream.

How could digital learning change this picture? One way is by helping solid teachers become more effective. As Michael notes, digital tools can free these teachers’ time to give students more personal attention and develop higher-order capabilities. Digital technology can also help diagnose students’ learning needs and suggest responsive instruction, thereby mimicking the differentiation that only excellent teachers deliver today.

A second way digital learning can improve outcomes is by helping top-25% teachers reach the majority of students. Sound far-fetched? As we asserted in our 2009 report 3X for All, not really. Consider three ways digital technology could give dramatically more students access to the best teachers:

  • Time-technology swaps: If students spend part of the school day learning digitally—monitored by support staff or volunteers—that frees the in-person excellent teachers’ time. They can use that surplus to reach more students—in some cases up to 3 or 4 times as many students if they also specialize in what they teach best. (More below about why time with excellent teachers will still be the great differentiator of student outcomes in the future.)
  • Remote instruction: For schools with severely limited numbers of excellent teachers, like many rural and urban areas, bringing in great, live (though not in-person) teachers through videoconferencing, holographic technology, or other means could give students access to great interactive instruction they’d otherwise miss.
  • Boundless instruction: As Sal Khan has made famous, superb conveyers of content can also capture their performances on video and make them available not just to dozens, but to millions of students. Smart software that responds to each child’s learning level is another example. Combining these with time-technology swaps could enable far more students to have the best of both worlds – great basic content and motivating, live teachers who take learning to the next level.

Together, strategies like these should make it possible for the top 25 percent of teachers to reach far more than 25 percent of students. Schools should be able to pay top-tier teachers more out of regular per-pupil funds for the additional children they teach, which should make it easier to attract and retain excellent teachers. We’d be much closer to making teaching an “Opportunity Culture®” like other professions, with multiple ways of advancing over a career.

Why is leveraging excellent teachers so important? As digital tools proliferate and improve, solid instruction in the basics will eventually become “flat”—available anywhere globally. Three big factors will increasingly differentiate student outcomes: (1) development of students’ self-motivation (2) effectiveness addressing learning barriers, like time-management, emotional disruptions, and social pressures that affect learning even among advantaged children; and (3) students’ higher-order capabilities like analytical, conceptual and creative thinking, especially as applied to solve real problems.

In the digital future, teacher effectiveness may matter even more than it does today, as these highly complex instructional tasks are left to the adults responsible for each student’s learning. A large field of industrial psychology indicates enormous performance differences even in simple jobs, but especially in complex jobs like this. Teachers who nurture motivated, tenacious problem solvers while using new technologies to reach more children can become the fuel of local, state, and national economies.

This blog entry first appeared on Innosight Institute’s blog. If you wish to comment, please do so on the original blog post.

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