The most powerful technology is often simple and hidden
By Tyler on February 27th, 2012
Visiting a school the other day, I stood behind a fifth-grader who sat at a computer station practicing his spelling — the software delivering seemingly random words to him through the headphones on his ears, and requiring that he type them as quickly and accurately as he could into the spaces left for him on the screen. (The photo here is of a different student.) The program politely corrected him if he made an error, and then required him to re-type the word he missed. At the end of each spelling section, the student saw a chart showing how many words he mastered, and graphed his progress over time.
There was nothing particularly flashy about this exercise. Students have been learning how to spell since the development of the written word.
But while this student practiced his words, the most powerful stuff was happening behind the scenes. Out of eyesight.
With every keystroke, the technology gathered data on his spelling fluency. It calculated how fast he was at spelling each word. It remembered what he got right and got wrong, and knew exactly how many times it had to re-ask the same word before the student really knew it. Every bit of data it collected would update and add to the student’s personal learning profile — a collection of data the teacher could look up at any time to track progress and glean insights on the student’s accomplishments and struggles, and that the computer could interpret and display for the student in ways that empowered him and showed him how successful he had been.
I stood in this READ 180 classroom thinking to myself, “Yes! THIS is where technology really changes things. This is an example of where it is at its most powerful.”
The exciting thing about that technology was not that it was shiny and new, or because this was a room full of “digital natives” and someone thought the only way to engage these kids was with video or pictures or tweets. It was there because it was helping solve problems and doing things humans aren’t traditionally great at. It was doing the dirty work behind the scenes — delivering the deliberate practice, gathering and organizing the data, remembering what each student knew and didn’t know yet.
The spelling practice was just a piece of what this student experienced in the classroom, which also included vocabulary help, reading comprehension practice, independent reading, and dedicated time in small groups with the teacher. And behind it all was technology that in many instances was out of sight for the student — that was adapting to him and helping the teacher do her job even better.
In many ways, the most powerful technology is the technology you don’t notice and you hardly think about. I see this every day as the novelty of a smartphone wears off and it becomes something that I can’t imagine living without. Or as I see news breaking on television and immediately log in to Twitter to see how the world is reacting.
We don’t create tools for the sake of creating tools. We create them to solve problems and make our lives easier.
No comments yet