By Julie Halpert
As more educational programs turn digital, teachers are finding that blending technology into the learning experience offers kids a crucial leg up in the classroom.
Karen Martinez’s daughter, Daniella, graduated fifth grade with honors this year and is now reading at a sixth grade level. Just two years ago, she was diagnosed as a special-needs child who struggled with reading. What made the change? Her mother pulled her out of a school that rarely used computers for learning, enrolling her in Rocketship Education, one of five charter schools in San Jose, California. Students there spend 25% of their school day in a computer lab with online content targeted to their development level. “My daughter was broken and now she’s starting to mend,” Martinez says.
The goal of Rocketship is to help close the achievement gap by serving low-income students who don’t have the advantages of their wealthy peers. It’s just one of the many schools following a fast-accelerating trend called “blended learning,” where students spend a portion of their day engaging in technology. And it seems to be working. Rocketship schools were the highest-performing elementary schools serving low income students in California last year, according to scores on a state standardized test — outperforming even schools in more affluent areas.
Technology As a Way to Bolster Achievement
But it’s not the technology alone that bolsters learning, says Michael B. Horn, executive director of the education practice at Innosight Institute, a non-profit think tank that focuses on education and innovation. Districts that see the most advantages use technology for active, not passive learning, giving students control over the pace of their learning. He says that’s proven to be an “exciting way to bolster student learning as it allows us to customize an education for each child according to his or her distinct learning needs.” Horn says blended learning is far more cost effective, since schools can use it to offer advanced courses online that otherwise would be unavailable, especially in core subjects like math and reading.
Mary Beth Hertz, a technology integration specialist for Philadelphia schools and a blogger for Edutopia, says technology allows for better use of class time through a “flipped classroom,” where students can view online lectures at home. The programs also allow teachers to put content, assignments and guided questions at the beginning of a unit and students can move through the material at their own pace, she says. This way, the students learn in the way that works best for them, whether it’s a competitive game, a collaborative activity or a visual approach, says Tom Vander Ark, a partner in Learn Capitol, an education venture fund, and author ofGetting Smart, How Digital Learning is Changing the World (Wiley, 2011).
Tech for the Real World
As more schools come online, there are even more ways to engage with technology. Ann Flynn, director of education technology and state association services for the National School Boards Association, says students can take advantage of programs like the Futures Channel, which shows how math can be used in the design of skateboards. This “helps students start to see where science and math intersect with real world careers that they never thought about.” That digital engagement and passion for math and science often can translate into an interest in careers in those fields, an area where the U.S. had been lagging behind, says Paulo Bliksten, an assistant professor of education at Stanford University. As a majority of schools nationwide have internet access, Vander Ark calls digital education “the great equalizer,” that will extend “a quality secondary education to every young person on the planet.”
How to Find a Tech-Savvy School
So how do you know if your child’s school is using technology to its fullest potential? Here are some tips from experts for finding a school that provides the best setting for blended learning.
- Make sure schools have a team of teachers, or specific administrators, who are responsible for overseeing the technology.
- Visit classrooms to see how technology and learning relate to and complement each other. Nix schools that focus on using technology solely for memorization in favor of those fostering student inquiry and problem solving.
- Make sure staff have training in how to use the technology.
- Avoid schools with only a dial-up system or minimal wireless hotspots.