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Tech Conference Aims to Improve Traditional Education, But Connectivity Still an Issue

It’s no question that technology has changed the world over the last few decades, from how we shop to how we share our lives. In the U.S., many public school districts are in the process of making major changes thanks to technology. Leaders in education and technology are hoping schools get it right because a lot is at stake.

In the not-so-distant past it was pretty commonplace to be taught solely out of a text book and worksheets in the classroom – maybe you’d get a video on a sub day. Today, there are many more options thanks to computers, tablets and other smart devices.

But the prevalence of technology doesn’t always mean it’s being used well. There is a concern that it can be easy to take new tools and technologies then just use them to replicate traditional practices that may or may not be effective.

“So one of the things that we need to think about is we’re finding new and better ways to get increased access to students and teachers is how are we using that technology to actually re-imagine and redesign learning to address some of the fundamental challenges that we have and not simply end up with a digital version of what we’ve had for years and years,” said Richard Culatta, director of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education.  

Culatta was a keynote speaker at the Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference taking place this week in Cranberry. He says educators need to understand how technology works and the different tools available, rather than taking old work sheets or texts, digitizing them and assuming they will be more effective. Making sure educators get the training and development needed for new technologies is key. But, there’s another issue – connectivity.

“Some of the data that we’ve seen is that around 80 percent of classrooms in the country don’t have access to broadband which is clearly limiting all the students and teachers from access to expert and resources they need that comes through that connectivity,” Culatta said.

President Obama recently announced a plan to get 99 percent of classrooms in the U.S. connected to broadband in about four and a half years.

Developers are keeping a close eye on what role their technology can play in education. One company, LightSide, is taking technology and using it to try and improve student writing. There are many supports for students in the STEM fields, but the supports for writers are somewhat lacking in what they offer.

“There’s a lot of technology out there that grades writing mostly on things like word count, the number of unique, hard vocabulary words, that kind of thing,” said LightSide Founder and CEO Elijah Mayfield. “We’ve tried to avoid that kind of pre-determined set of rules of what works and what doesn’t and instead use machine learning like the type of technology in Watson or Siri, those types of tools.”

Mayfield said the LightSide writing tool will assess and give immediate feedback to students on things such as whether they are fitting with a specific genre or understanding their subject, and it will offer revisions. The web-based program is being piloted in several Pittsburgh-area school districts starting in January.

“Our hope is that we can use this technology to get students thinking about revision, get students thinking about the writing process, then hopefully improve their skills as a result,” Mayfield said.

The use of technology in the classroom may also be useful for art students. It is for Gabrielle Nicely, a graphic arts teacher at Avonworth High School, “through a Hive grant we’ve been able to connect our students to five different participating museums to learn about curation and careers behind art that go into creating an exhibit that the students will then come back and create a dynamic exhibit space on our campus.”

Be it for art, writing, or math and science, one thing Nicely and others at the conference emphasized is that technology allows for personalized learning in the classroom, versus the more traditional approach of everyone doing the exact same thing.

“When I give an assignment it’s very broad, they have to use certain skills, but they choose what they want to do with the assignment creatively and what statement they want to make,” Nicely said. “They’re more inherently invested and motivated for the assignment and they’re also working to their best ability level.”

The Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference also explored issues of utilizing social media for social justice issues, how to utilize mobile devices students bring into the classroom from home, and starting and sustaining student-run tech clubs. Going beyond technology in lessons, educators, developers and policymakers are also exploring uses such as real-time data tracking of student progress and school safety.