How Education Will Be Smarter, Less Intrusive, And Able To Respond To How You Feel

Impatience characterizes the technology sector’s approach to education. Disruption is taking place in all other sectors of society — so, why not education? I know too well, whether at Pearson or in the classroom, the challenges and frustration of developing and using digital tools that improve outcomes for students.

But I’m optimistic. We are on the verge of a tide of smarter innovation that, if allowed to spread, will turbocharge the learning experience for students. Here are four areas worth watching:

1. Using technology to learn from learners

Every great digital product constantly evolves by learning from its users, adding capabilities, and improving its performance. If it’s true for your Facebook feed, then why not education?

The potential is there, as the OECD’s recent report on Students, Computers and Learning (OECD) incidentally showed how clickstream and tracking navigation in digital readers can be used to see how students process online text and arrive at the answer in different ways.

In practice, companies like Renaissance Learning can point to the small margins of usage (4.7 minutes) of its reading program, separating the top performing and lagging students.

Akin to how Amazon “knows what you want before you buy it,” edtech companies are also starting to build algorithms that can make learning more personal. For instance, based on behaviors of successful students, we can begin to predict whether a learner is on track or at risk.

This allows teachers to intervene and provide assistance when a student most needs help before they fall behind. It also allows education content creators to tweak learning material – such as the length of a video or article – based on how a student interacts with it and progresses in subsequent activities.

Learning products should continually evolve to benefit learners and learning. Developers should make sure the best ideas from learning science, education practice, teacher feedback, and learning analytics inform those changes. The constant iteration, investment and learning baked into Teach to One provides a great example of what young companies should be emulating.

When I look at the growing Education Innovation Clusters or the useful tips on better ed-tech pilots provided by Digital Promise, I’m excited to see the idea of continuous improvement and learning being baked into the development and effective use of digital learning products.

2. Using technology to adapt to how students feel

Adaptive learning technologies today address what a student knows and can do. Programs such as Knewton alter what lessons are offered based on how individual students do in solving problems and where they may have gaps in knowledge.

However, a large body of research shows that how a student feels – frustrated, bored or confused – influences how much learning takes place. Can technology adapt to this to increase learning? DARPA thinks so–and is willing to invest in great ideas to get at what they call Full Spectrum Learning.

We are already seeing some examples of this in lab settings. Researchers have tracked student emotions while using Crystal Island–a game-based learning environment– and used that research to predict how students will react in other learning situations  The London Knowledge Lab is exploring the creation of a tool which will allow the feedback to be adjusted based on a student’s emotional state. These efforts align with a larger body of research into how tools, such as intelligent tutors, which are aware and can adapt to student’s emotions (or “affect”) can better serve students and contribute to improved student outcomes.

3. Building invisible assessments that are less intrusive 

Teach. Stop. Test. Teach. Stop. Test.

 It’s disruptive for teachers; it’s annoying for parents; and it’s not fair on students. We are finally seeing examples of a move away from this approach to assessment.

Teachers can now use the enormous amounts of data gathered in rich environments, such as games and virtual reality, to understand student progress and where to go next, in a way that’s personalized for each student.

Take SimCityEdu: Pollution Challenge – developed by GlassLab Games – where students learn how city-planning is impacted by environmental issues. As they play the game, the system is capturing their actions – such as the sequence of what they do or requests for help – and interprets patterns in data to assess how well the player understands important concepts. This helps teachers better evaluate how a student solves problems, rather than just the final product of their work.

In time, learning games like this should decrease reliance on stop-and-test exams and provide more real-time and actionable information to teachers.

4.  Keeping pace with technology in the classroom

 As we shift from print to digital educational tools, the volume of tools available to teachers has increased dramatically. Some tools – often apps – are rooted in research, pedagogy, and continuous improvement. Others are no more than junk food in a student’s educational diet. How is a teacher or parent to tell the difference?


I’ve written previously that our ability to evaluate what works must keep pace with the speed and ways in which technology is developed. The current ways of testing the effectiveness of digital tools simply takes too long: in the two years it takes to run the typical research study, an app may have changed over 20 times.

I’m watching to see what comes of the US Education Department efforts to fund the creation of a public tool to provide rigorous and fast research to measure the efficacy of digital tools. These efforts, and others, such as the Short Cycle Evaluation Challenge carried out by the iZone program from the NYC Department of Education, will be critical to ensure that the right kinds of innovation are able to scale across schools.

While these aren’t the only ways technology is bringing education into the 21st century, I’m watching them closely for their potential to enable teachers and unleash learning.

It’s good to be impatient, but education doesn’t need a killer app. We are unlikely to see an “Uber for Algebra” because learning is too complex to cut out the teacher and reduce it to a smartphone!

What we need is a concerted effort by researchers to study what works. Developers then need to take those insights and create innovative products. And finally, educators need to pilot these products in class and provide the feedback needed to improve them.

I often get asked when we will see true disruption in education? My answer: when we all figure out how to work together to improve outcomes for each student.