Edu-tech spotlight: DreamBox Learning

DreamBox Learning

If improvement is ever needed in how elementary school kids learn math, you can expect Dr. Tim Hudson to be among the first to know about it.


Having worked in public schools for over 10 years, first as a high school math teacher and then as a K-12 math curriculum coordinator, Hudson helped facilitate long-range strategic planning efforts for the Parkway School District in St. Louis, Mo. Now as the Senior Director of Curriculum Design at DreamBox Learning, Hudson brings his expertise to the DreamBox mission: using adaptive learning technology to help kids learn math.

DreamBox Learning provides elementary students with a number of online lessons (which, to students, is usually fun and looks like a game), which adapts to their learning styles and supplies teachers with progress reports. As a video on the company's website states, it's essentially a teaching assistant for every single student.

Dr. Hudson discusses DreamBox Learning, the dynamics of learning math and the future of educational technology.

Do you think in this day and age that it's possible for a teacher not to use technology in the curriculum?

While education should always be relevant to the times in which we live, the curricular learning goals should be the primary factor educators consider when strategically choosing tools and technologies for student learning. While it's possible to not use technology for some learning goals, educators should consider the realities of technology applications in the broader world, as well as the real classroom challenges of ensuring all students are successful.

But only use technologies because they're meaningfully and significantly impact student learning -- not just because of the day and age in which we live.

Will technology ever become so prominent in elementary school that the teacher will essentially only play the role of a babysitter or, a step up, the tutor?

No. Great teachers will always be needed and they should always be elevated and considered as far more than a babysitter or tutor. Great teachers are talented at facilitating learning by connecting students with ideas and empowering them to independently use and think critically about those ideas.

Great learning technologies can also accomplish this goal. So the task for schools in the future is to not assume that either teachers or technology should be more prominent. Instead, each should be strategically leveraged to accomplish the most appropriate learning goals for all students.

You always hear about how digital technology has messed with people's attention spans. Do you think that's partially why technology is necessary in the classroom -- because students can no longer focus on a teacher talking to them for a long period of time?

The amount of time any person -- young or old -- can focus on a teacher's instruction has never been very long. Maybe 10 minutes at most for an adult and much less for young students. So educational technology shouldn't be developed merely as a response to accommodate shorter attention spans. Truly effective learning technologies are designed to connect a student's mind with great opportunities for critical thinking. It's the active thinking and doing that results in learning, not the passive listening. DreamBox has been designed and used effectively to engage students without ever requiring students to listen to someone talk for long periods of time.

Is there anything you think the kids are losing out on by not learning math the "good ol' fashioned way" (through a teacher and writing it out)?

We know too much about learning and cognitive development to talk about "good ol' fashioned" teaching practices. Too many adults and students don't understand math and, even worse, they don't think they're good at it or ever could be good at it. That's a direct reflection of how we've taught math in ways that don't honor how people learn and misrepresent the beauty and nature of the subject.

In reality, many "good ol' fashioned" math outcomes are obsolete because of calculators and Wolfram|Alpha. We don't do square roots by hand any more and few adults even do long division by hand because it's impractical. It's valuable for understanding mathematics, so our math classes need more compelling reasons and experiences to develop their number sense and mathematical habits of mind. If we can't provide that, students will always reach for a calculator and continue to think they're bad at math.

Do you think learning math through technology can possibly backfire for a student, in that when they're apart from their technology, they won't know how to solve a math problem?

That type of backfire is certainly possible if the digital lessons are poorly built. DreamBox lessons are designed to ensure students transfer their learning and number sense when they don't have a computer in front of them. A student can't be reported "proficient" on a standard unless they have solved problems in DreamBox that resemble what they would see on pencil and paper assignments and tests in their classrooms. Plus, when you understand numbers really well, it's like understanding another language. With mathematics, students using DreamBox develop a similar ability to transfer.

Could all these technologies in the classroom take away from education being personalized, in the same way that self-checkouts at grocery stores feel impersonal?

Far from it. The best learning technologies actually help make learning more personalized because students are the ones who are doing the work and the thinking.

While the grocery self-checkout analogy isn't the most comparable to learning, it has at least one main thing in common: It won't work unless you do. In a self-checkout lane, nothing happens unless the customer takes action. In the lanes with cashiers, the customer is a passive observer. Learning is intensely personal and passive observation can never result in understanding. That's why in DreamBox lessons, students have to take action, figure things out, make sense of things for themselves, test solution strategies and see what happens.

For the student who isn't technologically-savvy, should they be forced to adapt or are there other learning options for them?

The overwhelming majority of students using DreamBox are willing participants -- enthusiastic even. So forcing them to adapt isn't something we hear about from teachers using DreamBox. Just as a classroom teacher has the obligation to ensure the lessons are engaging for all students, our team has an obligation to create lessons, games and learning tools that engage students. Students don't have to like games or be techno-savvy to play and enjoy DreamBox. It's designed to function intuitively and the games are highly accessible to all children.

Outside of elementary-level math, are there other subjects/levels that may be better taught through the use of technology?

Any time technology can be designed that requires critical thinking and connects students with the big ideas of a content area, we should explore that possibility as a means of reaching all learners and supporting teachers.

Do you see every facet of education, at every level, having a completely edu-tech future?

If the question is really, "Will pre-k through college be using far more technology in the future than today?" then my answer would be, "Yes. Without a doubt." What I hope will happen in the future -- but what I don't always see happening -- is educational institutions first clearly defining the goals to be achieved and the problems to be solved in relation to student learning and only then looking for technologies that can help.

Technology will undoubtedly touch most facets of pre-k through high school in far more ways and far faster than most people realize.

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