Q&A: How Technology Shapes Student Learning

Adaptive Learning

For over one hundred years, McGraw-Hill Education has been an innovator in education technology. Among the products that McGraw-Hill Education produces are personalized learning programs like LearnSmart, which is made to identify what students know and what they don't and tailor the individual content and study paths accordingly; ALEKS, a web-based adaptive program that is used by college professors and designed to increase student learning while decreasing professor workloads; and CINCH® Learning, a cloud-based platform that helps educators teach math and science to students in grades 6 through 12 though the use of personal tutors, games and virtual labs.


In the following Q&A, the company's Director, Brian Belardi, discusses the past, present, and future of education technology, and the role that McGraw-Hill Education has played in the field.

What contributions has McGraw-Hill Education made in the education technology field?

To help evolve the study and practice of digital technology in the classroom, McGraw-Hill Education is an active member of the International Society for Technology in Education and EDUCAUSE, and sits on the board of SXSWedu, among other organizations. The company also frequently publishes its thought leadership in the form of white papers, including "Brave New World of Education," about adaptive learning, and our edu-tech experts frequently speak at influential conferences including CES, SIIA, and GigaOM.

What are your opinions about the current state of educational technology?

We believe that the digitization of education represents the opportunity of the century to make learning more accessible, personalized and engaging.

Technology in education has graduated far beyond the static, PDF-on-a-page e-book that many people associate with students using devices in the classroom. For example, today's technology enables biology students to touch, spin, and explore the structure of a molecule as they're reading about it in a text, watch a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King as they read about the Civil Rights era, and ask questions of their classmates and complete their homework assignments all in a digital environment. By fostering these connections, technology can enhance and increase students' learning interactions, leading to better performance.

And while many different types of technology -- from cloud-based curricula to adaptive learning systems to interactive white boards -- are available for the classroom, there's one important trait that the best technology solutions offer: the ability to collect and analyze vast amounts of student data. The future of educational technology lies in harnessing this data to power individual learning for all students.

While data has been leveraged relatively well in higher education for some time, only recently has data begun to change how we approach K-12 education, a trend that's been made possible by the increasing presence of technology in our classrooms.

Why is data so valuable in education?

For one, it will advance us beyond the primarily aged-based system of educational advancement that has been in place for much of the past century. By generating and enabling access to consistent streams of data from different parts of the classroom, we are no longer limited to simply knowing what students know at a point in time -- we can now get a sense of when and how they learned it and how likely they are to retain and be able to apply that knowledge. This type of insight into learning is invaluable as we think about designing and implementing new tools and approaches to improve educational performance. We have not yet fully embraced data's potential, but we are beginning to see good signs of a data-rich educational system that not only analyzes how well a student is performing today but predicts performance well into the future.

What are some of the current challenges in the field? How do they affect the education system and student learning?

There is no question that the transition to digital can be an initially challenging -- but ultimately rewarding -- one for schools. Schools must make a relatively large up-front investment in the technology and IT infrastructure, consider ongoing IT maintenance and issues, and ensure teachers receive initial and ongoing professional development (which we provide with our programs). The good news is that the popularity and choice of tablets is making them more and more affordable for schools.

In higher education, we've seen that institutions and students are often open to testing educational technology and becoming early adopters. While e-book uptick across college campuses has been initially slower than the industry anticipated (some students still prefer traditional print), we're beginning to see a swing in the other direction. And many of the most technologically progressive universities, such as Indiana University (IU), are increasingly involving the expertise of their CIOs in large-scale technology adoptions and implementations.

As universities make the switch from print to digital, higher education institutions have been actively exploring and testing digital product and business models. Results from these pilots and other research indicate that instructors and students are beginning to realize the promise of digital learning materials to improve teaching and learning. According to research from an IU pilot, students were receptive to the digital transition and indicated that their professors' ability to annotate in their e-books increased the effectiveness of their studying. In another pilot study, 87 percent of students ultimately abandoned paper and choose to read their e-books on digital devices. Studies involving McGraw-Hill Education's digital learning products have shown that they have the ability to drive measurable improvement in student grades and retention rates.

What are some important historical milestones in education technology?

Right now, we're approaching a very important milestone -- the increased use of adaptive learning technology to power personalized learning. Other recent important milestones include:

  • Computers in schools
  • Internet access in schools
  • The launch of e-books
  • The launch of Smartphones and mobile technology
  • The launch of the iPad which transitioned e-books from a PDF on a page to fully interactive learning tools

How did these milestones affect education and student learning?

All of these achievements have led to the ability to personalize and mobilize the learning experience for the student and transition the teacher from the "sage on the stage" to the facilitator of an individualized educational experience through instruction that is tailored, engaging and data-driven.

What do you think will happen in the educational technology field in the future?

From our perspective, the transition from print to digital can't happen quickly enough -- we believe that this will improve teacher and student performance.

Technology will continue to get smarter and more precise over time, and data analysis to inform instruction and the way students are grouped and taught will become more sophisticated.

We'll also see an increasing use of tablets and mobile technologies in schools -- not only in the U.S. but also across the world as mobile proliferation continues -- and we begin to see a radical shift in the percentage of schools that operate completely digitally.

And we'll see more online, distance and self-paced learning and new and better technologies to support those trends. Already, more than six million college students took at least one online course in fall 2010, and that number is projected to increase.

How will these future trends affect education as a whole?

The system of education as we currently know it will change. More people around the world will have access to knowledge and education than ever before. More students will learn on the go and in nontraditional ways and settings. Classrooms will become more and more paperless and may become "ageless" and begin to use competency rather than seat time as a measure of success.

Additionally, data will become bigger. While it's true that the best teachers have done a remarkable job of managing data innately -- from contextualizing student test scores to using more informal assessments -- these processes have always been difficult and hard to scale. Now, thanks to technology, particularly digital assessments and adaptive learning systems, a new door has opened to gather data in an ever-expanding number of areas and efficiently put it to use on a large scale to drive a meaningful improvement in learning.

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