At a Brookings Institute panel discussion Tuesday, two experts in educational technology -- James Werle, director of the non-profit Internet2 K20 Initiative, and Eric D. Fingerhut, vice president of education and STEM learning at the research organization Battelle -- discussed opportunities to deploy technology in the classroom. The conversation brimmed with optimism. Both Werle and Fingerhut see immense benefits for students whose teachers are engaged in a “community of practice” in which high-speed Internet in the classroom enables educators to connect with a network of scientists and other teachers to access high-quality teaching resources.
With highly ranked universities announcing this week that they will begin offering free online college courses (though not for credit) through Coursera, technology has never been a hotter topic in education. There are many valid concerns about whether online learning will be as effective for students as the in-person variety, so caution is warranted. But in other areas, such as broadband access for schools, the challenge isn’t that tech is coming too fast, but that many classrooms are being left behind. According to New America’s Open Technology Initiative, 80 percent of schools report not having enough broadband access to meet their needs. And early education classrooms, where the use of technology has been hotly debated and often opposed, are at particular risk of missing out, despite being some of the classrooms that could benefit most from the careful use of technology.
Better networked schools have the potential to boost science education by giving students opportunities they would otherwise rarely have, such as connecting with scientists and engineers in public laboratories and opening up new resources and communication for teachers, the Brookings panelists said. For example, a pre-k or elementary school teacher could use a Skype video chat to connect students with a scientist who can engage students on topics such as space or ecosystems.
For early educators, these experiences are a potential boon for introducing students to content knowledge, the vocabulary and contextual understanding children need in order to grow their literacy skills. During the early years, knowledge of science and social studies enables children to contextualize and infer information while they work on reading. (See this video by University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham and accompanying blog post for more information.)
Another potential benefit of networked classrooms is providing teachers with better ways to communicate with each other and with experts about math and science content; research has shown early education teachers often feel ill-equipped to teach this material and many teachers don’t devote much instructional time to early math.
Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) also gave a keynote at the Brookings event on distance learning, which he sees as a powerful tool in states like Alaska with large rural populations. Begich discussed a case in Kodiak, Alaska, an Aleutian island, in which he saw a teacher instruct three students of different ages in different isolated locations via video chat. He emphasized that providing these kinds of opportunities to rural areas is a sometimes overlooked component of building digital infrastructure for the public education system.
All of these efforts to connect classrooms require professional development for teachers on how to take advantage of online resources and use them to students’ benefit. As K-12 education moves forward in embracing technology, there is a lot of work to be done to ensure that early educators have both the access and know-how to create constructive learning environments.