Furthermore, sites such as Khan Academy have brought on-demand explanations of concepts—ranging from addition and subtraction to quasars and galactic collisions—to students' mobile devices. And increasingly, students are accessing virtual simulations that allow them, for example, to take a virtual “walk” through an organic molecule as if it were a building.
The pace at which students are adopting new technologies is extraordinary. A third of the nation's high school students pursue online courses, and millions of people are enrolled in Web-based college classes.
This is exciting stuff, although I do not believe that any single technology will reinvent schooling. Further, I emphatically do not believe that technology ever can replace teachers in any way. The vital human connection between educator and learner will always be the crucial spark in education. Technology, however, can enhance that spark by helping teachers to use their time and talents more effectively and to personalize the learning experience to the needs and interests of individual students.
Personalized Learning Through Technology
Among the most important directions for technology—and one that the U.S. Department of Education is working to accelerate—is supporting the efforts of teachers to tailor learning to the needs of each student. One of the most enduring, and valid, criticisms of our education system is that it has taken a one-size-fits-all approach to our kids in the face of their unique combinations of gifts and challenges. Personalizing learning is the idea that the pace, approach and context of the learning experience should be tailored to the needs and interests of individuals. It is easy (and common) to tell a teacher to adapt a lesson to the needs of each child, but hard to do it. Technology can help. By blending face-to-face and online learning, teachers can enable students to work at their own pace, be flexible in grouping students according to ability, and get a dynamic stream of information about where students are doing well and where they are struggling.
The Department of Education is taking active steps to support states and school systems that are working to become models for personalized learning. With support from a fund called the Race to the Top–District competition, 55 school districts across 11 states and the District of Columbia are demonstrating how they use technology to personalize education and provide school leaders and teachers with innovative tools.
Using Technology to Improve Assessment
Other federal initiatives aim to bring technological innovation to everyone's least favorite part of school: testing. Over the next few years students will see the tests they take at the end of the year move online, if they have not already, and the tests will, frankly, get better. It is vitally important to assess students' learning every year. Without that feedback, schools can fail to identify and help the most vulnerable students. Improved tests will also be critical for supporting the recent efforts by nearly every state to establish new and higher academic standards, including the Common Core standards initiative. The federal government is supporting that state-led effort by providing more than $350 million to two consortia of states that are creating tests to measure student mastery of those standards.
These new assessments will test students' ability to read complex texts and solve real-world problems. They will also provide a better measure of whether students are on track to graduate from high school with the knowledge and skills to succeed in college and the workforce.
One consortium is developing an adaptive test—meaning that the difficulty of questions will change during the course of the exam, based on student answers. This type of assessment has the potential to allow for a more precise understanding of student skills.