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This article is from the In-Depth Report Learning in the Digital Age
See Inside Scientific American Volume 309, Issue 2

Arne Duncan: How Technology Will Revolutionize Testing and Learning

Greater broadband access will bring the latest digital tools to more teachers and students



KYLE BEAN (illustration); MITCH PAYNE (photograph)

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Recently I had the opportunity to visit the future. It was located in Kristie Ford's classroom in Detroit.

On the day I was invited, the class of fifth and sixth graders was a hive of activity and motion, which Ford did not need to closely direct. Instead as she talked individually with a few students, others worked independently in small clusters discussing their study of the solar system or sprawled on the floor constructing 3-D models. Still others were enmeshed in learning games and apps on laptops.

But as Ford and others at the Brenda Scott Academy for Theatre Arts made clear, the bustle was about more than fun and engaging tasks and cool technology. Underlying that surface appearance was a plan—backed by digital technology—to tailor learning to each student's needs.

In traditional classrooms, students complete a lesson and move on to the next when it is time for the whole class to do so—regardless of whether they have mastered it or they are already well ahead. Here each student worked at her or his own pace, taking as much or little time as necessary to complete one lesson and then moving on to the next. Each child worked from an individual learning plan, and Ford could offer students material from a wide variety of digital sources—including traditional publishers, freely available “open” educational resources and her own original material.

The digital revolution has changed nearly every aspect of daily life—from how Americans shop, to how they communicate, to how they find a date. Schools—many of which have been slow to embrace innovation—are beginning to let in this digital revolution. For the students in Ford's class, the benefits are clear. Yet what is happening at her school is not the norm, and the danger is that digital-learning tools could miss their potential to close long-standing learning gaps and instead disproportionately benefit students who already have the most advantages. That is why the Obama administration has taken steps to ensure access and equity in digital learning: with funding for innovations that tailor learning to students' needs; with funding for new assessments that are part of a state-led effort to raise learning standards; and with a major five-year challenge from the president to give virtually every student access to broadband and wireless Internet. But it will take everyone—educators, technology developers, systems leaders—working together to make sure that students everywhere enjoy the opportunities that Ford's students do.

Technology and Change

Today's elementary school students will be completing college around 2030. Their careers will take them deep into the second half of the 21st century. It is a good bet that the economy they enter will rely even more on knowledge and technology than ours does today. Our schools must prepare students for that future, and we had better get it right. Their preparedness will decide our economic strength as a country.

Digital technology will play an important part in ensuring they are ready. For students and teachers alike, it will make the walls of school porous as never before. Teachers can connect with one another virtually, not just to share lesson plans but also to mentor and share strategies for effective teaching through online collaboration. Via Web-enabled communication and streaming video, students—particularly those who are geographically isolated or who are taking advanced courses with limited enrollment—can connect with experts who might be thousands of miles away and can use nearly limitless instructional resources.

Meanwhile developers are creating mobile learning apps that are useful almost everywhere. Many popular educational apps are co-designed by teachers and software developers. Technology is also making it possible to blend online and face-to-face learning, which enables teachers to group students flexibly and offers educators rich data on students' progress.

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