Future of Educational Technology

This year I had a chance to travel to Orlando for the Future of Educational Technology Conference (FETC). I spent a good part of my time conducting workshops for Birdbrain Technologies, but I did have time to peruse the Exhibit Hall, hear keynote speakers, and talk with a number of folks who had participated in FETC before. Here are some of my reflections.

Here Comes Virtual Reality

For the opening Keynote Dan Lajerska, the Chairman of EON Reality, Inc, outlined how his Swedish company is moving not only into educational spaces, but commercial ventures. EON provides a very robust tool that will definitely play a role in educational technology. In the Exhibit Hall zSpace brought an RV to demonstrate their technology. However, the most impressive technology for me came from two young Chinese educators who have created “SnapBench.” Up till  now most VR projects are opportunities for learners to consume and be entertained by the novelty of AR. SnapBench provides a creative tool that looks like Minecraft. You can actually create your own VR projects using SnapBench. Where this will lead is really up to the creative user. I can see environmental education, design projects, and other opportunities. In addition to allowing a user to create a virtual representation, SnapBench also provides a 3D printing option – something that no other technology I’ve seen can accomplish.

Teaching to One

Yes, Personalized Learning is on the radar for many schools. Tyler Sussman, the Director of Partnerships for Summit Learning, outlined at the opening keynote the opportunities for schools to tap into the free Summit Learning tool set. Marc Zuckerberg and his team at Facebook not only paid for this project, but they also provided the engineering behind the software tool. Summit Learning now has over 100 schools (grades 6-12) around the country using the software. The tool set is designed to provide not only an encapsulation of what students have done, but it also is designed to allow learners to set goals around careers and post-secondary opportunities. In addition to Summit there were workshops and presentations sharing success stories about Personalized Learning. Other companies, like Pearson  showcased their software in the Exhibit Hall.



Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

If there’s one focal point that everyone seems to agree upon, it’s the importance of giving all learners active learning experiences that are interdisciplinary and inquiry based. I participated in the Mobile MEGAShare where TechTerra organized 18 stations that FETA participants could sample in six rotations. I worked with one of TechTerra’s gurus to challenge folks to create an animated product in less than 30 minutes using the Hummingbird Robotics Kit from Birdbrain Technologies.  I was amazed how teams of 2-3 educators could meet this challenge using the CREATE Lab’s Visual Programmer. We need to make all entry learning activities as challenging and rewarding as this. Other stations included software from BrainPop (one of the big hits in the Exhibit Hall), robotics from Lego, science inquiry tools from Pittsco, and Virtual Reality from SnapBench. Over 100 people jammed into the meeting room. In addition, at the Exhibit Hall there were dozens of STE(A)M companies. I had a great chance to talk with one of the representatives from SparkFun Electronics. In the past I’ve been involved in eTextile projects that have used the LilyPad from SparkFun. Today they’re a great resource for educators looking for STEAM materials.

Active Learning

David Dulberger FETC

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

While some people are proclaiming the end of interactive whiteboards, SMART Technology has moved forward with new tools that work both with their boards and without them. My wife’s nephew, David Dulberger, did a presentation on SMART Amp, an incredible tool for collaborative, active learning that has engaged David’s 5th grade students at the Emma Doub Elementary School in Maryland. Throughout the exhibit hall there were vendors demonstrating new furniture for active learning. There were also a host of hardware and software products. Everyone seems to realize that active learning leads to Deeper Learning. We need to provide opportunities for learners to move, to get out of their seats, to have flexible solutions, in order to have creative and productive learners. In addition, we need to  make the activities project or problem-based where learners work collaboratively.

A New Year for Educational Technology and Learning Science

I don’t often try to prognosticate, but with some time on my hand, it’s maybe a good time to look at the future of educational technology and learning. With over 40 years of experience in a variety of learning environments – from pre-school to post-graduate – as a classroom teacher, gifted coordinator, and technology coordinator I feel I’ve learned a few things I’d like to share. Along the way I’ve done my share of research as an adjunct faculty member at West Virginia University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Carnegie Mellon University. Here are some key ideas for 2017:

Redesigning Physical Spaces Impacts Learning


Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

From my early days as a classroom teacher for grades 5 and 6 in Pickens, West Virginia I observed how adding tables and moving desks changed the dynamics of classroom instruction. Recently I had a chance to visit the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit (WIU) in Greensburg, PA. The WIU converted a computer lab into a Maker space. Computer desks were replaced by flexible furniture that was grouped into clusters. According to Tim Hamill, the Curriculum Services Director at the WIU, simply changing the furniture created greater interaction at curriculum meetings. Whereas people in the past sat at their desk and seldom volunteered to talk, now there was a different dynamic – people were sharing their ideas in small groups and then providing the small group sentiments to the larger group.

Elizabeth Forward was the  first school district I visited to really embrace the transformation of a library into a digital media space. The library had limited use by students. With the transformed space that included a sound studio, TV studio, and cafe for students to hang out, the digital media space soon became the place for students to study and collaborate. Other schools soon followed in their attempt to make learning more social and informal. Instead of a room filled with tables and desks, schools,  like the Environmental Charter School,  added couches for students to work collaboratively.

Three summers ago I went to the national Flipped Classroom Conference outside of Minneapolis / St. Paul. As I walked around the pre-conference workshops taking photos I realized there was a totally different learning experience happening in the rooms where people sat in rows versus classrooms with clusters of desks or tables. I pointed this out to Aaron Sams, the co-founder for the event. He decided to do his own walking tour and discovered the same pattern.

Providing Feedback Enhances Learning

For years research has shown that one-on-one tutoring is the most effective form of teaching. The English have known this forever and it’s the key to institutions like Oxford or Cambridge. In recent years we’ve turned to computers to make this happen. It doesn’t require technology, but when you have a classroom of 25 or 30 students you need something to help this happen. In my early days of teaching in West Virginia I used peers to make this happen. In the 1970s we didn’t have the technology, but I had students who could work with their peers to address issues while I worked with larger groups of students. At Carnegie Mellon University (CMU)  I had the opportunity to discover the work done by the Cognitive Tutor team that became Carnegie Learning and then the Open Learning Initiative. The Rand Corporation did a major study of the Carnegie Learning system’s math tools and they agreed. Computer based feedback did make a difference. Why? Carnegie Learning, like a good teacher, provided frequent feedback. Students knew when they were successful or they were given suggestions to improve incorrect steps. If the student continued to have a problem, the software found a path where the student had previous success. The role of teacher changes, but does not disappear. The software makes the feedback loop quicker and provides data for the teacher to then make decisions about the student learning.

At CMU I discovered a tool, Classroom Salon, developed by Ananda Gunawardena from the Computer Science department and David Kaufer from the English department. The CMU team discovered the power of social learning using data analytics. Classroom Salon allowed instructors to flip the learning. I could have students read articles, view videos, or interpret graphs ahead of class. I could use the information as feedback about what students already understood or needed to learn.

Personalized Learning Creates Deeper and More Engaged Experiences

From my early days of teaching I quickly discovered that when you provide choices to students, you change the learning dynamic. When I first started teaching we called it “Individualized Instruction.” As a teacher I made the choices for students. During my tenure at the Fox Chapel Area School District (FCASD) as the Coordinator of Education Technology we focused on Differentiated Instruction. Again it was about the teacher determining the best groupings and opportunities for students. In both cases I knew there were some positive gains, but something was missing: student agency. While teaching at CMU I had a chance to teach a course where I focused on Personalized Learning using Technology. I came across the work of Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey. They honed in on the differences between what I had seen and where personalized learning really could go when you let the learner make their own choices.

Today the Summit Public Schools with a little help from their friends at Facebook have created software to move in this direction. Was it possible to differentiate without software? Yes, but the number of hours and amount of energy necessary is overwhelming. At FCASD I worked with a team of educators who were part of a project called ALEM (Adaptive Learning Model) from Temple University. The program had many merits, but it was not scalable. Today with technology we have the possibility to make learning truly personalized, but we have to start with the understanding that the learner must be in control of many of the choices. For younger children teachers, parents, and other supports will be part of the process. Even at the college level there are needs for supports. However, if the learner doesn’t truly have responsibility for their learning, the learning is not intrinsic. Again we have years of research to indicate the value of intrinsic learning.

Becoming a Creative Producer Should be the Goal


Photos by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

While working West Virginia I came across the work of Seymour Papert. I become a Logo convert. I believed every child could construct their own knowledge and use the computer as part of the process. Today we call this computational thinking. I’ve been fortunate to see how the South Fayette School District has used Computational Thinking to empower student learning.

Today we are moving towards Design Challenges where teams of student consultants solve real world problems. Each team takes on a role based on the challenge. The student consultants work collaboratively to creatively produce a product that solves a real-world problem. I’ve worked the past year with the Energy Innovation Center and Parkway West Career and Technology Center to coordinate a series of Design Challenges. I have observed students at work at Hummingbird Makeathons, where older students are challenged to create robotic pets to interact with younger children. I’ve seen the value for all types of students. I’ve always believed that what I did as a Gifted Coordinator was applicable for all students. Build on student successes and interests! Let every student become a creative producer.



Exploring Essential Questions with Digital Objects

[In this article from the Smithsonian you’ll discover how to tap into digital objects or collections to address Essential Questions.  The Smithsonian sent a team to the Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference to share their findings, since the Heinz History Center was one of the prime sites test out the new set of resources based on the history of innovation in Pittsburgh. I had a chance to present with Anne Sekula from the Remake Learning Council in Pittsburgh at the Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference on what we are calling an ISTE Playbook. I see this type of focus as a perfect fit into the new ISTE Standards for Students. Students need to learn to work and select appropriate technology for their projects. Students need to curate, not just collect resources. These are part of the ISTE Standards. ]

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4

By: Tess Porter, Educational Technician, Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access

Trying to brainstorm your next Learning Lab collection, but not sure where to start? With a particular topic in mind, creating a large collection of objects and grounding them in a few guiding questions can be a great way to create a simple, investigative, multi-disciplinary, evidence-based, discussion-sparking collection for your students.

This method is flexible, can be used with a wide variety of topics, and works best in a collection containing 20–50 objects. In this post, I’ll describe some basic guidelines for creating a collection using this method, as well as examples of collections that I and other educators have built to inspire your own.

In this method, collection resources serve as sources of evidence for students to use in building a response to the essential question. This method is flexible, and there is no one right way to build a collection using it. However, there are a few guidelines that will help:

  • Choose the right questions to guide your students’ inquiry. There are two types of questions you’ll use:

Essential questions are the focus of the activity. They involve enduring issues, concerns, or broad disciplinary themes. Students must construct arguments based on multiple sources of evidence—the objects in your collection—to answer them. These questions are often best approached through multiple disciplines.

Supporting questions
help guide your students’ inquiry into the essential question. These questions ask students to investigate and analyze the significance of the collection objects both individually and as a group. Answering these questions will leave students with a new knowledge base from which to answer the essential question.

(For further information, see the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s (ASCD) guide What Makes a Question Essential? and page 24 of the C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards.)

Most importantly, without these guiding questions, a collection could easily become the equivalent of a slideshow. These questions engage students in the topics, issues, and objects of your collection. Below are some examples of what these questions might look like and how they work together in an activity.

  • Be selective about which objects you include. Analyzing each object should add something new to your students’ inquiry into the essential question. Curate, don’t just aggregate; while the effective range of collection objects you can use in this activity is 20–50 objects, less is often more. Objects can be many things: portraits, artifacts, sculptures, letters, just to name a few! It all depends on the topic. Sometimes, videos, websites, and articles, are also worth including as an “object” for analysis.
  • Create small groups to address the activity. Discussing answers to questions and listening to peer perspectives and experiences leads to a deeper understanding of the topic and essential question at hand.

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