Powerful Changemaker, or Powerful Distraction?

Within the past few years, US schools are investing more money into educational technology. For example, in 2015, K-12 schools spent close to $6 billion on technology, the majority of it on hardware: laptops, desktops, and increasingly, tablets. In April 2016, Amazon signed a $30 million contract with New York City Schools for e-books. Forecasts see these investments continuing to increase significantly in coming years as teaching practices embrace technology more. Student access to technology — ranging from web-based resources to the ability to study and write code – is generally seen as an important and positive change for students; technology enables better learning processes and outcomes.

However, schools often deploy technology in hopes it will make classrooms more efficient or save money. All too often, schools don’t use the introduction of technology as a way to also rethink their approach to teaching and learning. As a result, “efficiency” becomes a primary driver, whether that is the efficiency of handing in homework, of checking papers for plagiarism, of grading work, or of proctoring exams. The list goes on.

Technology also plays a major role at Next Generation Learning (NGL). However, when we began developing NGL, instead of asking how technology could make teaching and learning more efficient, we asked how teaching and learning could be made more personal, more relevant, more engaging, and more skills-oriented. Then we asked how technology could support that shift.

Rather than framing our mission in terms of efficiency, we focus on methodology and outcomes. This has led us to a range of new discoveries, as well as a unique, innovative learning ecosystem — all based in technology.

Our own NGL Platform, used by learners and mentors on tablets and computers, is central to enabling personalized, active, and engaged learning. Our Quest! app encourages and supports discovery by letting learners choose the quests they want to work on, and then serving up quest-specific resources — web sites, documents, videos, together with guiding reflection questions. Our app does not support traditional, lecture-focused instruction. Instead, it urges learners to work and think on their own, to discover insights, and to shape their own opinions.

In addition, quests are designed to be relevant to the learner’s lives. We write quests locally, with deep contextual richness. Our QuestMaker™ app is now used by over 100 curriculum designers in East Africa, Central America and the US to create locally relevant and engaging quests.

NGL avoids certain features that are typically emphasized in education technology, such as multiple choice tests or quizzes. Instead, assessment is based on self-reflection and mentor feedback on authentic work. We also do not offer “adaptive learning” tools, where the software selects the work learners need to do. We intentionally focus both learners and their mentors on understanding and planning their own learning pathway.

Many education technology companies try to scale effective learning by automating more and more of the educational process. As a result, the human touch is removed from learning. At NGL, we believe that we can scale effective learning by putting more agency into the hands of learners, which allows teachers to spend more time mentoring.

We believe that technology, when placed in the right role, can create more personalized, active and engaged learning, and make a tremendous difference in the future of education and the future of our learners.