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Book Review: Justin Reich on Digital Teaching Platforms

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Today's guest post, written by Justin Reich, is a review of Digital Teaching Platforms: Customizing Classroom Learning for Each Student (Teachers College Press, 2012), edited by Chris Dede and John Richards.

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One of the most unfortunate features of education technology research is that some of the most fundamental and common learning tools are among the least studied. Consider the humble learning-management system, or LMS, such as Moodle and its many proprietary competitors. These platforms are a central feature in schools around the country, providing tools for teachers to deliver content and organize course logistics, and for students to present their work and participate in online discussions. Learning-management systems are used in thousands of schools around the world, and yet very little research is done at the K-12 level about their role in instruction and learning.

So in the context of a research literature fairly thin in regards to learning-management systems, it's exciting to see an edited volume come together around a new generation of these systems, dubbed "digital teaching platforms." Digital Teaching Platforms: Customizing Classroom Learning for Each Student is a collection of papers that emerged from a conference hosted by the company Time To Know, a vendor of one such digital teaching platform.

The book was edited by Chris Dede, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an expert in emerging technologies, and John Richards, a consultant employed by Time To Know and an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. (Disclosure: I've been a teaching assistant for Chris and was a student in John's first class at Harvard).

In the first chapter, John Richards and Joseph Walters present a taxonomy of available learning- management systems broken down into three categories: course platform learning-management systems, course delivery learning-management systems, and digital teaching platforms. Course platform learning-management systems are those, such as Moodle, which allow students and teachers to interact, communicate, and share. Course delivery learning-management systems, such as PLATO, are self-contained courses that students can complete independent of teacher oversight.

Digital teaching platforms include elements of both of these categories. Like course-delivery systems, they contain all of the teaching and learning elements necessary for an entire curriculum. However, they are not intended to be self-paced courses for students; instead they require a living, breathing teacher acting as a conductor of learning activities. As a result, they come with many of the features common to course-platform systems, including templates for lessons, student activities, formative assessments, and a teacher dashboard that allows instructors to evaluate student progress and assign learning objects.

The book surveys several different digital teaching platforms, or components of such platforms, and provides a tour of these new learning environments and the theories and research undergirding them. As an edited volume, there is not necessarily a central message from the book—beyond an enthusiasm for platforms that support online student-teacher interactions. Instead, readers will encounter a dialogue between researchers and vendors about the definition of digital teaching platforms, the new pedagogies that have been enabled by these tools, and the kinds of formative assessment that can drive the personalization of learning. Together the essays provide a vision of how technology can help teachers transition from disseminators of content to facilitators of individual learning experiences.

One of the distinctive features of the book is that nearly every chapter features a mode of inquiry known as "design-based research." Design-based research is a methodology where researchers design learning environments and iteratively study those environments and improve upon them. Tightly coupling research and design in this manner allows for the rapid development of new ideas and new products, which is vital given the pace of technological development. Thus, the chapters about new tools for inquiry, formative assessment, and simulation do not simply describe certain products and then present evidence from evaluation about whether they worked. Rather, designers build products around particular learning theories and then test those products in ways that help us understand why they worked and how they could be iteratively improved to work even better.

Together, the chapters assemble a suite of learning principles to be considered in the design and use of digital teaching platforms, creating a picture of digital teaching platforms as teaching tools that empower teachers to assess student competencies, personalize instruction, and use constructivist methods to encouraging deeper conceptual understanding.

In evaluating claims in the book, readers should be aware that the authors of the twelve chapters have different relationships with the book's sponsor, Time To Know. Three of the twelve chapters—Chapters 1, 11, and 12—are written by Time To Know employees or their consultants. These chapters make a valuable contribution to the discussion; they also have a positive view of Time to Know. The other nine chapters are written by researchers whose work is funded from other sources. This isn't the space for a discussion of the pros and cons of vendor-funded research, which is a complex topic. But as with any research, readers should evaluate claims in the context of the funding and institutional affiliations of the researchers, which is a little more challenging in an edited volume with contributions from diverse sources.

The signature contribution of Digital Teaching Platforms is a forceful argument for a new category of technology-mediated learning platforms. By offering us a new name for a new class of tools, the book opens up an important avenue of conversation about what roles we want students and teachers to play in classroom environments as technology expands the boundaries of possibility within schools and classrooms.

Justin Reich is a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the co-founder and co-director of EdTechTeacher, which works with teachers, schools, and districts to leverage new technologies to improve student learning. His blog, EdTech Researcher, is hosted by www.edweek.org.

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