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Where Can Tech Outdo a Teacher?

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By Robert Barnett, a co-founder of the Modern Classrooms Project and a math teacher and resident scholar at the Leysin American School

In tomorrow's classrooms, technology won't replace teachers—it will make them better. ¬†Here's how.

Teachers, it's often said, do much more than just teach. Anyone who's ever taught will know how true that is. In a 45-minute class, it's not uncommon for me to serve as a therapist, coach, actor, evaluator, tutor, disciplinarian, pencil- and paper-supplier, mentor, and bookkeeper ... all in addition to teaching math. Outside of class time, I take on a whole other set of jobs: guidance counselor, social worker, psychologist, parent liaison, job trainer, snack provider, etc. Needless to say, it can be exhausting. So a few years ago, I sought to figure something out: Where could I harness the power of modern technology to make my life a bit easier?

I never sought to replace myself with a computer, nor do I think that could have worked. ¬†Education is a fundamentally human profession, and I don't think technology will ever be able to replace the relationships and interpersonal connections that are at the heart of teaching and learning. (I know, however, that plenty of people are trying—and I'm open to being proven wrong.) What I sought to do instead was find small tasks that I could outsource, and thereby free myself up to use my limited time with students as efficiently as possible. Here are three places where technology has replaced me, to great effect:

1. Repeating Instruction. A teacher's time is always limited. I had a tight plan for every day's lesson—which was often derailed if a student asked me to repeat something I'd previously said or done. Sometimes, a student would come to class after missing the past three lessons. How could I repeat to that student the material he'd missed while still pushing the rest of my class forward? It was impossible.

Technology gave me a way past this. Now, rather than give one lesson per day, I record all my lectures at the start of each unit and let students move through them at their own paces. A video, after all, can be rewatched indefinitely! Students who already understand content—and have proven that to me—can skip ahead, while students who need more time can rewatch videos as often as they need. I don't worry about whether or not I have time to repeat things anymore. Instead, it's the students who determine what they need in order to learn.

There's another benefit here, too: By using Edpuzzle, which allows me to embed my videos with questions, I can also make sure that I'm repeating the check-for-understanding process as well. I no longer have one or two students answering each question in front of the whole class; instead, every student answers every question in private, and the answers are shared directly with me. I get more and better data this way.

2. Immediate, Low-Level Feedback. Is there anything worse than grading dozens of homework problems? I hated collecting homework on paper: I would put off grading it or forget to hand it back, and by the time students received my feedback, they'd often moved on to the next topic. It all seemed like a big waste of time.

Then I discovered online practice websites like IXL and Khan Academy. On these platforms, students saw right away whether they were right or wrong—and, when wrong, got immediate help with correcting their mistakes. A student who understands a topic can move quickly through an assignment online, while a struggling student receives more questions, hints, and suggestions. There's no delay in getting feedback at all.

This also frees up my time to grade and give feedback on more interesting things, like projects and papers. (Yes, students in math can write papers, too!) The computer measures students' basic fluency with concepts, while I assess their conceptual understanding and application. It's a beautiful partnership.

3. Reaching Beyond the Classroom Walls. I taught in a high school where students often missed class. That made managing students and their work nearly impossible—I could never remember who had been in class on which day, or whether or not I'd given a particular student a particular assignment, or lesson, or deadline. Sometimes a student would show up on the day of a test, having missed the previous week of class without any idea that the test was coming. How could she have known? It was a mess.

Again, technology came to the rescue. I could post all my assignments, lessons, and deadlines on a learning management system (which could be as simple as a Google Site), where they'd always be available. More importantly, I could now hold my students accountable for completing them. A student could miss class, for any reason, and I could still expect that student to be ready for the next day. I no longer have to spend time in class playing catch-up because my classroom extends as far as any Internet connection.

Have these tech additions made my job easy? Of course not! Teaching is hard work ... and creating videos, managing data from online practice platforms, and running a learning management system have introduced challenges of their own. But there's no doubt that they've solved some of the most annoying challenges that I faced as a classroom teacher—and have thereby freed me up to do the things only a human can do best: building relationships with students, giving feedback on rich tasks, providing individual coaching and support. Until an algorithm figures out how to do those things better than me, I'll have plenty to do.

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