To empower students, let’s bring interactive learning tools into the classroom

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This is a guest post by Troy Williams, President of Macmillan New Ventures

The past five years have seen a tremendous boom in education technology (“ed-tech”) startups that are pushing the boundaries of online and hybrid content delivery and learning experiences.

Unsurprisingly, investments in education technology have more than quadrupled from the time I founded my first edtech startup in 1998.

The result has been the emergence of a new teaching model, one that shifts content delivery beyond the walls of the classroom. We’re seeing big advances in adaptive learning platforms from established players like Knewton and upstarts like Brainscape and Cerego; YouTube and Sal Kahn are looking for ways to produce more instructional videos; and online course builders like Udacity, Coursera, and Peer2Peer University are democratizing instruction by way of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs).

The development of online, offline and hybrid learning environments, along with the spread of the flipped-classroom model, all fueled by the tremendous growth in ed-tech dedicated capital forces us to reevaluate student and instructor interactions when they are physically in the classroom.

The question now is: Considering all the recent advancements that push learning outside classrooms, what new innovations are being developed to help teachers engage students from within classrooms?

Embedding real-time data into the classroom

While the flipped-classroom has its advantages, it requires knowledge of what students have learned or accomplished in their time outside of class.

A common solution is to give a quick poll or quiz at the beginning of class to focus students’ attention on the material at hand and provide teachers with a sense of what the class understands, instantly, before in-class activity begins.

Devices take this one step further. Student Response Systems encourage engagement and provide instant feedback about learning and understanding. Instructors can ask a question at any time during a presentation or activity and students now have the ability to key in their response. Results can then quickly be displayed immediately to the instructor or the entire class.

Classic examples of these systems are Turning Technologies and Promethean ActiveExpression2, while newer companies like Class Dojo and Clever are doing some innovative work to make it easier to share data and record real-time feedback.

Devices and response systems are just one application of real time data applied in classroom. For example, a statistics class at UCLA used a response system to create an active learning environment by turning student responses into a data set for students to experience statistical concepts of distribution and variability. Real time data created in classroom, in this case, made the lesson more tangible for students while providing detailed engagement data back to the instructor.

New devices in the classroom give both student and instructor data to enrich the activity at hand. As devices permeate the classroom, students are primed to having more meaningful peer-to-peer interactions.

Classroom devices encourage peer learning

Teachers that leverage new classroom devices, such as an iPad or other tablets, can foster greater student-to-student interactions. These devices can be shared and passed around the classroom easily—they don’t require a keyboard or mouse ‘driver’ and keep students focused on the discussion and not the device itself.

We know that active inquiry, authentic debates and peer conversations are some of the best drivers for increasing student understanding. Even though hybrid and online learning environments do their best to build peer interaction and learning, nothing can quite replace the benefits of having students collaborating in a room together.

For example, question and answer services like Piazza allow both students and instructors to ask and answer questions, capturing and preserving the buzz around an in-class activity on smartphones and tablets. Digital textbooks from Inkling now can let students share notes and highlights from within their experience, and polling students [there’s a drafting bust here] during a lesson can serve as a jumping off point for small group debates or prompt discussions.

A summer program in North Carolina aimed at preventing student drop out is a standout example I’ve seen recently. Administrators equipped students with tablets and video production apps and tasked the students with creating a visual story over seven weeks. Devices combined with innovative curriculum help students improve their writing skills and reduces the risk of students leaving the program. Check out students using ShowMe to create lessons to share with their peers, or Storyrobe to create digital stories.

In addition to driving peer interactions and learning, devices can be used to virtualize activities and simulate demonstrations.

Simulations and interactive demonstrations can help

Typically, physical in-classroom demonstrations are too cost- and time-intensive to happen very often. Alternatively, many computer based simulations relegate students to a keyboard, mouse and screen, limiting peer interaction.

However, devices like 3D projectors and motion capture technology are becoming more widely assessable and can bring simulations and demonstrations to life by making them interactive and accessible to the entire class. For example, instructors can use 3D projectors to demonstrate a biology lesson by explaining anatomical structures and demonstrate physiological functions of organs, such as the heart. Students and instructors can revolve the image of the organ and expose cross sections to reveal different blood flows.

Probably the most well known example of these technologies becoming mainstream is the Xbox Kinect. Real Illusion’s iClone is used by teachers and students to simulate scientific principles like planetary motion, physics and machinery dynamics.

In another example, a teacher could set up an intentionally incorrect simulation of a chemical, mechanical, or biological process and ask students to manipulate it with their hands (using motion capture devices) until they corrected the error.

One high school in Cardiff, Wales has students use motion capture to conduct a virtual orchestra by waving a conductor’s baton, and learn foreign languages by moving parts of the body. Not only are the concepts brought to life in front of the entire class, but students can use the devices to put their skills to practice in a way that engages tactile and visual learners.

3D motion and video capture can also change the way distance learning is delivered and experienced. Check out this video of students attending a 3D virtual class where they can control their virtual images with gestures and their natural body motion.

How can we maximise classroom interaction?

Today’s classrooms are becoming truly interactive; in fact, they’re keeping pace right alongside the shift toward the flipped classroom. The list of examples goes on—and I encourage you to include other strategies in the comments.

Of course, none of this works without teachers, nor do these examples replace good teaching. But as it turns out, teachers aren’t as averse to using digital devices like tablets, clickers, and smartphones as you might think.

But this is more than just a “back to the classroom” call.

It’s about addressing the opportunities of the physical classroom and taking advantage of the invaluable time students and teachers have together. Imagine how powerful this can be: Empowering our students when they are in and out of the classroom to accelerate learning. We need is both of these learning models to address the real-world needs of our students and schools.

Troy Williams is President of Macmillan New Ventures, where he is responsible for identifying emerging technologies and trends that will have a major impact on student performance and outcomes. From 1998 to 2007, Troy was President and CEO of Questia Media, Inc., an early online electronic book offering that he founded and sold to Cengage Learning. 

Troy is an adjunct professor at NYU, where he teaches the capstone thesis course on starting new businesses in the Masters of Publishing program. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from Rice University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He currently resides in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Top image courtesy of Kiselev Andrey Valerevich, Shutterstock


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