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What Education Tech Success Stories Share

Educational technologies have the potential to stretch dollars and improve education, with the right supporting policies, Brookings Institution reports.

Minecraft, a popular virtual world game for kids, comes into the report because of MinecraftEdu, a mod or plugin to the base program that allows a teacher to control the environment.

"As a teaching platform Minecraft has tremendous potential," the report enthused. "In social studies, students could build their own pyramid and during the process encounter the same engineering challenges as the Egyptians. Students could recreate scenes from literature. Teachers could demo the principles of biology, physics and chemistry in real time."

One middle school science teacher in Toronto used Minecraft to teach a lesson on sustainable planning in which students played roles such as farmer, builder or miner. A survey of the students showed that 86% of students wanted to use the game again in school and 80% thought it allowed them to be more creative with the assignment.

"Minecraft succeeds as a game for the same reason that it succeeds as an instructional tool. It builds upon a context familiar to everyone or the rules of nature. Keeping the game simple allows for players to engage in authentic learning," the authors wrote.

Brookings also sees room for significant progress in testing and assessment.

Where traditional paper-based testing is static, computerized testing can be adaptive, meaning that the test adapts to the test taker. By varying the assortment of questions presented to each student, computerized systems also deter cheating. By ratcheting the difficulty of the next question up or down, based on whether the last answer was right, these systems can more accurately assess educational achievement. The software can even insert questions designed to boost the test-taker's confidence and reduce testing anxiety.

Sometimes the answer may be not to test at all. Techniques for stealth assessment developed by a team led by Florida State professor Valerie Shute embed assessments in games. Shute found using a Dungeons & Dragons-style game to be an effective way to examine students' problem solving skills, and her team is developing a Newton's Playground game to assess high school students' knowledge of physics. The argument in favor of such assessments is that they are relatively low-stakes, compared with a test, allowing students to perform at a more natural level of competence.

As a think tank aimed at influencing policy, Brookings advocates in favor of making room for new possibilities in education. "The technologies described here could loosen the demands on educators freeing them to teach," the authors wrote. "Imagine a school where teachers work in synchronization with each other to educate students. Teams of teachers each with their own special skills would work jointly to develop curricula and specialized interventions. A school where students could visit the cafeteria with robots to learn words for different foods, a reality simulation lab where students could work on different projects, and a library where students took micro-lessons through MOOCs to advance or reinforce learning. In such a school, students could direct much of their own learning." The challenge is to break free of the "bureaucratic momentum" in favor of business as usual, they argued.

Perhaps in a nod to teachers (and teachers unions) nervous about being steamrolled by education reforms, the authors downplayed the idea that new technologies will cost them their jobs. This is not like the advent of cars obsolescing horse drawn carriages, they concluded. "There is reason to believe that technology will supplant rather than destroy the teaching profession. Educators have a uniquely complex job and have far more to do than time allows. New technologies will take over some teacher responsibilities. However, technology can't make a teacher obsolete in the same way as a carriage."

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.

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