From Distraction to Distinction: How Responsible Use of 1:1 Devices can Revolutionize Learning in Schools

By Dr Siamack Zahedi, Co-CEO and Director of Education and Research, The Acres Foundation

Reports by government taskforces, NGOs, and researchers over the past few decades have expressed concern over the nature of teaching and learning engagements in the typical Indian classroom. Students spend an inordinate amount of time passively listening to teacher lectures, copying notes from the blackboard into their notebooks, and memorizing textbook content. The National Education Policy of India has expressed concern over this current state of affairs, and exhorted educators to instead use instructional strategies that actively engage students in their own learning processes. But how? There are several constraints imposed by the schooling system that even the most capable and well-intentioned teachers cannot overcome. One such constraint is the large number of students they must serve in a classroom.

While policy and examination board prescriptions might restrict the class size to 40 or 45 students, it is not uncommon to find classrooms with more than 60 children. How can a teacher be expected to cover a vast syllabus within a short period of time while also providing every one of her 40 or so students a chance to express their learning and ideas in every class and engage with the content at an individual level? Further, teachers are expected to instruct multiple classrooms throughout the week, implying that they might serve several hundred children in total. How can a teacher in such settings be expected to know all student’s individual strengths and needs, and then differentiate instruction for them? Until recently, these problems of practice did not have any conceivable solutions. But today, educational technology presents hope. Let me share some examples from my own personal practice.

One of the most powerful ways in which 1:1 device in the classroom can positively influence teaching and learning processes is through its ability to transform assessments. Traditionally, focus has been placed on “summative” assessments – lengthy and high stakes written exams that only take place at the end of academic terms. Students are told exactly what to study, they memorize the content and then regurgitate it in their tests. The results of such an assessment can only be used to evaluate or judge the performance of the students. But the assessment data cannot really inform teaching practice, it won’t help them adjust their subsequent lesson plans to reteach a past unit if most of the class got it wrong or provide differentiated support to a small group of students that might have clearly misunderstood the content. Because it’s too late. They have already moved on to new content and cannot look back now. Such assessments do not promote learning, and this very issue has been explicitly highlighted by the National Education Policy.

Instead, a system of regular, ongoing, “formative” assessments is needed – short and quick checks for understanding during each period or at least once in every few lessons. For example, a class might begin with a 5 min multiple-choice question quiz based on the previous lesson’s content that all students must complete independently via Google Forms or Kahoot or any one of the many online tools available freely. The teacher can review the data in real time and decide whether she should move on and teach new content or whether she should first clarify some misconceptions by teaching the previous content.

The quiz can also take place after a certain amount of content is covered mid-way through a class. It might even be conducted at the end, before the closure of the class. It would be impossible otherwise to engage every one of the 40 or more students and ask them all to share their learning in a typical 45-minute class. Also, it would be impossible to gain an understanding of classroom learning in real time. Without technology, teachers would need to collect hundreds of notebooks each day and manually correct them, while also somehow making time to plan their lessons for the next day. More importantly, the data would not allow for any in-class adjustments to be made to the pace of the content being covered or teaching strategies in response to student learning, because the books would only be corrected at the end of the day or more practically at the end of the week when in reality the class will have already moved on with the syllabus.

Another powerful way in which technology can support classroom instruction in a transformational way is through adaptive learning – using algorithms to adjust the pace and difficulty of tasks for individual students based on their unique needs. My colleagues and I recently published the results of an empirical study we conducted where we split Grade 2 students into two groups – one group learned math with the help of an adaptive learning program, while the other group learned math using the existing school curriculum. Both groups began the year at the same level of math performance, but at the end of eight months we found that the group that used the adaptive learning software showed a statistically significant improvement in their math performance. This is because the program created individualized learning pathways for each student and adjusted the pathway according to their needs. Units would begin with the math teacher introducing students to a new topic and providing some basic instruction to build their foundational concept of it, but then students would use their laptops and independently complete practice exercises online. If a student was able to successfully complete the exercises, then the program would advance them through the syllabus by presenting mini lessons for new concepts.

On the other hand, if a student was struggling with the exercises, then the program would direct them to restudy mini lesson videos and breakdowns of the content they were grappling with. Once again, the student would be presented with practice exercises and then, depending on their performance they would either advance in the syllabus or be retaught the content. All this while, the teacher is being provided with real-time data on student performance. The program intimates the teacher on how far some students have moved ahead or how much they are struggling with a topic. This data allows the teacher to differentiate instruction by either giving the students that are moving far ahead more challenging or enriching tasks like project work, or by conducting small group explicit teaching sessions with the students that need more support. Individualizing the learning pathways for students based on their unique needs would be impossible without such technological intervention.

The benefits I have shared are only a few of the many ways in which educational technology can revolutionize student engagement and learning in the classroom. However, caution and judgment must be exercised while navigating through the ever-growing ocean of technological tools being marketed today. Schools and educators must be strategic with the use of technology in the classroom – more is not better.

Instead, evaluate the extent to which the technological intervention you are about to use allows you to redefine or transform teaching and learning processes in the classroom, rather than merely substituting older processes with a flashier and more expensive alternative. Most importantly, it might be wise to pilot the use of innovative interventions on a small population of students first and evaluate its outcomes before scaling up and institutionalizing a practice simply because it has been made popular by the media or other schools.

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