CEO Blog: We Need Disruptive Technology in Our Classrooms

When we think of disruptive technologies like smart phones and web conferencing that have transformed American business, we tend to see the positive. In the classroom, skepticism concerning these types of game changing technologies runs high. Fair or unfair, education technology has been more heavily scrutinized than virtually every other aspect of society where technology has been introduced.

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Perhaps this is because some pundits have made the case that incorporating technology into the classroom is largely driven by commercial, not pedagogical considerations? Clearly, market incentives are the driving force behind some of the most significant digital integration trends in education today – but the pundits miss the bigger point: These market forces are actually working in favor of the students.

Digital integration in education, from e-textbooks to predictive analytics in online learning, is part of a trend toward greater efficacy, accountability and affordability in the American classroom. As the U.S. K-12 school system races to catch up to its international peers, and American universities — once the world’s best —face a growing demand to scale back costs while improving quality, advances in education technology hold tremendous promise for improving educational outcomes and reducing costs by better understanding how students learn.

Education technology does not serve the same role in an elementary school as it does in a college course, but most agree that K-12 and university methodologies are best viewed as part of an intertwined system with linked success rates. Consider traditional online learning, the flagship concept in the burgeoning field of education technology — a well-publicized review by the Department of Education, updated in 2010, of more than 1,000 empirical studies of online learning found K-12 and university students performed modestly better in online settings than those receiving face-to-face instruction. Online learning isn’t the endgame to the challenges facing American education, but it’s a strategically important component.

Digital textbooks alone look to make both K-12 and university education more affordable. Indeed, the FCC’s Digital Textbook Playbook estimated the switch to digital textbooks will be about a $600 savings per student a year. Considering this, the FCC notes that technology-based instruction can improve learning speeds by 30 to 80 percent. But the story doesn’t stop there. Digitally-integrated learning can change our core understanding of student learning, a game-changing disruption to the educational status quo that means more efficient allocation of educational resources.

Recently, the national conversation around e-textbooks has been focused perhaps, on only the tip of the iceberg for digital learning. The Obama Administration’s push for digital textbooks coincides with a number of exciting new frontiers in education, notably the rise of big data and predictive analytics in the education sector, a trend the Chronicle of Higher Education recently dubbed a ‘Moneyball’ approach to college education.

Think of the opportunities inherent in understanding learning patterns from digital textbook usage versus a traditional textbook. Through online analytics, the never-before-seen insights of digitally-integrated education could be the most positively disruptive educational technology in recent memory, with e-textbooks accelerating that functionality. Most teachers agree it’s much easier to determine what students are learning than it is to determine how they’re learning. As educator Bill Cerbin noted, observing what students learn is like taking temperature: it “produces no insight into the cause.” Course analytics help to solve that mystery.

"We need a simultaneous broad technology push to give our educators the tools to be successful, from K-12 to the university level." -Founder, CEO of Bridgepoint Education, Andrew S. Clark

In Arizona, Rio Salado College uses student online activity to predict with 70 percent accuracy by the eighth day of class whether a student will pass the course. In one Harvard course, algorithms match students in groups based on previous performances to tailor student experience.

The education community has taken notice: Last year, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a $1 million grant for research into the use of predictive analytics to maximize student success. Just as processing massive, unstructured data sets are changing business operations around the world by providing a unique, data-driven 360-degree view into operations, data analysis in education can lead to significant advances across the university model, from curricula development and administrative models to student enrollment and retention strategies.

Technology won’t replace teachers, and high-quality instructors are essential to the success of every educational institution. But, we need a simultaneous broad technology push to give our educators the tools to be successful, from K-12 to the university level. Market forces in digitally-integrated learning equate to better outcomes and affordability. Just as disruptive advances further society, students and the broader approach to education will benefit from disruptive technology. Our education system could use the shake-up.

Andrew S. Clark is the Founder, Chief Executive Officer, and President of Bridgepoint Education. Bridgepoint Education owns and operates two regionally accredited academic institutions – Ashford University in Clinton, Iowa, and University of the Rockies in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The universities offer associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees online and on campus. In addition, Bridgepoint Education advances learning through its Constellation and Thuze digital learning platforms and Waypoint Outcomes assessment software.