Why Digital Isn’t the Answer, At Least for Now

This week I had the pleasure of previewing 20 Common Core tools in the digital marketplace with a handful of colleagues. None of the products—except one—has done a really nice job of integrating the thinking behind the Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) and Math Design Collaborative (MDC) tools that the Foundation has made freely available to teachers. My boss asked: why is that?

One of the reasons, I suspect, is because of what some of my colleagues have called the “atomization” of the Common Core. This is breaking down the standards into really small actions that can be captured digitally, rather than focusing on the more complex, bigger ideas represented in the Core. The first set of LDC template tasks were assignments that would be done over two to three weeks and involved multiple standards. LDC has since developed a standard-by-standard set of template tasks, but it’s the more complex ones that really tell us how well students have mastered the skills in the Common Core.

Another reason I suspect is that those tools have “feedback” in the moment as part of their design and student-to-student interactions and teacher-to-student interactions are baked in. Take Classroom Challenges, one of the core MDC tools, for example. These deceptively simple lessons have a cadence that allows students to try out a challenging problem; work on a similar problem in a group that gets progressively more complex; get feedback from their peers and the teacher in real time; and then approach the challenging problem they began on their own with fresh eyes.  It’s hard to capture the thinking, the interaction and the feedback in a digital device when much of what they are doing is learning from each other, out loud or sorting cards and asking questions or scribbling on paper. The other thing that sets Classroom Challenges apart is that the problems are conceptual and problem solving in nature, rather than merely procedural, which is what we see in most digital products.

There hasn’t been a really good way to capture kids’ “scratch paper” thinking on a tablet and give them good feedback that isn’t “canned” or doesn’t tell them the answer.  You have to ask the “why” questions to really understand student thinking instead of the “help” button that just gives you more videos on the procedural steps. You have to actually have a conversation and build on someone’s thinking, or challenge it and defend your own ideas. As a teacher, you have to know students’ common mistakes and think about how to push their thinking rather than give them the answer.

A few years ago, we made an investment with Kurt VanLehn at Arizona State University (famous for his work with cognitive tutors), to see if he could build the kind of technology that would digitize Classroom Challenges and give teachers more formal mechanisms for feedback while still maintaining the integrity of the lesson. VanLehn and his team are working with tablets and figuring out a way for teachers to receive an alert, for example, when a student or group of students is getting off track or seems lost. Then the teacher can go to that table instead of just circulating throughout the room. The team is also working on a way for teachers to receive real-time suggestions on how to understand and respond to the student’s “free-hand stylus scribbles,” based on years of analysis of student work done at the Mathematics Assessment Project (MAP).  VanLehn believes that his team will be able to identify even more misconceptions that students might have because their tool will be capturing their work as they are doing it, creating even richer data. Usability studies began last fall and are continuing through this year.

At the end of the day, technology or no technology, it is about the quality and the frequency of feedback students receive (from teachers and their peers) that will help them succeed in greater numbers. I’m betting on Kurt and his team to find some of the answers but the technology will only be worthwhile if we give students the kinds of challenging problems represented by Classroom Challenges and create learning environments that allow for rich interactions and lead students to think in new and different ways.


– C.