Eight technologies that are changing education

From real-time tracking systems that enable parents to follow their children’s progress in school to plagiarism alerts in universities, technology is changing how people learn and are taught

Some academics fret that the digitisation of information means research skills are being lost. Photograph: Thinkstock

Some academics fret that the digitisation of information means research skills are being lost. Photograph: Thinkstock


Whether in a preschool or in a university computer lab, technology is rapidly transforming the way teaching and learning takes place.

A baffling array of new tools is competing for the attention of students and teachers. They range from real-time updates on pupils’ progress in class to a new wave of “micro-degrees” that could upend traditional university qualifications.

Opinion is divided about the merits of this new frontier. Some fear students will become too dependent on technology; others insist it will free up time to develop sought-after skills such as critical thinking.

Whatever your view, teachers, students and academic institutions cannot afford to ignore these rapid developments. Here we look at eight of the most popular and how they changing the face of the modern classroom.


Follow your child’s progress with real-time student information systems

It used to be that parents’ only exposure to their children’s progress at school was the annual parent-teacher meeting. Not any more. A growing number of schools have signed up to internet-based “student information systems”. These allow parents to check their children’s attendance for classes in real time, to keep tabs on test results, to peek at disciplinary records and to see what is on the daily timetable.

Parents can receive instant notifications on their smartphones, tablets or computers with updates on their child.

VSware (VS stands for “virtual school”), an Irish firm, is one of the biggest suppliers of this technology to Irish schools.

It might sound Big Brother-esque, but Patrick Barry, VSware’s chief executive, says this kind of information has been gathered by schools for years. The only change, he says, is that it is being opened up to parents rather than being kept in a dusty back-office computer.

About 450 schools are using the technology, which can also automate timetables and other administration.

“Previously, schools had separate contracts for administration systems, room booking, text messaging and so on,” says Barry. “With this system, schools save money because it’s all cloud-based and doesn’t require IT skills to maintain it.”

Similar forms of technology in creches and preschools, such as Little Vista and ChildPaths, allow parents to see what their children eat for lunch and how they sleep. vsware.ie


Cloud-based learning platforms for teachers and students

The end of cogging your classmates’ notes is nigh. Teachers, lectures and students are increasingly using online learning platforms to store class notes, research resources and assignments. Students can upload, share and edit documents, and teachers can comment on students’ work before it is turned in and can communicate easily with the class.

There are tons of options out there. Google Classroom is very popular at second level, whereas Moodle, Blackboard and Sakai are common at third level.

Pat Tighe, principal of Magh Éne secondary school in Co Donegal, says Google Classroom is particularly popular among staff and students.

The ability to store images, video and essays makes creating a portfolio of work – which will become a major feature of the reformed junior cycle – much easier.

It also allows for more project-based work. Instead of students being forced to listen quietly to a teacher at the top of the class, these systems allow pupils to learn and digest content at their own pace. classroom.google.com, moodle.org



Video-sharing websites in the classroom

Many students find video stimulating, and there is a clip for every possible lecture or teaching demonstration on YouTube or Vimeo. Teachers and lecturers are increasingly building them into their classes.

Nonprofit educational organisations such as the Khan Academy provide free mini-lectures via YouTube that cover a range of subjects including science, business and and maths. Learnstorm, an Irish offshoot, is aimed at students from fourth class at primary level to fifth year in secondary school. youtube.com, learnstorm.ie



The second wave of massive open online courses

A few years ago we were told universities were going to go the way of video stores and travel agents. A new technology

was going to disrupt higher education: massive open online courses (Moocs). They were free. Millions signed up. Many called it a revolution.

But enrolment in colleges is as strong as ever and students are willing to fork out large amounts of money in fees. Why? Moocs might have offered access to high-quality courses for nothing, but they didn’t offer degrees – or at least the kind that get you a job.

Until now. A number of US universities are experimenting with issuing badges, which could lead to degrees. In addition, Mooc providers such as Coursera have started charging to have results verified. These new digital credentials could threaten traditional colleges in a way the first wave of online courses failed to do.

Moocs are also about to transform second-level education. A major new course, Twenty-first Century Learning Design, has been developed in Ireland for teachers around the globe to showcase the best examples of innovative learning. The course has been developed by St Patrick’s College, DCU and Irish firm H2 learning.

coursera.org, open.ac.uk/republic-of-ireland


Digitised libraries and archives

Ever fewer numbers of students are using books. And why would they? College library resources are increasingly being digitised: from Google books and ebooks to journal articles and newspaper digital archives.

A simple search for keywords using a digital database can yield in seconds what might have taken hours of searching to find in a dusty library. There are, as with most technologies, pluses and minuses.

Some academics fret that this immediacy of information means research skills are being lost as students limit themselves to what is available on their computer screen. But even they are unlikely to grumble about the huge time-savings they offer. books.google.ie


New assessment tools for students

The notion that the best way of measuring a student’s progress is a single end-of-year exam is well past its sell-by date. There has been a big shift towards formative assessment – monitoring students’ progress as they learn – rather than waiting until a final exam.

Dr Tom Felle, a lecturer at City University in London, uses multiple-choice quizzes and other tools on a regular basis.

“Students don’t get formally marked, but they can assess their own learning and you can informally view how they are progressing,” he says. There are dozens of potential tools, including Socrative and Kahoot. socrative.com, getkahoot.com



Tools to check originality of texts

In an era when large chunks of essays can be copied and pasted at a click, some students are unable to resist the temptation. But there is

a range of plagiarism-detection services to identify those trying to pass off others people’s work as their own.

Turnitin is one of the most widely used pieces of software. It checks submitted work from students against texts available on the internet, as well as a repository of all work previously submitted by students. Many colleges say it has virtually eliminated plagiarism and is forcing students to go to original sources and think for themselves.


Voice recognition to help kids learn to read

Learning to read is a huge step in every child’s development, and most children get there sooner or later.

Speech-recognition technology is being used to make this milestone easier to achieve. It assesses a child’s reading skills by “listening” and analysing their pronunciation. Based on the results, their reading and language lessons can be adjusted in real time to ensure that each child is working with the right degree of difficulty for them. SoapBox Labs in Dublin is developing just such an app for use on smartphones. soapboxlabs.com

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