Ensuring our performance management and outcome measurement software technology is helping our clients to bridge the achievement gap is what nFocus Solutions is all about. Our work is focused on developing software that allow organizations of all types – nonprofits, communities and schools – to do just that. Such technology is increasingly present in today’s classrooms, and judging by my recent trip to the SXSW EDU conference in Austin, Texas in March, that technology is poised to play an even bigger part in our children’s future success.
Among the sessions I saw, the most anticipated was the closing keynote of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates. While he’s best known as one of the co-founders of Microsoft, Gates now devotes much of his time to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a non-profit organization which advocates for global health and education. His presentation, which was delivered in the absolutely packed auditorium of the Austin Convention Center, focused on the rise of education technology in the classroom.
While his Microsoft experience obviously gives him the credentials to speak to the technology side of the discussion, it’s Gates’ work as a philanthropist that I find truly inspiring. Since 1994, the Gates Foundation has endowed more than $34 billion to charities, education and health organizations around the world. In the United States, their work focuses primarily on providing better education opportunities for students of all ages across the country. Overseas, the Gates Foundation is known for its tireless work in improving the health of the poor. As such, I find it fitting that Gates’ keynote addressed the melding of his two worlds. While long seen as inevitable, some schools are only now deploying the technology to deliver a highly specialized curriculum that meets the unique needs of each child.
During his presentation, Gates said:
“Despite the doubling of resources in K-12 education (in the United States), those scores in math and literacy have stayed the same. That’s a big disappointment, because the job market wants those people who have a higher education.”
It’s no secret that other countries, such as Japan or Sweden, are realizing better education results despite devoting fewer resources. As a result, Gates’ next comment, “We find ourselves falling behind in a very critical area,” strikes a chord.
The good news is that as technology evolves, so does what we can do to help create a positive learning environment in the classroom. Technological advancements allow educators to present an interactive, customized learning experience that also provides one-on-one attention in a group environment. New devices like tablets can comprise a student’s textbook, homework assignments and guides to other lessons. Further, tablets can be connected to a learning database, allowing students to seek help on problems or subjects they don’t understand. More importantly – and this is one of the key benefits of any technology tracking performance data – educators will have unparalleled insight into a student’s learning processes and progress.
“We get a lot of data when we get into the personalization area,” Gates said during his presentation. “We see what the kid gets wrong. That’s not only valuable for the student; it’s feedback for the concept itself.”
His thought is an exciting one: Educators will have a window into their students’ minds, allowing them to see how a student or group of students worked through a lesson. Educators will even have visibility into which options – and in what order – a student might have considered before deciding on a final answer to a question on a test, for example. Armed with that knowledge, Gates said teachers can adapt their lessons to each student’s progress, allowing them to engage students in a way they find rewarding. Plus, those teachers could use the same technology to more easily collaborate with their peers, administrators and their partners in the community.
I truly believe this kind of long-term performance tracking is the key to successful education in the future. It’s not enough to simply present material to a group of students and hope it sticks; we need to integrate the individual students’ needs into the planning process, using past performance indicators to build a curriculum that will keep the learners engaged. Plus, we need to be able to quickly recognize when further intervention is needed. Community resources can play a role in providing much needed supports for those things that need additional attention that is not available during the school day.
Despite tremendous progress, there are still barriers to nationwide technology integration. For many schools, the cost of deploying technology on a district level is still prohibitive. Additionally, Gates acknowledged that for most students, learning math or language arts isn’t particularly interesting or seemingly relevant. It’s up to educators creating the curriculum to leap that hurdle, he said.
Still, Gates told the SXSW EDU audience the overall benefits of technology – both for students and teachers – will almost guarantee adoption later down the road.
“It’s a great vision, it’s one that can still come together and it would be phenomenal,” Gates concluded in his presentation. “In this space, we can either improve the quality of education in terms of graduation rates and the math and reading scores, or we stay flat like we have for decades. We’re counting on the creativity and the contributions of this group to make that possible.”
I concur wholeheartedly.
To learn more about the Gates Foundation’s education programs, visit GatesFoundation.org. To learn more about the work that nFocus is doing with nonprofit software and community solutions, visit nfocus.com.