While we may not know specifically what the future holds, there are ways we can begin preparing students today. That’s the intent behind many of the discussions and sessions at SXSW EDU, my work at KnowledgeWorks and that of Karen Cator, formerly with Apple and the U.S. Department of Education, now leading Digital Promise and one of the spotlight speakers for SXSW EDU this year.
We recently sat down for a conversation to explore the evolution of technology and education and its relationship to personalized learning.
Michael: How have you seen the conversation around education technology change in your years in the field?
Karen: In some ways, the conversation hasn’t changed much at all. I was looking recently at a story about a school in 1987 and how they were trying to move to project-based learning, leverage technology for kids, and build student agency and choice. That message from 1987 is the same as today. What is different is the actual technology (the internet, for example!) and the power that technology wields today compared to 1987.
Michael: It’s interesting that you’re seeing some of the same conversations still happening. One that I see recurring is the fear of technology replacing teachers. Are you hearing that, too?
Karen: Whenever someone asks the question about technology replacing teachers, I think they’re presenting a false set of choices. It’s not a helpful question because it asks people to choose between the power of technology and the power of teachers. Technology is critically important to the education environment today, and very clearly, teachers and human relationships are also critical. Technology can augment what teachers provide.
The internet, word processors, music composition software, photography editing tools, assistive technology and so much more can enable learners to achieve great things and they should definitely have access to support their learning. But while I think it’s obvious technology can help people learn, technology doesn’t replace the role of the teacher. The teacher is listening to students, making connections to their story and adapting based on each student’s engagement, motivation, strengths, weaknesses, background and interests. The number of decisions and plays a teacher makes all day long – there is no technology today that can match that.
Michael: What role do you think technology can play with respect to equity?
Karen: There have been articles published about leaders in technology companies who choose to send their kids to schools that don’t use computers. This presents a confusing picture and doesn’t take into account that some kids have every possible technological support at home.
So the issue around equity and technology is that many students do not have access outside of school, and as such they are at a tremendous disadvantage. A key role of public education is to level the playing field and ensure all students are provided the best opportunities to learn. Today, that opportunity absolutely includes access to technology and the internet. But it goes beyond basic access. All students need to also become increasingly technologically literate as they grow up in an increasingly computational world. They need opportunities to use technology in powerful ways – to ask and answer their own questions, building skills of inquiry and research. They need to learn to manage and understand big data and have opportunities to produce media. In short, they need to learn to make technology work FOR them. Ensuring ALL students are developing these skills is central to ensuring equity.
Michael: Where does personalized learning come into play?
Karen: Personalized learning is all about equity. Making learning personal means paying attention to the variations between learners and what supports each student. Personalization does not isolate students but rather supports them with the healthy development of relationships and emotions. It requires a deep understanding of what motivates and engages, what constrains and challenges, and who is in their corner.
Michael: Do you have any idea yet what your talk will focus on at SXSW EDU?
Karen: I don’t know for sure yet, but I think I want to keep pushing on this notion of deepening the demand for research so people aren’t innovating for the sake of innovating but rather grounding their work in evidence. I’m sure I will have some stories of powerful learning from across our network. Beyond that, you’ll have to wait and see.
Michael: Is there anything you’re particularly excited to hear or learn more about at the event?
Karen: Today, I am particularly interested in what is emerging from the learning sciences and supports for learner variability. But, honestly, I still find it all exciting and can’t wait for March!
Guest blog post courtesy of
Michael DiMaggio and Karen Cator
Michael DiMaggio is the Vice President of Strategic Partnerships and Development for KnowledgeWorks, helping to expand the reach of KnowledgeWorks in communities across the country. @DiMaggioMichael
Karen Cator is President and CEO of Digital Promise and a leading voice for transforming American education through technology, innovation and research. @kcator
Photo courtesy of Michael DiMaggio and Karen Cator