The Marriage of Tech and Education

by Pamela Jones

I recently attended a symposium  focused on moving information technology forward. One of my key takeaways from it involved applying disruptors to our work. “Disruptor” is such an interesting word. Let it bounce around your brain for a minute. It’s weighty, isn’t it? 

By definition, a disruptor causes disorder and turmoil. It destroys or interrupts. But in business, it means a massive, rapid, and most likely permanent change that can be challenging to go through. This process is important to staying vital, and as we all know, it is crucial for us to embrace innovative technologies in this day and age.

Alexa in the Classroom
I recently got married—talk about a life disruptor (although I definitely don’t mean that in a negative way!). In September, my longtime partner-in-crime and I officially tied the knot. It was a beautiful, simple ceremony. And then we shared photos on Facebook with relatives and friends who were unable to physically join us for our special day. The marriage of tech and everyday life, in our case. 

Why am I sharing this? Because we uploaded photos of our event using a personal assistant-type device. You may be familiar with them—they have names like Alexa, Amazon Echo and Google Home. Ever said the words, “Hey Siri”? I personally thought they were simply for at-home use: you know, for things like setting alarms, turning on and off lights, playing music, controlling devices or spying on our pets while we’re at work (who doesn’t love their puppy-cam?). I can even control the lighting on my aquarium from my iPhone. But I really hadn’t thought much about the practical application of these devices for education. 

My 12-year-old no longer has traditional schoolbooks—her assignments are given to her on Google Drive and I receive email check-ins from her teachers. Her tests are completed online and submitted electronically—gone are the days of pencil and paper. Parent-teacher conferences are self-directed by the students. Yes, you read that correctly. Via PowerPoint. It is a strange, new world. 

Back to that disruptor. I found it, and I’m super-excited! Remember Alexa—how we uploaded our photos to Facebook? Think about Alexa in the classroom. Students are working on a fairly boring [insert yawn here] research project… and they aren’t tracking so well with what the teacher is saying. It just isn’t clicking. They need some piece of historical research about some way long-ago dead guy and suddenly get inspiration. Out loud, someone says, Hey Alexa, who is the only Greek-Babylonian astronomer known to have supported a heliocentric model of planetary motion?” 

Alexa comes back with “Selecucus of Seleucia (b. 190 BC),” as well as the source and supporting data. This is exactly what the students need to support the research being conducted—in the moment of need, on demand. It energizes them and builds excitement, mixing technology and education into one lovely little package of bite-sized, hands-on experiential learning. Okay, so maybe that is a bit of a stretch, but can you feel my enthusiasm and my tech nerd singing happily along?

Answers at the Speed of Need
This type of learning reinforcement is great for all sorts of learning needs—conducting research, searching scientific data, researching historical trivia, playing games or relaxing music during study time, just to suggest a few. And think of the application possibilities for special-needs students and ESL (English as a Second Language) students. The benefits would be tremendous!

Don’t just take my word for it. There are tons of articles online regarding the use of virtual assistant technologies in the classroom. Perhaps my favorite is one written by Brian Owen called “Alexa is in the House," in which a group of third-graders learn to code and write their own Alexa skills. Kayse Morris, a high school teacher and educational leadership specialist, has a great website specializing in the use of Alexa in the classroom. Matthew Lynch provides some interesting examples here—and there many, many others if you’d like to take a look. 

This blend of technology and education is what I have been searching for—it’s that “aha!” moment for education. Quite honestly, it provides on-demand, learner-centric, content-oriented knowledge that educators and students are craving. And if they just ask for it, they will find it. Simply saying “Hey Alexa” or “OK Google” wakes up the tool, and the command gets you where you need to be. It’s simple, it’s inexpensive, and it’s at the speed of need. Instant gratification at the pace of demand. I’m a fan and I can’t wait to see where this takes us in 2019! I am ready to implement this one in the classroom—where are we going to pilot? iBi

Pamela Jones is immediate past president of the Association for Talent Development, Heart of Central Illinois Chapter (ATD-HCI) and works in information security governance for a major insurance company.