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No More Hand-Me-Down Tech: Developing K-8 Learning Interfaces for Schools

New LMS platforms developed with the younger learner in mind

Mark Wu, Co-Founder & CEO of Nexed realizes there is a “hand-me-down” mentality surrounding education technology innovations. Far too often, learning interfaces are developed and tested with older students in mind – then later refashioned to the fit the environments of younger school children. The results of this process are often less than desirable, which contributes to the misconception that early childhood technology is ineffective in practice.

Wu strongly believes that a greater focus needs to be placed on developing technologies specifically for K-8 education. It begins with getting teachers more comfortable with technology platforms through increased professional learning. Once teachers fully embrace the new technology, then it has a fighting chance in the classroom. BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) schools are shining examples of blending technology learned at home and integrating these skills into classroom use. It’s a productive reversal of learning that works when teachers remain up-to-date with relevant technology.

Learning Management Systems (LMS) have benefited greatly from the inclusion of gaming into the model. By incorporating gaming into learning platforms, the level of student engagement increases dramatically, especially for younger students. Wu asks trepidatious adults to watch how children engage with technology at home. It’s a new world – and children use technology as natives, their understanding far more openminded than adults.

It’s time to embrace this forward thinking approach and reexamine how our children engage with academic content and learn most effectively.


Dr. Berger: Mark, I’ve had a number of conversations with superintendents, chief academic officers, and those who are keenly interested and intrigued by the ways in which technology is helping to support the K-12 students in America.

What I think is really interesting is the growing discussion around how to diversify technology to better suit K-8. I would love to know your perspective on where we are in advancing technology that is specifically directed toward K-8.

Mark Wu: I was a K-8 teacher and an administrator in Special Ed for quite some time. My background really is specifically in K-8. I think one of the things that’s happening is that a lot of these technologies have started off in postsecondary and are slowly trickling down through secondary and, now, getting to K-8. But the question is, “Are we really differentiating for the different needs of those students?”

DB: And have you found that change is starting to happen? What would be an indicator or indicators that change is happening? Is it the language in which we’re hearing building-level or district-level leaders talk about K-8 technology? What would tell you that we are making strides in that area?

MW: I wouldn’t say I’m seeing strides quite yet. What I am hearing from a lot of teachers is that there is a need for different types of interfaces when they’re dealing with eight-year-olds versus fifteen-year-olds. Once the teachers start to demand these kinds of changes, that’s when districts and superintendents are going to start listening.

DB: When we talk about when a district and a school would start listening, I think one of the areas that needs to be discussed is ways in which we support the teachers in the classroom so that they are an active part of the technology with the younger students.

How has that changed over time? And tell me an area where we can say, “We are making improvements in this space. Teachers are an active ingredient in moving this forward.”

MW: For a lot of teachers, technology is still a scary thing. Especially when they’re in classrooms full of digital natives who have no fear at all of using these technologies who think they cannot break anything. But teachers are a different story and I’m not just talking about older teachers. I think, for a lot of teachers ─ young and old ─ this is a scary time.

So I think the amount of support that a district can give is huge. Support like actually going into a classrooms and running PD sessions with teachers. They can actively support them by having an initial PD session and then continuing to go back and visit those teachers. I think that support is very important for success.

DB: Let’s talk about the students in K-8. I think that if we look at young students, they are organically integrating technology into their daily lives. They grab Mom’s or Dad’s cell phone demonstrating that they have an understanding of the technology ways that maybe Mom and Dad didn’t think about prior to observing that behavior in their children. And you take that and advance it to tablets.

I’m wondering, how organic is this discussion around technology in K-8? Organic by being industry driven where there can be an opportunity to support students in classrooms with better or more diversified technology as opposed to them organically bringing that technology in the classes through their own family use.

MW: I think it is organic especially in the schools that are doing Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). It has some drawbacks because not all students have access to their own device. But in those districts where they’re doing it kids are provided with one if they don’t have them.

When you combine what they’re doing at home and how comfortable they are with technology at home, if you could bring that combination into the classroom and make it effective, then, I think that’s where there’s a big win. Children at home are doing those kinds of things relatively unsupervised. In the classroom, there is supervision but those kids still have that freedom to use the technology and all the amazing things that it can do for them in the classroom.

DB: One of the things that I think is really interesting is this discussion around entertainment and engagement with technology. Sometimes something is considered too entertaining when we’re talking about curriculum and the delivery of curriculum within official school communities and environments.

I think that with the younger generation that is something we have to think about as technologists when we are building and innovating for the younger students. We need to make it entertaining and make it something that they want to participate in. It may not be a bad thing if it has bells and whistles that, traditionally, we thought would divert attention away from learning. They might actually help to build engagement from the younger population of students.

Where are you in that argument and how can we do a better job of informing the greater community as to the value proposition entertaining experiences can have in education?

MW: There’s a term that’s batted around called edutainment, and that is what you’re talking about.

I was a Grade One teacher for seven years. When you are in front of a Grade One class, you are entertaining them. You have to or you’re going to quickly lose the attention of six-year-olds. That comes into play very easily with technology now.

Take Minecraft, for example. I’ve seen my niece get on Minecraft and build these incredible worlds just for her own pleasure at home. I’ve also seen amazing presentations by teachers who are using Minecraft to teach area and perimeter and to teach spatial reasoning.

I once saw a presentation by a gentleman who was showing how the Mayans built their temples that was done in Minecraft. And, for the kids the entertainment and the education have fully melted into one. I think that’s an amazing thing.

DB: That’s an incredible story. I think anytime you can have a child who wants to do something without being prompted to do so, that’s engaging at every level.

Let’s dive into gamification. There are a lot of different conversations around the role gamification plays in education. There are case studies that are being talked about amongst the industry as to the ways in which gamifying curriculum can positively impact students.

I know that you’re focused on integrating that approach into the learning management system (LMS) world. Tell me about it and the benefits that you see long term.

MW: I think that gamification is used a lot these days and sometimes maybe overused because gamification can appear as if all you’re doing is giving points and badges and rewards for certain tasks. But when you’re gamifying an LMS it goes far beyond that. That’s where people need to start thinking more about gamification ─ that it can be a lot more robust than just points and badges given. A lot of the LMSs have that integrated into them now. When an assignment is completed there are points awarded. You can even have leaderboards for the students as they complete different assignments.

I think things can go a lot deeper than that. When people start to think about gamification as more than just points and badges, that’s where it’s going to start to really take off.

DB: Don’t you find that it also plays nicely with the discussion around students’ ownership of their own work? In an environment where a student is actively participating in their learning through a gamified LMS ─ isn’t that providing them the platform to take ownership of the path because the teacher has played an intimate role in providing these opportunities?

MW: Absolutely. I think that’s where personalized learning comes into play because in a lot of gamified environments you don’t need to go on a linear route towards your learning. It can be very non-linear, and a lot of kids love to learn like that. They’re choosing their own paths.

Games provide a lot of internal motivation when they’re done right. When you have a class full of internally motivated students or many internally motivated students, you’re going to have a very successful class. Plus, as a teacher, you can do much more.

DB: What can we do to educate adults on the benefits of what you’re talking about so that we are not battling traditionalists who are concerned because they think it’s gaming that was done in the 80s and the 90s?

Gaming ─ the experience of it and the research behind it ─ has evolved and matured greatly. But, I feel that the perceptions of those making the critical decisions in what students and teachers are experiencing are less than favorable. How can we impact the education around the benefits?

MW: That’s the real challenge for people who are trying to change things in education. You’re not generally speaking to people for who had gamification or game-based learning when they grew up or even when they started off in their careers. So we’ve got this huge amount of technology out there but a lot of barriers to it being used effectively.

My answer to, “How would I try and get adults to be able to be more open-minded about this?” is watch your kids ─ not necessarily in a school setting but watch what they’re doing at home. I watch my daughter’s Instagram account and the YouTube videos that she’s watching. You learn a lot from them.

If you can see the benefits of it from observing a child, it makes sense for superintendents to explore it further at the district level.

DB: I agree with you. My two-year-old recently grabbed my iPhone and knew what the Home button was and how to navigate it. I’ve never formally showed her how to do that and I thought, boy, we are entering into a world where we don’t really know where it’s going.

Where do you see the industry going? What’s the path forward? Obviously, it starts with the initial adoption. Then, it’s the different collaborators and the evolution of partnerships so that experiences and content are more seamlessly integrated.

But what is after that? What do you envision in the way that a K-8 classroom can fully embrace technology?

MW: In a perfect world where we are using things properly, so to speak, I think there will be a lot of partnerships between new industry with their new technologies and school districts.

I’m talking about the opportunity for those new technologies to go into places classrooms and doing pilots with those districts. Then they can learn with the district by listening to the teachers and and change their technology based on the feedback. Once you have a cycle like that I think it will be amazing.

DB: I agree. I think that feedback loop can really be generative to new innovations down the road so that we’re not sort of waiting to put the power of technology in the hands of students and teachers.

Continued success, Mark, and we appreciate your thought leadership in this very complex and exciting area of education.

About Mark Wu

Mark Wu is CEO and co-founder of NEXED, and co-creator of Answerables – a video game based learning management system for Gr. K-8.

Prior to founding NEXED, Mr. Wu worked for years in elementary schools as a regular classroom and special education teacher before becoming a vice-principal.  Answerables is currently being piloted by various districts in the US looking for a new way to provide learning management for their younger students.

Follow NEXED on Twitter and Facebook.

Learn more about Answerables.

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post

Further Reading
  1. The New York Times Learning to Think Like a Computer
  2. The Atlantic – Will Personalized Learning Become the New Normal?
  3. U.S. News & World Report – High School Borrows Ideas From Early Childhood Education

This post includes mentions of a partner of MindRocket Media Group the parent company of edCircuit

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