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Star Trek Technology in Classrooms Today

• Nathan Martin

Quality education technology should be constructed around student learning and research and should be cognizant of past work.

Working through “Design and Development of Education Technology”—an edX MOOC from MIT, taught by Professor Eric Klopfer—I’ve been struck by the rigor of the course as well as the depth of research and work conducted in the field of education technology. Taking a verified edX MOOC requires budgeting no small amount of time each week for readings, discussion, and assignments. It is anything but easy.

It’s tempting to treat digital learning and the wave of education technology start-ups as something new, a nascent field of study no deeper than a pitch deck. Whether a long-time technology provider or one of the many bright and glittering edu-startups, digital learning stands on the shoulders of years of research and work. As long as there have been computers and technology, there has been the desire to use these tools to help students learn.

Professor Klopfer and his team of experts brilliantly run through the history of education technology, from the LOGO turtle to Scratchers, the successes and failures, showing what actually works and what has been less than successful.

SimCalc is one of the shining research-backed successes of education technology, married to solid curriculum and continuing professional development. A tool to help students understand complex mathematics, it animates graphs and actions to better break down concepts like rate and proportionality and ensure that true deeper learning can occur.

In 2010, the American Educational Research Journal published the results of three large-scale studies in Texas, showing that SimCalc “is effective in enabling a wide variety of teachers in a diversity of settings to extend student learning to more advanced mathematics.” This academic research provides a base for making real claims around the efficacy and effectiveness of SimCalc and shows the power of this technology when wedded to good curriculum and practice. American students consistently score below average on math tests. This technology solution provides a promising tool to help rectify that gap.

Other proven technology solutions highlighted in this week’s course work is that around cognitive tutors—systems offering the ability to provide feedback, helping guide and nudge students onto discovering the right answer. These systems might sound like something out of Star Trek or the Jetsons, but they can provide invaluable instructional assistance to teachers and encouragement for students to keep working towards solving problems.

There is a need for more research into what works in education technology. The What Works Clearinghouse hosted by the Institute of Education Science provides useful reviews, but on a limited budget, it cannot sift through the hundreds of new and evolving programs and circumstances. Charitable foundations often step into the gap, sponsoring research and work, but more is needed. Not all education technology is created equal, and the quality, use, and implementation of these important tools should be evaluated often.

One piece of technology that does work is the platform edX. While I’m back in Course 11.132x, trying to rediscover discarded university habits, I’m still shocked that this edX course costs $40 rather than the hundreds normally required for a university-level course. Hundreds of people are in my course—stretching from Kazakhstan to India to England and Brazil—all able to access this knowledge thanks to edX. Regardless of the ultimate integration of MOOCs into primary and secondary education, edX democratizes knowledge for the world. The non-profit will stand as one of the great achievements of the 21st century, a true gift to the world.

About the author

Nathan Martin

Nathan Martin serves as the State Policy Director of Online and Blended Learning for Digital Learning Now. Previously, he worked as the Director of Policy and Alliances for Scantron, an education technology company focusing on digital learning and assessment. Prior to that, he worked in journalism, producing a nationally-syndicated talk radio show, working for the Washington Post and writing for various newspapers in his home state of Mississippi. Nathan received his undergraduate degree from Patrick Henry College. Contact Nathan at