Technology in the classroom

Last week’s NY Times Magazine was dedicated to the interface between technology and education. As purveyors of computer-assisted learning, we were naturally intrigued.

The Times’ included a history of technology in the classroom that starts with the Horn Book, a wooden paddle with printed lessons that was introduced circa 1650, and ends with the iPad (a 21st century Horn Book of sorts), which the Times speculates may replace the textbook. Along the course of history was the chalkboard (1890), the pencil (1900) and Liquid Paper (really? technology?) (1960).

The use of technology to assist with learning is obviously not new. And since the time of the Horn Book, educators have probably wondered whether technology would, at some point, replace them at the front of the classroom. Recent developments in online learning are certainly challenging the traditional nature of how we learn.

Thirty years ago, we wrote papers out by hand. Today, students can type them and submit them by email. Technology has improved the efficiency of this process, but it hasn’t really changed the nature of the process itself. A program like Fast ForWord, improves learning by using technology to accomplish something that wasn’t previously possible. For example, for students who struggle to accurately process brief consonant sounds in English, the program acoustically modifies the short and soft consonant sounds to make them more pronounced. You and I can’t do this. (Try it. Say the word “cat” slowly. It comes out “C-a-a-a-a-a-t”, and all you’ve done is make the vowel sound longer.) But with an algorithm applied to digitized speech, the Fast ForWord program can isolate the consonant sound, make it louder and longer. And then it can present the modified sounds in thousands of precisely adapted trials that ensure that each student is challenged appropriately to promote learning.

Technology in the classroom is great. And learning to navigate technology is a life skill. But when it comes down to using technology to promote learning in new and different ways, programs like Fast ForWord stand out from the crowd.

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