New digital learning technologies have potential to be ‘game changing’


Can new digital technologies meaningfully assess students without stifling them and actually transform the learning process?

Jessie Woolley-Wilson, president and chief executive officer of DreamBox Learning, thinks so and is, in particular, a strong believer in intelligent adaptive learning technologies.

She points to DreamBox Learning Math, the company’s principal product, as an example of how technology can enable a combination of adaptive learning, a K-8 mathematics curriculum and a motivating learning environment. The platform, which captures every decision a student makes and adjusts the student’s learning path accordingly, reflects a growing array of more sophisticated teaching tools for the classroom.

EdScoop talked with Woolley-Wilson recently about the use of new technologies to assess student learning and what the future holds for them.

EdScoop: How would you describe the maturity of technologies to assess student learning relative to traditional test taking?

Woolley-Wilson: This is a hard question because when you think about assessment you need to think about summative assessment, which is trying to take a snapshot of where a child is now. Then there are formative assessments, which try to help project where a child can go forward.

I think this new class of technologies that gets to know the user through use—adaptive technologies—is well ahead of where the summative assessments field is.

Technologies like DreamBox are actually capturing how students are thinking and what decisions they’re making, which goes well beyond rear-view mirror assessments, which ask what happened yesterday or two months ago or a year ago and therefore what might we do with Johnny or Sally today.

[Adaptive technologies], on the other hand, ask what is happening right now in the moment and how can we leverage data dynamically and continuously to ascertain how the child is thinking and what levels of subject matter can they master. Then we can make sure they are placed in the most optimal place in the lesson to optimize their learning.

What evidence is there that these tools are making testing less stressful on students and a better gauge of proficiency?

Woolley-Wilson: The trick here is that [with adaptive technologies] we are seamlessly integrating formative assessment with instruction so there isn’t an “assessment moment” where the child feels stressed and the teacher feels stressed about whether they going to capture what they taught three months ago.

I would say the headline here is that instruction and student progression do not have to be dependent on summative assessment as much now with these next-generation tools, because the amount of data that we provide to learning guardians allows teachers and other educators to modify their live instruction based on recent dynamic data. That’s game-changing.

[However] it’s going to be a long time before we abandon summative assessments even though they’re proven to be less efficacious. A lot of people say the SAT does not capture a student’s true promise but we still use the SAT. It’s not sufficient that we have newer technologies because habits are hard to break, especially in public education.

But I remain very optimistic because the more students get exposure to next-generation technologies, and the more teachers have access to these kind of technologies, the less stress both teachers and students will experience because it’s not going to be about just getting the right answer. It’s going to be about demonstrating that you have a conceptual understanding of the content.

What obstacles to adopting these technologies are schools facing?

Woolley-Wilson: There are three obstacles. [First], how does an educator who wants to try something new know that it’s better than the thing that they’re using? They have a hard time evaluating the effectiveness of new tools because they don’t have the expertise. One of the things that we need in education is a reliable third-party resource that does evaluations and shares that evaluation with buyers across the learning spectrum.

The second thing is that there is no incentive to try something better. No one is going to lose their job because they continue to use a product that has been used for 50 years…so there is very little incentive to try something new.

The third is leadership. We find that educators that use DreamBox are leaders or are school systems that have leaders that are strategically focused on learning innovation. And they are seeking tools that will help them in their strategy to make sure that every child is served, regardless of where they are in their learning path.

What’s needed to overcome these obstacles?

Woolley-Wilson: We need more evidence [that new technologies work successfully]. I think that people who are risk averse and those who are not as familiar with these new technologies will benefit from having [third-party evidence].

The second is that we are at an inflection point where what parents want for their kids is very important. Parents need to know not only that their child going to do well in their local school but ultimately when that child goes to compete in the global economy, that they can remake their skills.

What we are really doing at DreamBox is teaching kids how to learn. We don’t give them instructions and we don’t give them a linear progression. We ask to figure it out, form their own hypotheses and think deeply to solve problems.

At what grade levels does it makes sense to start using these new tools?

Woolley-Wilson: I have a special interest in early learning. What we find is that when you start kids early and you expose them to new learning environments and new ways of learning, they learn it very quickly.

The encouraging thing is even if students in middle school or high school start with truly adaptive technologies, these technologies can recognize it. Even if their chronological age is 7th grade, they might be ready for only 5th grade content. So the technologies can respect their chronological age in terms of engagement, but make sure that the content matches what they’re ready for so that the child is not frustrated, discouraged or bored because it’s not difficult enough.

So I would say that starting early is really important but we do have evidence that suggests that even if you start late you still can benefit from these next-generation technologies.

What’s your advice to educators about taking greater advantage of these tools?

Woolley-Wilson: My advice is to take a look at what is happening next door and to leverage third-party research, so that they don’t feel like they have to martyr themselves or their kids. So they have to become students of what’s happening out there, to remain skeptical because not everything works but to have high confidence that when [successful] solutions are subjected to robust studies…you can get measurable progression so that is probably worth their while to try something new.

Should burden of adoption be on teachers, school IT directors or educational-material providers?

Woolley-Wilson: I think the responsibility is a shared responsibility between the tool provider and the learning organization. I don’t think it can be all on the shoulders of the educators. We learned the hard way. When we first came out, we were just a software solution. [But] until we changed our perspective and saw it was a shared responsibility we were not as successful. We embraced the shared responsibility for client success at DreamBox and now we feel like we are partners in this. That’s the only way it’s going to scale effectively. That’s only way it’s going to last.