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Can Use of Computers Enrich a Teacher’s Work and a Student’s Performance?

Use of technology in schools encourages personalized learning and it has been gaining popularity in recent years

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Jahiem Johnson, 13, left, helps classmate Kamya Saunders, 13, as they work on an English passage during class at the Washington Leadership Academy in Washington, Aug. 23, 2017. The school utilizes
Jahiem Johnson, 13, left, helps classmate Kamya Saunders, 13, as they work on an English passage during class at the Washington Leadership Academy in Washington, Aug. 23, 2017. The school utilizes "personalized learning." VOA
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  •  The International Association for K-12 Online Learning estimates that up to 10 percent of all America’s public schools have adopted some form of personalized learning
  • The economy needs kids who are creative problem solvers
  • The digital tool tells us: We have a problem to fix with these kids right here and we can do it right then and there

Washington, USA, August 28, 2017: In middle school, Junior Alvarado often struggled with multiplication and earned poor grades in math, so when he started his freshman year at Washington Leadership Academy, a charter high school in the nation’s capital, he fretted that he would lag behind.

But his teachers used a computer to identify his weak spots, customize a learning plan just for him and coach him through it. This past week, as Alvarado started sophomore geometry, he was more confident in his skills.

“For me, personalized learning is having classes set at your level,” Alvarado, 15, said in between lessons. “They explain the problem step by step, it wouldn’t be as fast, it will be at your pace.”

As schools struggle to raise high school graduation rates and close the persistent achievement gap for minority and low-income students, many educators tout digital technology in the classroom as a way forward. But experts caution that this approach still needs more scrutiny and warn schools and parents against being overly reliant on computers.

The use of technology in schools is part of a broader concept of personalized learning that has been gaining popularity in recent years. It’s a pedagogical philosophy centered around the interests and needs of each individual child as opposed to universal standards. Other features include flexible learning environments, customized education paths and letting students have a say in what and how they want to learn.

Also Read: US Public Schools are Teaching Arabic Language and Receiving Aid from Qatar Foundation International, But Why?

Personalized learning

Under the Obama administration, the Education Department poured $500 million into personalized learning programs in 68 school districts serving close to a half million students in 13 states plus the District of Columbia. Large organizations such as the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation have also invested heavily in digital tools and other student-centered practices.

The International Association for K-12 Online Learning estimates that up to 10 percent of all America’s public schools have adopted some form of personalized learning. Rhode Island plans to spend $2 million to become the first state to make instruction in every one of its schools individualized. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also embraces personalized learning as part of her broader push for school choice.

Supporters say the traditional education model, in which a teacher lectures at the blackboard and then tests all students at the same time, is obsolete and doesn’t reflect the modern world.

“The economy needs kids who are creative problem solvers, who synthesize information, formulate and express a point of view,” said Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner. “That’s the model we are trying to move toward.”

At Washington Leadership Academy, educators rely on software and data to track student progress and adapt teaching to enable students to master topics at their own speed.

Digital tool finds problem

This past week, sophomores used special computer programs to take diagnostic tests in math and reading, and teachers then used that data to develop individual learning plans. In English class, for example, students reading below grade level would be assigned the same books or articles as their peers, but complicated vocabulary in the text would be annotated on their screen.

“The digital tool tells us: We have a problem to fix with these kids right here and we can do it right then and there; we don’t have to wait for the problem to come to us,” said Joseph Webb, founding principal at the school, which opened last year.

Webb, dressed in a green T-shirt reading “super school builder,” greeted students Wednesday with high-fives, hugs, and humor. “Red boxers are not part of our uniform!” he shouted to one student, who responded by pulling up his pants.

The school serves some 200 predominantly African-American students from high-poverty and high-risk neighborhoods. Flags of prestigious universities hang from the ceiling and a “You are a leader” poster is taped to a classroom door. Based on a national assessment last year, the school ranked in the 96th percentile for improvement in math and in the 99th percentile in reading compared with schools whose students scored similarly at the beginning of the year.

It was one of 10 schools to win a $10 million grant in a national competition aimed at reinventing American high schools that are funded by Lauren Powell Jobs, widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs.

Also Read: New York City wants to be the Next American Tech Powerhouse by tripling its Investment in Programs for Computer Science Students

‘Female Bill Gates’

Naia McNatt, a lively 15-year-old who hopes to become “the African-American and female Bill Gates,” remembers feeling so bored and unchallenged in fourth grade that she stopped doing homework and her grades slipped.

At the Academy, “I don’t get bored ‘cause I guess I am pushed so much,” said McNatt, a sophomore. “It makes you need to do more, you need to know more.”

In math class, McNatt quickly worked through quadratic equations on her laptop. When she finished, the system spat out additional, more challenging problems.

Her math teacher, Britney Wray, says that in her previous school she was torn between advanced learners and those who lagged significantly. She says often she wouldn’t know if a student was failing a specific unit until she started a new one.

In comparison, the academy’s technology now gives Wray instant feedback on which students need help and where. “We like to see the problem and fix the problem immediately,” she said.

Still, most researchers say it is too early to tell if personalized learning works better than traditional teaching.

A recent study by the Rand Corporation found that personalized learning produced modest improvements: a 3 percentile increase in math and a smaller, statistically insignificant increase in reading compared with schools that used more traditional approaches. Some students also complained that collaboration with classmates suffered because everybody was working on a different task.

“I would not advise for everybody to drop what they are doing and adopt personalized learning,” said John Pane, a co-author of the report. “A more cautious approach is necessary.”

New challenges

The new opportunities also pose new challenges. Pediatricians warn that too much screen time can come at the expense of face-to-face social interaction, hands-on exploration, and physical activity. Some studies also have shown that students may learn better from books than from computer screens, while another found that keeping children away from the computer for five days in a row improved their emotional intelligence.

Some teachers are skeptical. Marla Kilfoyle, executive director of the Badass Teachers Association, an education advocacy group, agrees that technology has its merits, but insists that no computer or software should ever replace the personal touch, motivation and inspiration teachers give their students.

“That interaction and that human element are very important when children learn,” Kilfoyle said. (VOA)

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Despite ‘Donald Trump effect’, global momentum gained on climate change

Environmental advocates believe that, amidst the shadow of the US decision, 2017 has seen progress in new climate action.

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Despite Trump pulling out of Climate Agreement, the issue is still gaining momentum globally. Pixabay
Despite Trump pulling out of Climate Agreement, the issue is still gaining momentum globally. Pixabay
  • Trump pulled out of 2015’s Paris Climate  Change Agreement, earlier this year.
  • Despite, Trump puling out, the issue of climate change is still gaining global momentum.
  • After the US pulled its funds out, European union is now providing a fund of 9 million euros.

The Trump administration’s decision earlier this year to pull out of the historic 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, saying the Obama-era deal was an attempt to diminish the US economy and take jobs away, has not stopped incredible global momentum to curb global warming.

Paris summit
Obama’s was an attempt to diminish the US economy and take jobs away.

Environmental advocates believe that, amidst the shadow of the US decision, 2017 has seen progress in new climate action, ranging from the World Bank announcing it won’t fund upstream oil and gas projects after 2019 to a range of commitments from brown to green investments by companies joining the Global Big Shift campaign.In a major initiative, the World’s No.1 polluter, China, this week announced plans to start a market-based carbon-trading system, initially in over 1,700 power-generating firms, to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius and aiming to cut greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels.

Taking the lead, French President Emmanuel Macron this month called “The One Planet” summit in Paris — the birthplace of the Paris Agreement — to mark its second anniversary, to speed up development of decarbonisation pathways by nations and to do something serious about climate mitigation and adaptations.

Observers say the summit was both a celebration of the historic achievement of the Paris Agreement and an opportunity for the countries that are willing to go further and faster in transitioning their economies to demonstrate the action they are taking.

“President Macron deserves a lot of credit for marking the second anniversary of the Paris Agreement by getting world leaders together. The climate challenge needs more than a single champion, but President Macron is certainly doing his bit,” British charity Christian Aid’s Senior Climate Change Advisor, Mohamed Adow, told IANS.

At The One Planet summit, more than 200 civil society organisations from nearly 60 countries released a letter calling on multilateral development banks, including the World Bank Group, and G20 governments to end public financial support for fossil fuels by 2020 at the latest.

With the US government withdrawing funds to deal with climate change, such as the $2 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund, the European Union announced nine billion euro climate finance contribution at The One Planet summit to achieve climate goals.

In a related announcement at the summit, 225 of the most influential global institutional investors, with more than $26.3 trillion in assets under management, launched a new collaborative initiative to engage with the world’s largest corporate greenhouse gas emitters to step up action on climate change.

The Paris gathering took place less than a month after the successful conclusion of the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn (COP-23) in November and was the first in a series of international summits to help countries to raise the bar and bolster their national climate action plans — crucial to achieving the Paris Agreement’s goals.

Interestingly, Trump is continuing support to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, one of the most successful international environmental treaties that celebrated its 30th anniversary in Montreal last month.

Trump still supporting Montreal protocol, though. VOA
Trump still supporting Montreal protocol, though. VOA

India, a signatory to the Protocol since 1992, has been proactive in compliance and played a key role in achieving the historic Kigali Amendment last year for phasing down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), powerful greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change.

The parties to the Montreal Protocol committed $540 million for the developing nations during the joint 11th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Vienna Convention and the 29th Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol that were held in Canada last month.

And the US alone will take a nearly 25 per cent share of the total funding.

“We’ve seen incredible support for the Kigali Amendment, and much of this is due to the fact that we’ve also had strong support from businesses,” UN Environment head Erik Solheim told IANS.

“The process is proceeding very well and financial support for the mechanism has also been very strong. As such, I’m optimistic that this trend will continue,” Solheim added.

Climate change has been emerging as one of the biggest issues in recent times.
Climate change has been emerging as one of the biggest issues in recent times.

At the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, India reiterated provisions for finance — both for adaptation and mitigation – and technology transfer for climate actions from the developed nations.A day after a major victory for India and developing countries on climate action before 2020 that the developed world agreed to discuss in subsequent two years, Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change Harsh Vardhan told IANS that provisions for finance, technology transfer and capacity-building support to developing nations are critical.

Stressing that COP-23 was crucial as it would set the stage for the 2018 Facilitative Dialogue, accelerate pre-2020 action and firm up the modalities for implementing the Paris Agreement, he said India has undertaken ambitious mitigation and adaptation action.

The Centre for Science and Environment’s Deputy Director, Chandra Bhushan, however, believes this year was a damp squib as far as global environmental negotiations and actions are concerned.

“There is a big gap between the global action required and the collective action of countries to address issues like climate change. In 2017, this gap was further widened with the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement; 2017, therefore, was a damp squib as far as global environmental negotiations and actions were concerned,” Bhushan, who was given the Partnership Award by UN Environment last month for providing policy and research support to the negotiations during the Kigali Amendment, told IANS. IANS