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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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Microsoft Now The Most Valuable Public Company, Surpassing Apple

Daniel Morgan, senior portfolio manager for Synovus Trust, said Microsoft is outperforming its tech rivals in part because of what it's not.

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Microsoft
A man walks past a Microsoft sign set up for the Microsoft BUILD conference at Moscone Center in San Francisco, April 28, 2015. Microsoft says it’s requiring its U.S. suppliers to offer their employees at least 12 weeks paid leave to care for a new child. The company announced the new parental leave policy Thursday. VOA

Microsoft’s big bet on cloud computing is paying off as the company has surpassed Apple as the world’s most valuable publicly traded company.

The software maker’s prospects looked bleak just a few years ago, as licenses for the company’s Windows system fell with a sharp drop in sales of personal computers.

But under CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft has found stability by focusing on software and services over the internet, or the cloud, with long-term business contracts.

That 1990s personal-computing powerhouse is now having a renaissance moment, as it eclipses Facebook, Google, Amazon and the other tech darlings of the late decade.

Apple had been the world’s most prosperous firm since claiming the top spot from Exxon Mobil earlier this decade. Microsoft surpassed Apple briefly a few times this week, but didn’t close on top until Friday, with a market value of $851 billion to Apple’s $847 billion. Microsoft hadn’t been at the top since the height of the dot-com boom in 2000.

Microsoft
An advertisement is played on a set of large screens at the Microsoft office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S, VOA

Apple’s plunge

Microsoft became a contender again in large part because Apple’s stock fell nearly 20 percent in November, while Microsoft hasn’t done any worse than the rest of the stock market. But the fact that it hasn’t done poorly reflects its steady focus on business customers in recent years.

Microsoft lost its luster as people were shunning PCs in favor of smartphones. In 2013, PC sales plunged 10 percent to about 315 million, the worst year-to-year drop ever, according to research firms Gartner and IDC. It didn’t help that Microsoft’s effort to make PCs more like phones, Windows 8, was widely panned.

But a turnaround began when the Redmond, Wash., company promoted Nadella as CEO in 2014. He succeeded Microsoft’s longtime CEO, Steve Ballmer, who initially scoffed at the notion that people would be willing to pay $500 or more for Apple’s iPhones.

Microsoft
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella delivers the keynote address at Build, the company’s annual conference for software developers. VOA

That bet paid off. Windows is now a dwindling fraction of Microsoft’s business. While the company still runs consumer-focused businesses such as Bing search and Xbox gaming, it has prioritized business-oriented services such as its Office line of email and other workplace software, as well as newer additions such as LinkedIn and Skype. But its biggest growth has happened in the cloud, particularly the cloud platform it calls Azure. Cloud computing now accounts for more than a quarter of Microsoft’s revenue, and Microsoft rivals Amazon as a leading provider of such services.

Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said Azure is still in its early days, meaning there’s plenty of room for growth, especially considering the company’s large customer base for Office and other products.

“While the tech carnage seen over the last month has been brutal, shares of [Microsoft] continue to hold up like the Rock of Gibraltar,” he said.

Being less reliant on consumer demand helped shield Microsoft from holiday season turbulence and U.S.-China trade war jitters affecting Apple and other tech companies.

President Donald Trump amplified those tariff concerns when he told The Wall Street Journal in a story published late Monday that new tariffs could affect iPhones and laptops imported from China.

Microsoft, PUBG
A sign for Microsoft is seen on a building in Cambridge. VOA

The iPhone maker had already seen its stock fall after reporting a mixed bag of quarterly results in early November amid fears about how the technology industry will fare in the face of such threats as rising interest rates, increased government regulation and Trump’s escalating trade war with China. 

Reporting change

Apple also spooked investors with an unexpected decision to stop disclosing how many iPhones it sells each quarter. That move has been widely interpreted as a sign that Apple foresees further declines in iPhone sales and is trying to mask that.

While smartphones caused the downturn in personal computers years ago, sales of smartphones themselves have now stalled. That’s partly because with fewer innovations from previous models, more people choose to hold on to the devices for longer periods before upgrading.

Also Read: Apple In Court Battle Over App Store

Daniel Morgan, senior portfolio manager for Synovus Trust, said Microsoft is outperforming its tech rivals in part because of what it’s not. It doesn’t face as much regulatory scrutiny as advertising-hungry Google and Facebook, which have attracted controversy over their data-harvesting practices. Unlike Netflix, it’s not on a hunt for a diminishing number of international subscribers. And while Amazon also has a strong cloud business, it’s still more dependent on online retail. (VOA)