By now, technology is an essential part of modern life. It simplifies many activities and removes friction from them: as an example, think about how much more friction-free maps on mobile devices has made navigation. No more paper maps that are torn just at the part you need or stopping multiple times during a trip to ask for directions. Instead, we just get there.
Technology also enables companies to reach bigger audiences efficiently, without scaling up human resources proportionately. Amazon sells billions of dollars of goods with customers finding products and checking themselves out without any direct interaction with other people.
How should technology influence education then, given its power to reduce friction and enable scale with limited human intervention? Many education tech companies promise scalable, low-friction learning — particularly in mathematics (Khan Academy, EdX) and language learning (DuoLingo and Babbel among many others) — and some of them offer excellent content. These programs provide uniform digital guidance to progress learners through the information. Also, most US School districts now offer online learning to their students, to accommodate difficult schedules, unusual life circumstances, or overcrowded classrooms. This modern approach to education has increased accessibility while minimizing the need for intercommunication between student and instructor.
However, when it comes to adolescent learning, the friction-free efficiency of technology-driven education misses a key point: most learning is as much a time to practice essential habits and functional skills as it is content acquisition. And as much as schools try to make learning efficient, skills practice requires ongoing, timely and constructive feedback, as is evident, for example, in sports and music. Yes, apps can give some feedback, but to grow and succeed, students need more than automated responses on what they got right or wrong. They need a mentor or a peer acknowledging their effort, recognizing work well done, and also pushing them to try new strategies, suggesting improvements in nuanced ways, or simply asking them to rework something from scratch to make it better.
This isn’t just an argument that “apps will do that soon, they’re just not there yet.” Apps can learn, and AIs can give feedback. But growing habits and skills that matter, that enable a young person to develop interests, find a purpose, and create value, are deeply human activities that benefit from – and require – community, social engagement, attention, and care.
Technology has much to offer to improve education, if applied thoughtfully. Our own Quest Forward Learning builds on a powerful technology framework and multiple, interconnected apps for curriculum design, for teaching and learning globally, for assessment, and for student/mentor communication. (Read more about our technology in a recent post.) However, we take great care to place student/mentor interactions and student/student interactions at the center of all learning activities, making sure that the tech plays its rightful role: to support human growth in a rich, social, active, and engaged context that helps learners to develop the deep habits and skills they need to succeed.