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How technology is building a better learning experience for more students

Building blocks for success in the classroom

“What if I never learn to read?”

This question was posed by eight-year old Fatima to her mom, Tasneem, after coming home from school in tears because she was struggling to read aloud in class.

Fatima has dyslexia, a term used to describe disorders that involve difficulty learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols. She was diagnosed with dyslexia at an early age after her teachers noticed that she was mispronouncing certain names and words.

Fatima’s mom explained to her that children learn in different ways and having dyslexia doesn’t mean she is “stupid” or “dumb”.  She assured Fatima that she is just as intelligent as the other children, and explained that many people who struggled with dyslexia had gone on to have successful careers, like Albert Einstein, who became the world’s most renowned physicist.

That was nine years ago.

Now Fatima reads with the assistance of sophisticated technology called Immersive Reader. Immersive Reader is a Microsoft Learning Tool that empowers students with challenges like dyslexia, dysgraphia (the inability to write coherently) and Attention Deficit Disorders (ADD) to improve their reading and writing skills. It’s currently used by more than 13 million students around the world and has been shown to increase student test scores by as much as 10 percent.

Technology gives all students a leg up

It’s clear that our world is changing faster than ever. Just a decade ago, a child such as Fatima, who struggled to read or write, didn’t have the opportunities technology provides now.

For countries in the Middle East and Africa, where vast disparities in educational opportunities exist, technology offers many teachers and students access to tools and content that would otherwise be out of reach. Mobile technology in particular is poised to revolutionise education in the region, as more students in emerging economies use their cell phones as learning devices.

At the Likoni School for the Blind in Kenya, over 500 visually impaired children are using assistive technology to access richer digital learning content.  And in Sharjah City in the United Arab Emirates, the Al Amal School for the Deaf is also using technology to help teachers build more engaging lessons, create sign-language videos and facilitate independent learning.

According to Afaf Haridi, principal of Al Amal School for the Deaf, “The children are gaining skills that they can use in the professional world. All in all, the initiative we rolled out with the help of Microsoft hasn’t just improved classroom learning—it has also created an amazing bond between the school and our students.”

No one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning

However, the benefits of integrating technology in the classroom don’t only apply to children who have disabilities. Technology is improving overall learning outcomes by meeting the needs of different learning styles of students.

The days of the “one-size-fits-all” educational model are numbered. Today’s educators have more tools and resources at their disposal than ever before, meeting the diverse needs of their students and helping them succeed both inside and outside the classroom.

Teaching for success: Integrating tech into the different learning styles

Students enter the classroom with a wide range of learning styles and abilities, as well as their own unique personalities. To help them grasp new concepts, a fundamental understanding of the learning styles is essential. But it’s sometimes difficult for teachers to accommodate each student individually within the traditional classroom setting.

Fortunately, technology is providing teachers with accessible solutions that support a more personalised and inclusive approach to learning.

In general terms, learning styles refer to the ways in which learners understand, process and remember new information. The most popular learning styles include: visual, auditory, tactile and kinesthetic

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For example, visual learners respond best to pictures and videos. Incorporating a tool like Picture Dictionary into the classroom gives these learners the ability to see a picture and hear the word simultaneously aiding reading comprehension.

Nikki Heyman, a speech and language therapist in South Africa, uses technology to visually represent concepts to children. “Having material at hand because of access to technology is fantastic. There may be a word or a concept that a child doesn’t understand, and technology allows you to provide the child with an immediate visual image of the word,” she says.

Auditory learners, on the other hand, learn best through audible signals, storytelling and music. A tool like Dictation in Office is a simple yet transformative tool that helps students of all abilities write freely by speaking into a microphone. In addition, with Skype, students can connect with classrooms around the world. Foreign language teachers can also use Skype to connect their class with native speakers of the language which can help students develop their conversational skills.

Kinesthetic learners prefer acting and role-playing. A great way to enhance the learning outcomes of these types of learners is to incorporate mixed reality into the classroom. Mixed reality helps transform classrooms by enabling students to experience curricula in completely new ways. Students can immerse themselves in the subject matter in a truly engaging way.

For example, with Microsoft’s mixed reality HoloTour, students can explore the beauty and history of Rome or uncover the hidden secrets of Machu Picchu. They can experience a whole new world with a unique combination of 360-degree video, spatial sound, and holographic scenery.

For tactile students who prefer to learn by touch, mixed reality lets them experience 3D content creation. With Masterpiece VR, students can sculpt and paint using intuitive and dynamic features that assist students build tangible objects, colourful environments and high quality models.

Minecraft: Education Edition is another great tool for all types of learners as it teaches creativity, collaboration and even coding. Minecraft: Education Edition is used to teach all types of subjects, from mathematics and physics to history and languages. Today, the game has more than four million licensed users in 115 countries. Educators have created more than 250 free lesson plans spanning a variety of subjects and over 300 educators around the world are trained as Minecraft mentors to help others get started.

Giving a voice to more children

According to Heyman, “The biggest revolution in technology for me is the ability to give more children a voice. In the past children with complex needs were written off because they could not communicate.”

However, she believes that there are still challenges that need to be overcome before technology can be used to its full potential in the classroom. “There are many teachers who are reluctant to change from the ‘old school’ style of teaching for fear of the unknown and having to learn new skills. Also, placing a device in front of a child and expecting them to just use it, is not going to happen. They need to be taught how to use it, and this takes time, resources and practice. It needs buy-in from everyone in the environment to be successful,” she says.

This sentiment is echoed by Michele Botha, a primary school assessment specialist for the Independent Examinations Board in South Africa. Botha believes that using technology in teaching to enhance the learning experience demands a high level of understanding and skill – it cannot be left to intuition.

She also believes that the reason education is still playing catch up with the digital world, particularly in the MEA region, is because education is generally more conservative in its approach to change than other workplaces.

“By its very nature education is dependent on a deeply personal relationship of trust and care. Additionally, there is sometimes a lack of money, teacher training, confidence in use of technology, inadequate infrastructure and poor connectivity, which are also contributing factors,” she says.

Technology now for students in the future

The role of the teacher is to prepare the future generations. The biggest question facing educators now is what skills today’s children will need to be ready by the time they graduate, and how can technology support their educational journey?

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To answer these critical questions, Microsoft launched a key piece of research: “The class of 2030 and life-ready learning: The technology imperative.” The research interviewed more than 70 thought leaders around the world, reviewed 150 pieces of existing research, and surveyed 2 000 teachers and 2 000 students.

The research highlights personalised learning as an approach which supports skills development — both cognitive as well as social and emotional. The students were also clear: they want to develop these skills to navigate their own learning – to explore and make choices that unlock their curiosity and potential – and they want teachers who know and understand them as individuals.

Three technologies were highlighted in the research as showing great promise to support social and emotional skill development and personalised learning. These are collaborative platforms, mixed reality and analytics powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Technology can’t substitute the teacher

According to Botha, technology is not the silver bullet with which to solve all education problems. “It’s just another tool in a teacher’s toolbox. A teacher’s power lies in the opportunities he or she creates for learners to solve problems in an environment grounded in strong interpersonal relationships.”

“Good teachers have always finessed the technology available to them to create spaces where learning to think, learning to learn and creativity are paramount. Technology is only an asset when it’s added into this mix,” she concludes.