I want to propose a test—one inspired by Dr. Alan Turing’s Turing Test.
Unlike Turing, we’re not trying to figure out if machines can think. We want to know if edtech lets students think, or if it thinks for them.
Turing introduced the world to his “Imitation Game,” played between human and computer. If the computer could convince human competitors that it too was human by how it played the game, it was said to have passed the Turing Test.
We’re also interested in games, humans, and computers, but our goal is to determine who is doing the thinking. Does an edtech tool let students think for themselves, or does it tell them what to think?
Dr. Seymour Papert was an important figure in early AI research. He co-founded MIT’s Media Lab with Dr. Marvin Minsky, who called him, “The greatest of all living educational theorists.” Papert also worked closely with influential developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, who trumpeted that, “No one understands my ideas as well as Papert.”
Papert believed humans must construct representations of their learning—both digital and physical—in order to learn. His deep experience and extensive writing offer four big ideas that will guide us in making our own test to evaluate edtech quality. By applying these criteria to a digital tool, teachers can find edtech options that support student agency, choice, and creativity in learning.
In 1980, Papert accurately predicted most of today’s classroom edtech use: “The computer is used to put children through their paces, to provide exercises of an appropriate level of difficulty, to provide feedback, and to dispense information. The computer programming the child.”
He longed for something better, a world in which, “The child programs the computer. And in teaching the computer how to think, children embark on an exploration about how they themselves think.”
Agency and ownership matter tremendously in learning. Humans need control of their environment to have transformative learning experiences. The child must be the one at the helm, in full control of what is being created, not being “put through their paces” by the machine. Today there are myriad ways that students can “program” computers and create evidence of their learning. Better substitutes for “program” might be: make, create, build, design, actualize, generate, compose, forge, found, invent, fabricate, formulate, spawn, hatch, bring to life, dream up, and give life to.
Edtech must allow the learner to explore, struggle, play, and be in constant contact with the kinds of feedback that encourage the learner onward. In an essay, Dr. Lorena Barba references a key idea from Papert:
“The Power Principle: What comes first, ‘using’ or ‘understanding?’ The natural mode of learning is to first use, leading slowly to understanding. New ideas are a source of power to do something.”
Does this edtech tool allow the learner to feel powerful? Does it give the student a visceral experience of new power upon discovering what they can do with it? Edtech should make the students feel like superheroes.
In a short essay, Papert recalls a young student’s reaction to working in the Logo programming language: “It’s fun. It’s hard. It’s Logo.” Papert then goes on to say, “I have no doubt that this kid called the work fun because it was hard rather than in spite of being hard.” It’s fun to be able to do hard things, and edtech should help us ensure our learners feel supported in doing hard things.
The type and frequency of feedback a tool provides the learner is crucial. Effective teaching is about identifying barriers to learning, eliminating the ones we can, and providing just-right support tailored to each learner. Good edtech should help provide an environment for students in which they are supported when they struggle. Ubiquitous help offerings, like tool tips, keyboard shortcuts, and robust and varied documentation, make this possible.
Papert believed that humans need tools—physical or digital— to make sense of abstract concepts and to uncover new modes of thinking. In his essay “Gears of my Childhood,” he theorized that sensory-motor experiences are key to creating impactful learning moments that students love.
Consider the edtech in your classroom. Does it show your students new ways of thinking and enable new expressions of thought? Many of my students think with Minecraft. It’s a space where they can put ideas together and make novel creations. It is precisely because of this power to augment their own thinking that they love it. This should be the norm, not the exception, for edtech tools.
Think of a piece of edtech you use often and run it through the filter of each question above. If it passes most or all of the criteria, you’re likely seeing this in your classroom:
Students are engaged. They’re making things you didn’t predict they would or could make. They’re proud of what they’re making and you’re seeing that pride transform their confidence. They’re emotive—expressing both joy and frustration in using this tool. They’re invigorated by the empowerment they feel. They work with it even when their assignments are completed. They seek feedback and show a desire to improve without prompting. They ask for more work because they know they can keep improving and want to do so.
When students are encouraged to own their learning, they will. Edtech must support this cause. When it does, it enables the teacher to come alongside the student as a true coach and do more than dispense information.
In addition to the above criteria, a way for educators to determine edtech quality is to check for one of Digital Promise’s Product Certifications, like Research-Based Design or Learner Variability. Discover which products have earned these certifications by checking our list of certified products or asking the vendors you work with about their certification status.