Instructional Software Should Be Exercise, Not Physical Therapy

Educators too often treat instructional software for students like physical therapy for the injured: You get diagnosed for your specific injury, you undergo a physical therapy regimen, and one day you’re healthy again.

Boy thinking hardSo too, digital content is prescribed for students needing remediation for specific areas of weakness diagnosed, until they have practiced those areas of weakness enough to “pass.” Digital content has been mispositioned as optional: as a tool for some of the students, some of the curriculum, some of the time. In this view, software serves a role of “cleaning-up” whatever gaps were left unfilled or incomplete after normal teaching.

Even with the recent emergence of “blended learning” combining digital content with teaching, this “fill the holes” role for digital content is still prevalent, as evidenced by RFP’s for RTI Tier 2 use. The software, according to this thinking, enables “more” teaching; “more” time on task. But consider: more time with conventional teaching has been tried and doesn’t get game-changing results. By game-changing I mean ensuring that every student understands and gains content mastery and confidence in a subject – like math.

This pigeonholing of instructional software as a “clean up” is too limiting. Why then purchase – or develop – instructional software that is fundamental and vital for all students? Fundamental and vital is how we view... textbooks. Lawsuits are filed and won to ensure that every student has a textbook. We’ll know that the pigeonholing is over when the day comes that a lawsuit is filed, fought and won to ensure that every student has effective instructional software.

Teacher helpign student with ST MathInstructional software, in the hands of a teacher, makes teaching and learning more powerful and effective generally throughout the school year, by differentiating to reach every student (including the strongest), engaging and motivating each student at an appropriate level and pace, and providing multiple opportunities for the teacher to assess, diagnose, and consolidate student learning.

The future – and appropriate – role of instructional software will be as a fundamental and vital component of the everyday learning environment, for every student and every teacher. Instead of physical therapy, it will serve a role more like exercise; like joining a gym and diligently using its facilities and trainers to get in top shape and stay that way. No one gets to “test out” of conditioning. No one gets assigned to work “just on the weaknesses." And everyone comes out stronger.

This post was originally published in District Administration, April 2013.

Andrew Coulson

About the Author

Andrew R. Coulson, Chief Data Science Officer at MIND Education, specializes in digital data collection techniques and conducting rigorous evaluations of organic quasi-experiments. With a background in high-tech manufacturing engineering for over 17 years, he brings expertise in operations, process engineering, product reliability, and technology transfer. Coulson holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in physics from UCLA.


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