The potential of technology to help close the skills gap

Numerous innovations in the education technology space are beginning to show potential in improving education and helping address skills gaps. To help lower the cost and improve the quality of education, education technology is being used to: – See more at:

  • – Find creative solutions to fundamental challenges in many countries, such as a lack of well-trained teachers and broadly accessible technology infrastructure.
  • -Make education available to a broader audience at a much lower cost or provide higher quality instruction at the same price.
  • -Enable easier scaling up of promising models within local markets and the transfer of best practices across markets in ways that can be sustained over the long term.
  • -Gain insight into how and what students learn in real time by taking advantage of the greater variety, volume and velocity of data.
  • -Increase teacher productivity, freeing up valuable time from tasks such as grading and testing, which can be used for differentiated teaching of competencies and character qualities.

In addition, education technology can be deployed to develop 21st-century skills such as communication, creativity, persistence and collaboration, as is explored in the representative examples below.

Of course, technology is only one element in a portfolio of vital solutions that aim to close the 21st-century skills gap. These include strategies such as better teacher preparation, new modes of learning and wraparound services for struggling families.

But when educators add education technology to the mix of potential solutions, we find they are most effective if applied within an integrated instructional system known as the closed loop. As in engineering or manufacturing, the closed loop refers to a system that requires an integrated and connected set of steps to produce results. In the educational world, the closed-loop instructional system works similarly. At the classroom level of the closed loop, educators create learning objectives, develop curricula and instructional strategies, deliver instruction, embed ongoing assessments, provide appropriate interventions based on student needs and track outcomes and learning. All these efforts must be linked together as well as aligned with the goal of developing 21st-century skills .


To understand how technology can enhance learning as one tool in a portfolio, we surveyed the education technology landscape for trends and promising approaches to developing 21st-century skills.

Based on our research and interviews with dozens of players in the education field, we homed in on a number of resources, as well as school networks that place a heavy emphasis on technology, as representative examples of those trends. In this section, we focus exclusively on skill development in primary and secondary education.

By the time students enter college and the labour market, deficiencies that have not been addressed earlier can be far more difficult and costly to remedy.

Through our analysis, we categorized the technologies that further strengthen the closed loop to address 21st-century skills gaps and deliver outcomes.

The first category includes instructional resources that help address 21st-century skills gaps through the design, delivery and assessment of learning. These include personalized and adaptive content and curricula, open educational resources, communication and collaboration tools and interactive simulations and games.

The second category includes institutional resources that help the closed loop deliver outcomes by improving human capital development and strengthening management systems. These include digital professional development resources for teachers and student information and learning management systems. At the end of this chapter, we also explore three school networks attempting to use education technology within the closed loop as they respond to the respective challenges found in different parts of the world.

When education technologies are layered throughout the closed loop, we argue that technology-based solutions such as the sample profiled here have the potential to enable teachers, schools, school networks and countries to scale up solutions in ways not possible before and potentially to deliver better outcomes and learning.    That said, their inclusion in this report is not intended to serve as an endorsement: much more research must be done to identify the most effective uses of technology in the classroom and the most transferable solutions. In fact, most education technologies we surveyed come from the developed world and would require significant adaptations to respond to the unique challenges of and be successfully transferred to developing countries.

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Instructional resources that enable the closed loop to address 21st-century skills gaps

Increasingly, best-in-class curricula aim to teach multiple skills at the same time. For example, teachers might use word problems to teach multiplication, directing students to think critically and solve problems while developing both literacy and numeracy skills. Education technology has the potential to become an option for teachers in delivering this combination of foundational literacies, competencies and character qualities.   At present, however, our research has found that most instructional activity in the education technology space has concentrated on the development of foundational literacies, given the focus of most educational standards around the world.   While there has been some effort to develop competencies and character qualities, these skills are still not the primary focus of most educators and education technology developers. We conclude that to develop the full range of 21st-century skills, more resources need to be focused on competency and character quality development and aligned to particular skills. This, in turn, would help educators better evaluate products that best address their needs and contexts.

We further place the existing instructional resources into a few main categories. Those include: personalized and adaptive content and curricula, open educational resources, communication and collaboration tools and interactive simulations and games.

Most educational technologies are focused on developing foundational literacies

For adaptive learning platforms to work well, subject matter is often broken down into discrete topics that enable a logical progression from one concept to another.    Part of the reason we see adaptive learning focused primarily on literacy and numeracy is that these skills have already been broken down into chunks of concepts and their connections, which a computer can use to pinpoint how knowledge builds. Standardized reading levels have been developed, as well as “knowledge maps” for mathematics concepts, such as those used by personalized learning resource Khan Academy. As a result, we see personalized and adaptive technologies currently most used to strengthen the closed loop in developing foundational literacies.   To reach their full potential and further develop competencies and character qualities, these technologies need to take fuller advantage of the vast amount of data that is collected as students learn. They can use the data to better understand not just what students know, but also how they interact with content and learn best.

Open educational resources

Open educational resources (OER) increase the variety, accessibility and availability of content and curricula. Similar to personalized and adaptive tools, the focus of OER is primarily on foundational literacies.   Digital platforms such as LearnZillion, Curriki and BetterLesson are free repositories of vast amounts of open-source content, which is often user-generated. These platforms allow teachers and schools to upload, share, edit and rate content online, creating a bank of both content (subject-knowledge materials) and curricula (such as lesson plans and pedagogical materials) created and vetted by teachers. For example, LearnZillion features more than 4,000 free open-source videos, Curriki offers more than 50,000 resources, ranging from individual lessons to complete courses and BetterLesson includes more than 10,000 Common Core-aligned lessons.   Well-established publishers such as Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin are also incorporating OER into their proprietary materials and platforms to allow teachers to customize their lessons. Other players such as Fishtree are designing similar content-creation platforms through which educators can customize their lesson plans, drawing from a wide range of resources.   Given the vast amount of free and open-source content available on the internet and the limited degree of quality control, there is a pressing need to differentiate content by quality, relevance and standards alignment. Without such quality control, it is challenging for teachers to identify and incorporate high-quality content into their teaching. However, some select examples are beginning to provide aggregated and curated digital content. Through crowdsourcing and expert reviews, Curriki Geometry aggregates quality content and teaching materials from its platform into a comprehensive project-based geometry solution available for free. netTrekker contains a subscription-based repository of expert-reviewed, standards-aligned and carefully tagged content that makes it easier for teachers to find the resources they need.

Communication and collaboration tools

A number of tools are helping students develop competencies such as collaboration and communication by facilitating group work, peer-to-peer learning and peer feedback. These tools can be further enhanced by project-based and experiential-learning pedagogical approaches that help students work together to solve problems in real time.   Students can collaborate in real time on assignments using digital tools such as Google Apps for Education to collectively develop documents, spreadsheets and presentations. Online communication tools also allow students to help each other.   Students can now create and share digital notebooks through tools such as OneNote; discuss readings and assignments, share related information and keep up with classroom announcements through social networking sites such as Facebook; and comment on and discuss assigned readings through such sites as Ponder.

Institutional resources that enable the closed loop to deliver outcomes

Two important sets of resources work to strengthen the closed loop at the institutional level, be it the school, network or district. Those improvements develop a key resource – teachers – as well as create better systems and data flows.   By broadly strengthening human capital and technology infrastructure – two critical elements often challenged in many educational systems – each set of resources allows for greater productivity, efficiency and effectiveness at all levels of the closed loop.   While we highlight a number of innovative examples, we observe that most digital professional development resources for teachers disproportionally focus on helping them improve foundational literacies in their students, without adequate attention to developing competencies and character qualities. To help address skills gaps, teacher training should be better aligned to 21st-century skills. In addition, administrators need to improve the use of data in learning and decision-making at both the school and system levels.

Digital professional development resources for teachers

For countries to succeed at generating 21st-century skills, they also need to help teachers more efficiently and productively develop their own skills.   Emerging online resources in professional development for teachers can have a positive impact, adding more instructional strategies to a teacher’s repertoire, as well as improving their ability to execute on these strategies in the classroom. Instead of attending a district-mandated workshop with a group of other teachers at a specific date and time, now teachers can also access materials that are targeted to their particular needs anytime and anywhere.   Platforms such as TeachScape and KDS are personalizing development by providing relevant digital courses to teachers. TeachScape features more than 160 digital courses and more than 2,500 high-quality videos of teaching practice, for example. Thanks to digital resources such as these, it is easier than ever before for teachers to get the help they need to improve their instructional skills.   Technology is also fostering collaboration and coaching among teachers through tools such as video feedback and remote coaching. Edthena, for example, allows teachers to upload their video-recorded lectures so that other teachers and mentors on the platform can give direct feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of their teaching. Another platform, Edconnective, allows teachers to connect remotely with experienced teachers who can coach them during one-on-one digital sessions targeted to their specific needs.   Across the teacher professional development space, another nascent trend involves developing digital courses specifically targeting competencies and character qualities. For example, KDS has a course, “21st-Century Skills”, in which teachers learn about new educational methods to teach higher-order skills.   Traditional hardware-oriented technology players have also moved into the professional development space. In addition to providing face-to-face learning, they have developed blended-education approaches featuring online courses, materials and teacher communities such as Intel Teach and Microsoft Partners in Learning that governments, school leaders and teachers are using to develop 21st-century skills.

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