Justin Reich was ready to observe a teacher integrating technology into her lesson plan at a school in rural New Hampshire. Her school had bought the laptops, Reich says. She had reserved them. They were charged. All of the kids were logged in. The power was on in the building. The wireless network was working. The projector bulb was working. The screen was working. But when the teacher went to plug the projector into the wall, the electrical socket fell behind the drywall, foiling her attempted lesson plan. “New technologies have tremendous potential to improve student learning,” Reich says, “but many pieces in a complex system need to be working seamlessly to make this happen.”
Reich, an assistant professor in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing Program (CMS/W), has remained excited about the possibilities that constantly evolving technologies have brought to the learning process over the last few decades. But while many believe that the free and low-cost learning tools becoming available have huge potential to lift up students from low-income families, he’s found that, in truth, this educational technology still benefits the affluent the most.
“I think people underestimate barriers,” Reich says. “Many educators get into the work because they want to create a more equitable world. But educational settings often end up reproducing social inequalities and social hierarchies.”
Through his work as executive director at the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, which now straddles CMS/W and the Office of Digital Learning, Reich works toward finding educational models that incorporate technology in ways that actually will increase quality of education and equity for students.
“All over the world, people are looking to see a shift in classroom teaching practice to more active, engaged, inquiry-based collaborative learning,” he says. “And the only way that will happen is if we can dramatically increase the quantity and quality of teacher learning that’s available.”
Having started off as a wilderness medicine instructor, Reich comes from a hands-on teaching background. Now, he makes sure he and his projects are constantly engaging with real classroom settings. He co-founded EdTechTeacher, a professional learning consultancy which focuses on finding thoughtful ways to use technology in teaching and learning. He also keeps conversations going with classroom instructors through his Education Week-hosted blog, EdTechResearcher.
Reich has also created learning tools for teachers through two online courses, Launching Innovation in Schools, done in collaboration with Peter Senge of the Sloan School of Management; and Design Thinking for Leading and Learning. Both courses were funded by Microsoft with a $650,000 grant.
In CMS/W, he looks to explore the field of learning science and the role that media plays in expanding human capacity, particularly in a civic sense.
“We investigate the complex technology-rich classrooms of the future and the systems that we need to help educators thrive in those settings,” he says.