A Teacher for Apple

Portrait of Stuart Ralston

Designing Authentic Learning with Technology

While as a teacher in the 2009-10 era of high-stakes standardized testing, Stuart Ralston ’06 had a hunch. His classroom of sophomores at an urban high school in Minneapolis loved technology, especially the social and gaming aspects, as much as he did. How would they react to more tech in their learning?

So, Ralston’s next World History assignment would come with a choice. Did the students want to write a five-paragraph essay on an ancient civilization? Or would they rather create multi-media websites with interactive maps, citations, and five pages?

Nearly every student chose the latter.

The experiment indicated 80 percent of students believed technology improved their understanding and access to the content. Ralston’s grade data showed marked improvement for specific racial and socioeconomic student groups as well.

“The results helped me see that technology wasn’t just something I was good at using, but that it could also be used to design more engaging, effective, and creative student learning experiences,” said Ralston.

Ralston decided to delve into learning technology. He left traditional teaching and broadened his identity as an educator.He’s currently on the learning design team at Apple Inc. in Cupertino, Calif., where he develops content and programs to help educators integrate technology into learning.

Ralston’s work has two main areas of focus. First, he is helping school leaders integrate technology in their classrooms and learning communities.

“The goal is to connect their vision for learning with the possibilities of innovative technology,” he said.

His second focus is teachers. Ralston develops books and courses that help teachers connect research-based, instructional technology theories with their teaching practices and lesson design.

“Teachers are true innovators,” said Ralston. “Every year they greet a new group of students, address new societal issues, and find new ways to make learning experiences relevant for their students. When teachers use instructional technology, it can create personal experiences and support deeper learning.”

First taste of teaching

Stuart Ralston

Ralston knew he wanted to be an educator, and blend his approach with technology, ever since returning from a landmark Evergreen program, called “Islands.”

For two months, students in the program settled on islands across the globe, to put ethnography into action as researchers observing society from the point of view of the islanders. As a virtually connected global class, students blogged and shared their experiences online.

“This provided class-wide engagement with each other and with professors,” said Ralston. “Evergreen has always been so far ahead—connecting technology with learning, even back then.”

Ralston immersed himself in the life of a family of coffee farmers on a little island in Nicaragua. When he came back, he presented his findings and research as a final project. Ralston focused on the revolutionary impact of fair-trade economics on the coffee farm, and audience members were impressed. Word spread, and he was asked to present across the U.S. by a variety of organizations interested in his research. 

“The idea of sharing information with people through deeply meaningful stories was profoundly rewarding. That’s when I realized I loved being an educator,” said Ralston.

Tomorrow’s tools today

On Apple’s learning design team, Ralston has created dozens of courses, co-authored three books, and is currently leading international implementation of research-based practices for teacher professional development. He facilitates online and in-person workshops for specialists who work directly with thousands of teachers and school leaders across the U.S. and around the world. He is also working toward his doctorate in education leadership from Lamar University, with a focus on mobile technology.

“Students grow up primarily using their devices to socialize, but the same devices can be used to support authentic learning,” Ralston explained. “Research shows us that mobile technology can be used to document and examine, to support substantive collaboration, and to personalize student learning.

“The trick to developing amazing learning experiences outside the classroom is to teach technology use that surpasses a selfie safari and also doesn’t distract from the wonder of learning from real-world experiences.”

Ralston said he’s excited to work alongside professors and teachers to explore and enhance classroom and field experiences with mobile technology.

“What’s really exciting is that great learning theories often precede the technological capabilities to achieve them,” he said. “Evergreen is a prime example, and exemplifies what so many schools are trying to do now. Personalized, experiential, authentic learning. And today’s mobile, connected technology offers a phenomenal number of ways to support this kind of learning.”

“Mobile technology has the ability to make learning more relevant and engaging through experiences in the real world. My goal is to help educators fulfill that promise,” said Ralston.