9.21.2016 The Classroom of the 21st Century
I was recently asked to speak about what I envisioned as the "classroom of the 21st century." Given that we're already 15 years into the new century, that might seem like an easy task. However, when asked to predict the future, I always think of the scene in the movie "Metropolis" where the bi-planes are flying between the skyscrapers. Or in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the spaceplane is owned by the now defunct Pan Am Airlines. The future tends to unfold in ways we can't imagine. Some of the (at the time) amazing technologies of Star Trek already look primitive compared to today's devices. Others remain as far away as another star system.
This venue was at a technology conference sponsored by technology vendors, so the expectation was that we would talk about technologies that would transform education as we know it. There were impressive demonstrations of virtual and augmented reality, and telepresence; things that require lots of bandwidth, robust connections, serious computing power and, most of all, a lot of back-end technical support. One of the presenters showcased an elementary school in Ireland that was doing cutting edge stuff with VR, but noted with incredulity that, in one of the slides, the child was sitting in front of a CRT monitor rather than a flatscreen. Another presenter lamented that one of the challenges in K-12 is that the computers found in public schools don't often have video cards capable of keeping up with his 4K video. Unwittingly, these presenters got to the heart of the problem. Public schools, even in the 21st century, don't throw away old equipment that still works. A cathode ray tube monitor may be a throwback to the 1990s but, if it's working, it will continue to be used and limited funds will be diverted to higher priorities, like things that don't work at all. In my experience, schools don't even throw away broken stuff because they may need to cannibalize it for parts. Teachers are resourceful and frugal.
Now if you've read any of my previous blogs, you already know that while I like technology, I am often skeptical about expensive technical solutions to pedagogical problems. I recall when I taught high school in southern California, one of the teachers, a friend of mine, worked in a south facing classroom with a big bank of windows, and actually passed out in front of her students one sunny spring day while teaching in the 90+ degree heat. The administration had a priority system, however, for installing air conditioners. If the room had a computer, it could have an air conditioner because the administrators didn't want the computers getting damaged by operating in excessively warm conditions. At my urging, she requested a computer, for which there were ample technology funds, and she got an air conditioner as part of the bargain. I don't think she used the computer at all, but she let the kids who finished the lesson early play solitaire as a reward. And she effectively delivered her lessons in a classroom that was at a pleasant 70-something degrees. That's the kind of creative thinking it takes to operate in the 21st century classroom.
iPads are a recent example of a technology that was supposed to transform education. Large school districts made multi-million dollar deals with Apple to put an iPad in the hands of every student. They were supposed to replace textbooks. They were supposed to fill students with wondor and the passion to learn. That didn't work. A few years down the road, many of these districts are finding that iPad management tools are lousy, the devices are fragile, and they go obsolete far too fast for the money they cost. But the biggest problem of all might be that many students already have one at home and use it primarily for playing games, so that's what they want to do with it at school. Many districts are now dropping iPads and looking at cheaper, more rugged Chromebooks. While these may prove to be a better investment, the top-down approach to deploying technology remains a problem.
Top-down technology investments in education assume that if you make a technology available, the teachers, who are dedicated professionals, will figure out some appropriate instructional uses. This is the wrong approach. We need to design curriculum with the learning objectives in mind at the beginning, and then provide the necessary instructional support resources, including but not limited to technology, to help make the learning happen. That means we need to ask teachers what they need and, where reasonable, do what we can to meet those needs. Some teachers might make great use of iPads, while others would prefer video cameras, or art supplies, or new textbooks. When the teachers at my school were asked to help design a new science building, they asked for lab benches at the back of the classrooms, including big flat work surfaces, with clean sight lines, and lots of storage cabinets. The need was easily met, and the rooms were both popular and effective. However, the architect decided to ignore their request for windows, so the biology classrooms can't have any live plants. A classroom designed around the needs of the individual teachers and the learners is going to be far more effective than a top down directive to use this or that gadget to transform the learning process.
Sometimes a technology is offered as a solution to a problem because of cost or practicality. One example I heard recently was that field trips and labs are too expensive, so let's "virtualize" those experiences and then the students can learn about the Grand Canyon, or a marine ecosystem, or the anatomy of the frog on the computer. The result is never as good. Intuitively we all know this, and yet we are lured by the promise that it will be just as (almost as?) good, and will cost less, or be safer, or will not require tedious permission slips, etc. But the experience isn't the same. The canned tour of the canyon doesn't include a tough hike. It doesn't smell like hot dry air and desert flowers. It isn't nearly as fun. I can't flip over a rock in the simulation, because the designer didn't program that option. The slippery boulders, the icy cold water, and the experience of catching a fish out of a tide pool with a dip net are so much more vivid than the best sim. And it turns out that the infrastructure and technology required to design, deliver, and support a really good virtual reality experience is incredibly expensive. Perhaps more expensive per student than a dozen field trips. A cadaver lab is very expensive, but I want my medical students looking at real specimens rather than photos and canned simulations. How else can they discover individual variability? Or the effects of aging or disease? Or differences between male and female. When a doctor goes into surgery, you don't want to hear the words, "It didn't look anything like this in the simulation." Even if it costs more, the experience is worth the price if the students remember it years later, and that's much more likely with the real thing than with a simulation.
So what does a classroom of the 21st century look like? I have two kids, ages 10 and 13, in the school system right now, so I can tell you. Generally, it's a poorly designed, overcrowded room in a decades old building in need of major maintenance, with peeling paint, lousy acoustics, a heater that clanks all day long under flickering fluorescent lights, a mix of brand new and ancient, working and broken equipment, a lot of duct tape and plastic buckets, and a whole lot of heart. The passion and drive of dedicated teachers is what keeps it all going. Ok, so that's what we've got. In my dreams, what could we have?
The top priority is support. Give teachers the support they ask for. Did you know that teachers supply most of the classroom materials they need out of pocket, and rarely get reimbursed? Putting an expensive technology that nobody asked for into a classroom is not going to be effective. Raising salaries, reducing class sizes, or providing funds for a teacher's aide, or fixing the broken desks and chairs is generally what teachers are looking for. If they want to use a technology, by all means, see if it can be provided. But ask them what they need rather than tell them what they should be doing. That alone would revolutionize teaching and learning in any century.
Even if the teachers wanted a specific technology, and got it, the support for it tends to end when the technology has been set up by a technician. How many bad PowerPoint presentations have you seen? Was PowerPoint broken? Nope. It was misused. Without the kind of tech support and professional development needed to ensure that the technology is used properly, these high-tech initiatives always fail. There are some great and effective uses for technology that can facilitate teaching and learning, but the initial investment must be followed up with funds for ongoing maintenance, tech support, training, and planning.
Some people imagine a future where students are taught entirely by computers with clever algorithms that adjust the content to the pace of the learner. In my mind, this is like getting your nutrition from a pill. In the near future, I don't see a computer, no matter how cleverly programmed, inspiring students the way a good teacher can. If we invest in teachers, and let them pick the technologies they want to use, the classroom of the 21st century could really knock our socks off! It might not be cheap but, as the joke goes, "Education might seem expensive, until you consider the alternative."