Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What the classroom of the future might look like

The public education system in the United States is horrible.  While it's never been a great system, we now have a situation where students are graduating high school without the ability to read well, do basic math, or solve even the simplest multi-step problems.  Students in the United States are woefully unprepared for the global business environment they will be entering and most are skilled only enough to be worker bees instead of heads of industry or world changers.

Most people blame the lack of money for the crisis in which we find our education system,  but I think that's not going far enough. We've dumped billions of dollars into this failing system for decades and it's only getting worse. The real reason our school systems are crumbling isn't the amount of money we pay teachers, or the curriculum we're teaching our students but rather the way education is being delivered.

Every day we pack millions of children into little sardine cans and bus them to the closed, guarded, uncomfortable, tightly controlled prisons that we call schools. There, their every move is monitored, evaluated, and controlled. They are told when they can go to the bathroom, when they can interact with their fellow students (even in positive ways) and when they can leave. They learn their studies through the rote repetition of facts and figures and are punished for being creative, challenging,  questioning the facts they're taught, or pushing authority.

Obviously, this system is broken. It's so broken, in fact, that I don't think it's worth fixing. It needs to be completely gotten rid of and something new should take its place.

Technology has brought us to the point where we now know what that 'something new' could be. We can imagine it. We can build it. And we can create an order of magnitudes better system than the one we have now.  Let's imagine what the classroom could look like if we were to effectively use the technology we have right now to build a better system.

First, we eliminate the concept of centralization. There's no need for students and teachers to be in the same place physically anymore. Students in the future may choose to learn from home, may attend classes while on vacation with their families, or might even skip a day or two entirely knowing that they can go back and watch the recorded class and interact with the teacher virtually should they need help. All live interaction would be via video conference or maybe even happen in a virtual world like Second Life where the students could come together in a virtual classroom, interact with one another, and experience many of the same benefits of a classroom environment without all of the drawbacks.

The learning environment would shift from being the stark, prison like experience it is today, to the comfortable familiarity of home where students would be surrounded by the things and the people they love. Student stress would be lower and, thus, bad behavior would become less of a problem.

Teachers in the new system could teach from anywhere and could provide their students with amazing experiences by better integrating their lives into the curriculum. Ordinarily, a teacher might deliver lessons from a small home office or living room, but what if she decided to travel to a foreign country for an extended trip? Her daily lessons could still be delivered on time and with the same level of interaction as when she was at home but now she could include the cultural experience of her trip to Spain or wherever she was into the lessons. She could take her students with her to exotic, historic places and provide them with a live education, guest lecturers, amazing things, all while not disturbing the order of the students lives or inconveniencing her vacation or trip very much.

Books would all be digital and provided on either PC's or tablets that would be updated to the newest version automatically. Since they're digital, they would be much more affordable than they are now and even the poorest communities might be able to afford the latest textbooks as they come out. Also because they're digital, the books can contain a full multimedia experience where video, audio, and animations are seamlessly integrated into the book itself, offering students an incredibly engaging learning experience.

As a result of the correct and efficient use of technology, teacher pay could increase thereby pulling better teachers into the system while allowing more per-student spending on the part of the school.  Administrative costs would be lower as well since the challenges of maintaining physical facilities would be eliminated or greatly reduced.

We have the technology to implement a system like this right now. The only thing stopping us is the fact that we're stuck in an old model mindset of what education should be. We're not looking to the future, we're not pushing the limits, we're not thinking 'what if'.  Modern technology, not to mention what might be here in 5-10 years, offers us an opportunity to provide our students with an amazing, world class, educational experience. One that would not only prepare them to work within the global marketplace, but dominate it. We just have to be willing to break from tradition, admit that what we have now is simply trash, and start over.

I believe small private schools are going to be able to do this first. They are the ones who are most willing to experiment. I expect to see a school take this path sometimes within the next 5 years. Public schools, which are almost to the point of collapse under their own bureaucracy, will take a bit longer but will eventually come around when they see the results. Eventually, we will have a completely decentralized education system that works better than anything else we could imagine.

Who will be the first to dare to think big and lead the way into the future? That's the only question left to answer. Everything else is implementation.