The educational world that we live in is in a great state of change. I’m not sure that our concepts of education are going through the greatest change in history – I can imagine that the Industrial Revolution and the advent of compulsory schooling in the modern sense was a pretty dramatic change in it’s own right – but it is certainly one of the more dramatic shifts. At the core of this change is technology. Not only is technology changing the possibilities within education, but technology is changing the possibilities for society in general. Schools are scrambling to keep ahead of this change, or in many cases, simply to keep up. There is little order to what is happening in schools. This is understandable. Not only are we preparing our students for a world that we don’t know, we haven’t really got a good handle on what is going on now. Some are approaching this change by throwing technology at everything that moves. Technology is the silver bullet. We can fix anything if we throw a shiny new device or the latest software at it. (You can read more of my thoughts on this in a previous blog post.) Others are waiting it out, taking the stance that it will all settle at some point and we will know what to do. In the meantime current students are missing essential developing skills or at least missing the opportunity to try and get an understanding of where advances in technology are taking us. They will have to do some serious catch-up when, and if, it settles. So what is a school to do? I don’t think that either extreme is the “correct” approach. I’m pretty convinced that there is no “correct” approach. But there has to be an approach. We can’t sit idly by, waiting for divine intervention. But where do we find the answers to the questions that put us on the path to the best approach?
The answers aren’t in technology. The answers are in education. We need to go back and look at the roots of what it is that we do. What is important and what is simply “the way it’s always been done?” Why do we do what we do? If we understand this, then we can re-envision education with the possibilities of current technological tools. If we have a clear educational vision, then we can continue to revise our technology approach as new tools become available. We will have a better understanding of the “why” of what we are doing so that we can inform the “what.” Perhaps the biggest obstacle to our ability to change education right now has nothing to do with advances in technology. It could simply be that we’ve been doing things the same way for so long, we’ve forgotten why we’re doing it.
Simon Jeynes of Independent School Management came to our school last summer to work with department heads and administration on the topic of management training. One of the concepts that he introduced to us is that of the product school vs. the process school. Product schools are about achieving quantifiable goals. They are concerned with the number of students who go on to Ivy League schools. They need to be listed as the “top” school in academics, arts and athletics. They are concerned with the output of a “product.” Process schools are more about the path than the goal. They often centre around a particular learning approach. They care about the experience more than the result. The reality is, that the extremes of either approach are ineffective. Winning at all costs does not produce well-educated individuals. We have seen the students who get top scores on SAT exams, get 100% on 10 AP exams but can’t tie their shoes. There are people out there who fit the stereotype of the doctor who can diagnose anything but have the bedside manner of Atilla the Hun. These folks did very well in, or in spite of, product schools. But the school that emphasizes the experience with no clear goal in mind is equally problematic. A student could, potentially, never leave kindergarten as they get caught up in “an experience” that they never move on from. Neither approach, in and of itself, is the best. But this comparison is useful as we look at what we do want out of our education systems.
One approach to education is based around the delivery of content. The idea that there are certain core facts that everyone must know to be successful has thrived in education for centuries. Even before formal schools developed in the modern sense, the idea existed that to be truly knowledgable, one must memorize a large corpus of texts to develop a common core of information. If this is still true, and many would argue that it isn’t, then the purpose of technology in education is clear: to deliver content more efficiently. There are entire industries based around this idea. We have a growing number of variations of PowerPoint allowing us to become more effective presenters. We have Khan Academy and Learning Management Systems that deliver content in a wider variety of ways. They allow students to learn that content at their own pace and at the time that best works for them. Students can access this efficient stream of information 24/7 and do homework or write tests when it works best for them. In fact, in many of these systems, the teacher becomes redundant. MOOCs are an example of situations where one teacher “teaches” thousands of students, or thousands of students can access course with no greater effort on the part of the “teacher.” The essential part of this approach is that content is delivered in an efficient and potentially differentiated manner. The teachers become the learning platform designer.
The other approach is that the process of learning is emphasized. The content is less important. Proponents of this approach claim that the content model was developed in a time of information scarcity. “Knowledge” was held by individuals or stored in books. Access to both had it’s issues. Your teacher was the “sage on the stage” who’s function was to enlighten the students with their knowledge on a particular subject and further study was done through books. Books were finite in number and your knowledge of a subject was limited by the books that you had access to. In this day and age, information is everywhere. Books are increasingly digitized and facts are as close as your smartphone. What purpose does it serve to fill your head with facts that can be quickly and easily retrieved when needed? This approach says that it is more important to develop the skills in students to become self-sufficient learners. It is more important that a student knows how to define a question, find the resources to answer that question and develop strategies to think through the information to come up with meaningful answers to these questions. The purpose of technology in this paradigm is to enable learners to find their own answers. They need tools to find information, organize information and produce demonstrations of their newfound knowledge. Technology, in this learning environment, is not a “one size fits all” solution. It is personalized to accommodate individual learning styles. The teacher in this environment is a coach, mentor or guide. They work with students to work through their lines of inquiry. They ask questions of and prompt students. They are the experienced learner that offers advice to the less-experienced learners in their charge. No technology can teach the skills of self-directed learning. There is no program that can teach critical-thinking, meta-cognition or resource evaluation in terms of taking a learner from where they are now and helping them move forward on an individualized basis.
Assessment looks very different in these two approaches. Content emphasis is easy to assess. We have a lot of experience with standardized exams that tests a students ability to demonstrate their knowledge of content. Multiple choice, short answer and true/false questions are either right or wrong and generate quantifiable data. It is easy to measure a student’s progress and claim that they are x% in command of the mandated content.
Process emphasis is much harder to assess. Portfolios of works generated to demonstrate command of knowledge must be subjectively assessed by teachers. It is much harder to assign a specific mark to such products and this assessment process his much harder (impossible?) to automate. A “perfect answer” from one learner is likely to look very different from a “perfect answer” from another.
The reality is that there is a certain core set of information that a learner is likely to need to know to make sense of a certain field of inquiry. If one hasn’t gained basic addition skills, physics becomes very difficult to even begin to grasp. Our content centred curriculums currently take this to an extreme at the moment by breaking down fields of knowledge into minuscule content points that are really not essential to understanding the broad concepts. It is also true that the simple memorization of facts does not prepare a learner for a future of encountering new ideas and thinking creatively while looking for solutions to new problems.
The “best approach” lies somewhere in between these two extremes. So what does a technology vision look like in an educational environment? My preference would be to lean more toward the process side of the equation. A teacher might still have their own digital space that outlines course expectations, but it would be more a collection of resources paired with the curricular expectations of the course. Rather than overly-sequencing the learning for students, the expectations are outlined for the students and the students are mentored through the process. One student’s path might be completely different than another’s. Obviously, there are inherent sequences in certain fields. Math skills tend to be cumulative, building on each other. But even in that subject, you might have some students deal with the geometry skills before algebra skills while others do the opposite. Or, math skills become integrated into the science courses in a more applied manner. The students would have their own “dashboards” that are their learning home. They build their portfolios and bring together resources via bookmarks and feeds that help them with their learning. Assessment is done in a highly individualized manner with teachers checking produced work against curricular goals. My preferred approach requires much more scaffolding than that of a content emphasized approach. Students would require help in developing time-management and meta-cognitive skills to make them truly independent learners. They would have to learn how to work collaboratively in-person and online as well as learning the skills of appropriate online behaviour. This approach assumes open access to all learning resources and this would include open access to the internet. But aren’t these the important life skills that students need to succeed in society? Clearly, this would look very different at a grade one level than it does to a grade twelve. As a learner matures, they would be given more freedom and access to a greater body of resources. The digital school environment would need to have teacher spaces that would include course materials and communication functionality with students. The students’ dashboards would be accessible to their teachers. Their environments would include access to learning resources, portfolios for their own work, and communication tools between students and between teacher and student. All areas of both student and teacher environments would have to be highly customizable to allow for different curricular needs and learning styles. There would also be linked resources through curated collections of learning resources and reporting tools to allow parents to see progress.
It should also be stated that my preferred solution does not replace in person learning environments. It uses technology as a mechanism to organize and monitor learning but supports face to face interactions through seminars, small group collaboration and even lectures where important. It does cloud age based categories however. If the learning becomes student centred, then there is no need for any learner to progress at the same pace as the others that he started with. It is highly likely that students will move fluidly through the grades and “classes” as they are currently defined become more fluid. Lectures and seminars would potentially be attended by those who need them, not by all because it happens to fit an artificial progression of curriculum. Some would graduate early while others may take longer to finish their schooling.
Whatever the technology vision of an institution is, two things are important: an organized vision exists and the technology serves the educational vision. Without a vision, the use of technology is haphazard and often ineffective. The educational vision defines the school and what it is attempting to achieve. With that vision in place, the technology can be implemented to support in a meaningful, effective and cost-efficient way.
The following resources have formed my thinking thus far on this topic:
Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us [Kobo Edition]. New York, NY, NY: Riverhead Books.
Richardson, W., & Mancabelli, R. (2011). Personal learning networks: Using the power of connections to transform education [Kindle Edition]. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Richardson, W. (2012). Why school? [IBook Edition]. New York, NY: TED Conferences.
Robinson, K., & Aronica, L. (2009). The element: How finding your passion changes everything. New York, NY: Viking.