Reading this NYT article, it certainly seems that the day will be shortly upon us when one might expect to hear that, desktop PCs, at least in the home will be antiques that a few know how to build and a few more know how to setup. The rest of us will see them as connections to another era. But is this really going to happen? Well I can see the day coming in homes – where there is one static machine handling mass storage, networking and other utility like functions, while netbooks connect into it and the ‘net to get resources, dock to larger displays to edit photos and video and generally do everything that the “desktop” used to do. I can also see it happening in the office, where dumb clients will connect to Terminal Servers, saving space and support time. But what about the classroom?
This is the one place that I don’t hold up much hope. Schools have invested in large spaces to become labs, these spaces could host thin clients, but then they would bear little resemblance to what students see at home, even though it might be what they will one day see in the office. Schools are unlikely to hand out even the cheapest ‘netbook for fears of loss or some other computer related missive (perhaps as much an accounting issue as an admin/policy one), so kids are stuck again with old technology that is neither here nor there.
Granted, this is very pessimistic and there are many teachers and instructors out there who are already making use of laptops, netbooks and handsets, but the majority are not. Between lack of time, interest and training, it will take quite a bit to get teachers to adopt technology en mass.
But … and hold on to your hats for this one… maybe the Smart Board or some similar touch/pen input technology that is a computer but not a computer is what is needed (considering what a doubter I am of current smartboard technology, this is quite the admission for me). If a touch display can take the place of the classroom computer, allowing students and teachers to interact physically with the content that is stored locally or in the cloud, schools may just have a chance. It would be great if teachers, used to using a black/white board could “migrate” to using this touchboard to write out notes by hand, or to display notes that are already prepared without having to use a special pen. It would be even better if the teacher could then send this information out to the students by dragging and dropping, with the materials landing on some personal device.
If something like that could happen, then the classroom has a chance, otherwise, it will end up as the museaum bar none for the grandfather computer.
This morning, I came across a rather interesting post from Doug Clark on the anatomy of a classroom. In the post he talked about personal space and technology, among many other interesting observations about why the box that is the “modern” classroom is seemingly failing ever more. The first point is about personal space:
Classrooms are often cramped, pushing young people into uncomfortably close contact with each other … boxing them into tight spaces creates well know territorial problems. This is an area well studied in psychology. Hall described the ‘emotionally charged bubble of space which surrounds each individual’ and research by Felipe and Sommer (1966) showed extreme discomfort among people who have their personal space invaded. Fifty years of research have shown that this matters in terms of psychological discomfort. Classrooms break almost every rule in the book on territoriality. On top of this, to move from class to class means that the learner has no defined territory, and cannot mark and defend their personal territory. The learner is set adrift. These territorial spaces, such as one’s bedroom or favourite chair, are a feature of one’s identity. Classrooms deny almost every aspect of this basic human need.
And then there is technology:
Technology fits uneasily into a classroom. We’ve seen technology get smaller, faster, smarter, easier to use, wireless, connected and cheaper. It’s personal and portable, not fixed to any one location. All of this is at odds with the very idea of the classroom. Technology provides, by definition, personalised learning. … Contrast this with the rather quaint and useless Multi-user table top classroom computers being mooted at present. If you design technology to fit classrooms you get these ugly, expensive classroom-driven aberrations. Technology frees learning from the tyranny of time and location, to screw it down inside classrooms is to abolish those freedoms and advantages.
Classroom geography demands a dominant wall, with a whiteboard. There is no evidence for their efficacy, other than anecdote. Indeed, Professor Frank Coffield claims that ‘the two major studies in the UK show no significant effect on learning’. Tech-savvy children feel frustrated when they see the teacher struggle with simple tasks as they are used to being in control of their online environments. It’s odd for them to simply watch online material on a large screen under someone else’s control. The blackboard was invented in 1870 and we are in danger of keeping it alive well by its sell-by date. It promotes a ‘chalk and talk’ approach to teaching which is at odds with the psychology of learning.
If technology is to be used sensibly in learning it must be embedded in the learning process, not fixed to the walls and tables in classrooms. Consumer demand for small, smart, cheap, wireless devices seems insatiable. This tells us something.
Putting these two points together in my head, this seems to be, perhaps at the crux of many technology integration issues. Between classrooms stealing the personal space of our students away and administration/instructors denying students the one personalized space that they are able to otherwise have with them all the time, seems to be a predestined recipe for disaster.
The problem is, of course, many people have done amazing things within the system as it sits now, but the question is, how much longer will the current style of classroom be able to survive? My guess is not much longer, something is going to break. The boxed classroom was a product of the Industrial Revolution, when it was thought (perhaps) that all knowledge could be identified, codified and imbued into a keen student. Today we know that knowledge society has today is struggling to fit into what containers we have. So if it can’t fit into a single container, how can we expect it to fit into one student?
Perhaps what we need to think about, if we want to keep the boxed classroom, is moving students away from “what to learn” to “how to learn”. Looking at technology as a hammer, as opposed to a bucket might be the first step in this process. Students are more than capable of manipulating the hammers that they have, and are looking for new ways to use them all the time, so why don’t we let them keep and use their hammers and in so doing, maintain a small amount of personal space while working with the reach of a teacher. Teachers need to feel that rather than tools of distraction and usurpation, phones, pods and the like are just tools, and when used responsibly, can make life easier for everyone. To do this however, the teacher will have to learn alongside the student as they explore.
This is of course the ideal, and likely not to happen any time soon in the classrooms of the world, but one can hope. Afterall, this is how things work in the very first classroom that we find ourselves in. Infants don’t sit and take notes about how to walk, parents can’t merely tell toddlers how to use tools without having the tool (or some replica) present. Parents seem to do best by their children, when they explore and learn along with them and as they are able, try to pass on more information. Parents don’t feel threated teaching in this fashion, why should teachers?