It is 2011. That's ten-plus years into the 21st century, and still the discussion of "21st Century Education" is in its formative phase. A quick Google search returns about 649,000 results, and you will find almost that many different opinions. From the futurists shouting that we will soon all be cyborgs (yes, I've actually seen presentations like that) to the more traditional educators trying to simply figure out how to use computers in the classroom, there is a sense that things are changing (or should be changing).
These changes, which I think feel more sudden to many educators than they actually are, are a cause of anxiety. Schools are throwing money at the problem, buying hardware simply for the sake of saying that they have hardware. Teachers are scared that their entire careers have not prepared them for the way that students actually learn, and frightened that their lack of technological skills (whether perceived or real) will have negative consequences for their career. Students (at least mine) don't really understand what is going on around them, all they know is that email is for old people and the computers at school are slow and useless.
This problem of updating our system of education is complex, hence the myriad opinions on the topic. It is because of that complexity that so many schools focus on buying hardware. Changing hundreds of years of pedagogical practice is difficult. As a teacher, I can admit that it's unsettling to be told that I am doing everything wrong, that I need to change my methods to adequately prepare my students for the future. It is much easier to purchase some interactive whiteboards and throw laptops in front of the students than to really address the issues. Not that this is entirely bad, of course. Students do in fact need 21st century tools if they are going to learn 21st century skills. The difficulty seems to be in straddling the line between abstract theories about the future of education and the hardware decisions that need to be made at the ground-level. When making those hardware decisions, it is easy to become myopic and focused on what brand of laptops to purchase, losing sight of the bigger picture.
Here is what schools should focus on:
- Fast, reliable, always-available Internet access for teachers and students
- The ability for students to immediately research any question or problem posed by the teacher
- The ability for the teacher to immediately share items with students (webpages, presentations, etc.)
- The ability for students to create projects in class.
- The ability for students to immediately share items they have created with their classmates and teachers
- The ability for teachers and students to communicate and collaborate with each other in real-time, both in and out of the classroom
- Fast, reliable hardware with which to accomplish the above.
Notice the list contains infrastructure requirements first, abilities second, and hardware third. Those abilities, accomplished at the intersection of infrastructure, software, and hardware are the key. I listed the hardware last because it is in many ways the least significant detail, yet the one that gets the most attention from administration. It's not that the hardware does not matter. But the hardware only matters to the extent that it helps to accomplish the above. Whether it's Windows, OS X, or iOS on those devices is inconsequential if it enables the students and teachers to accomplish these goals.1
The futurists may be correct that everything about education needs to change in the near future, but small, tangible steps are going to bring that change. It is important that those steps are taken thoughtfully.
- Of course, I have my own views on what hardware is ideal, but I'll save that discussion for later posts. ↑