Here and Now in the School of the Future

Winter 2009

By Jonathan Howland and Howard Levin

Twenty, 15, even 10 years ago, classrooms full of computers were typically classes in computer skills, or programming, or maybe math. The topic was the technology, the course content the computer. Today, classrooms with computers are classes in virtually any discipline — Spanish, Shakespeare, physics, fine arts — and most of the students of these subjects are no more focused on the digital tools at their disposal than the gardener is on the hoe, rake, and shovel.

This is the other digital divide of our time: a watershed between the pre- and post-computer age. The intervening years have been eventful and noisy indeed. Who among us hasn't been browbeaten (and annoyed) by digital evangelists whose giga- and mega-laced claims seem designed principally to designate everyone and everything in schools anachronistic? Who hasn't participated in worrisome exchanges about the cost of computers — not just the financial burden, but also the social and educational risks attending the introduction of powerfully distracting tools into the learning environments and the lives of the easily distracted? Who hasn't wondered whether students are in want of not more resources and information but the kind of sustained focus and concentrated endeavor one sees in abundance in strong schools? Who hasn't longed for the blemished authenticity of a homemade report instead of a cold, predictable PowerPoint?

These concerns and questions remain pertinent, but to continue to pose and debate them without devoting substantive energy and attention to the development of appropriate digital practices for teaching and learning is to indulge a combination of nostalgia and intransigence tantamount to malpractice.

When first introduced, a piece of slate and a stick of chalk must have been remarkably helpful and, in short order, widely employed in teaching and learning. Pencil and paper followed — revolutionary. Binders, folders, and other simple organizational tools. Libraries. Systems of communication: mail, telephone, tape recorder. Calculators and simulators and televisions. Accessible (and archivable, and refineable) classroom exercises. Seamless connection to the infrastructure and resources of the classroom, lab, and studio. These have all been part of the evolution of formal education.

But to invoke analogies to other dexterous and once-ubiquitous learning tools in defense of the laptop is to malign the latter without providing a whole lot of comfort to skeptics and other concerned parties. Those who worry about the impact of digital tools, or who resist efforts to give teachers and students unfettered access to them, are anxious precisely because these tools are fundamentally different and altogether more pliable and powerful than other material and technological developments in schools.

We need to proceed, therefore, with a widely acceptable premise and standard, a sort of touchstone for technology: the rationale for using digital tools in school is to enhance and improve student learning.

And, yet, the mistake many of us have made, advocates and skeptics alike, is to focus on the machine — to set up computer labs or purchase laptop carts, and then to ask teachers to figure out how to integrate the technology into a curriculum that's been humming along adequately or better without computers for generations. So focused are we on the rise and influx of digital tools, we have embraced a misleading assumption — that students need to use technology. An alternate set of concerns posits an altogether distinct strategy: What do students need in order to learn math, language, science, history, and art? What are the teaching practices we can develop to deepen and improve learning in these disciplines, and what are the digital tools we can employ, or invent, to enhance and extend learning in each of these and other areas?

Slow growth with fast machines. Evolution. Or rather, "punctuated equilibrium": rapid development of teaching and learning practices followed by periods of consolidation, sharing, and refinement. In the "school of the future" — a phrase we use loosely to mean the sort of school we should actually have in the here and now, as well as in the years to come — technology's enhancement of teaching and learning are abundant:

• A Spanish or French or Chinese teacher prepares lessons and exercises that involve all linguistic modalities (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) and exchanges audio files as homework assignments and assessment tools. 

• A math teacher displays complex mathematical phenomena in multiple ways using a variety of software, and students re-visit these lessons and demonstrations as needed — in class, after class, or from home. 

• A music teacher employs class time entirely for ensemble work because the students practice and record their parts — and even audition — digitally. 

• In the cell biology unit of an introductory science course, students generate dynamic models with clay animation to explore and understand complex molecular processes. 

• In history class, students do history — assembling primary sources from a variety of media, including oral testimonies from witnesses and participants, from the ordinary people of whose experiences and memories and understandings history is stitched. 

• Photography classes that were once bogged down with darkroom procedures now have even beginners doing photography — practicing composition, playing with light, developing an aesthetic. 

• In English class, the once clearly delineated realms of discussion and composition have become usefully blurred by means of small-group, online collaboration in ways that encourage risk-averse students to take on meaningful and difficult subjects, and require everyone to gain further practice in writing and thinking. 

The gains realized here are not mere efficiencies but rather fundamental enhancements to learning and performance. In the history class, for example, this form of "authentic doing" can generate source material for projects that become available to a wider audience through a form of web publication, but equally significant is the shift in the student's posture from passive receiver to active maker, from student of history to historian. 

The school of the future is better than the school of the past not because its students are digitally savvy or outfitted for the modern economy or Google-facile, but because it prompts, supports, and sustains student learning in traditional (as well as new) disciplines in more varied, intelligent, and effective ways. In this way, it builds upon, expresses, and improves so much of what has been true and rich about education for centuries. 

If the digital school has a revolutionary feature, it is that it's no longer a school — at least not in the traditional, architectural sense. Wireless access (or, next best, widespread access) to the web has led to a shift in the locus of learning such that the classroom is just one, if still very central, domain in which students engage their coursework. The shelf of resources, the small group of classmates, the very lessons and demonstrations — these are both accessible and amendable, asynchronously and from anywhere. As a result, the once rigid distinction between activities appropriate to class (watch, share, talk, construct) and those called homework (read and write, practice and prepare) has become purposefully blurred. The digital classroom, as such, represents a challenge and an invitation to teachers that begins, as it always has, with generating a warm, engaging, and personable learning culture, but the level of activity arrayed out from this nucleus is altogether more abundant, more varied, and more authentic than was possible within the narrower confines of the traditional school. 

Another boon occasioned by the use of digital tools is the access teachers have to one another's work — to the lessons, resources, and archives; to the entire panoply of a learning trajectory that no longer resides in the minds of veteran teachers or in a series of tattered manila folders, but rather lives in readily accessible and amendable forms on a "Course Conference" or other shared electronic domain. Professionals in any number of fields invoke collaboration with colleagues as a principal engine for their continued growth and development. Teachers, in particular, cite the ease with which they can re-think and refine prompts, lessons, instructions, and tests as a principal advantage of the digital age. (Imagine, by contrast, how much work went into the preparation of a single mimeograph only a generation ago; the disincentives to change and improvement were substantial, if not overwhelming.) 

The transformations in the digital school are less apparent than the continuities, the teaching and learning practices not overhauled but enhanced, sharpened, variegated, and improved. The disciplines remain valid and distinct, but the now widely appreciated exigency to meet the needs of different kinds of learners is more readily accomplished. Courses in calculus and chemistry maintain their core positions in the curriculum, but "Contemporary South Asia," "Elections 2008," and "Genetics" are made possible through up-to-date (or even up-to-hour) online resources. One teacher starts class with "close your laptop and open to Act IV, Scene II"; another stands at a SmartBoard to generate and juxtapose graphs of data that students have compiled at their tables using 10-sided dice. 

As with schools of bricks and mortar, the digital campus functions best if it is coherently designed. The requisite infrastructural features are simple, if not inexpensive: laptops for all teachers, outfitted with relevant software; laptops for all students with software designed to support learning, including organization, communication, and creative tools; interactive whiteboards in many, if not all, of the classrooms; and wireless connectivity. Leadership is esssential: clarity about the ends, abundant opportunities for experimentation and professional growth, and first-rate technical support. 

Perils and problems in the digital school stem largely from misapplications or poorly coordinated uses of technology. When using the computer becomes its own goal or expectation, the levees around thoughtfully planned and purposefully structured learning are quickly eroded. The development of winning teaching and learning practices takes time, as it always has, no matter how fast the processors at our disposal. Instructional leadership in schools can be most effective in prompting, mapping, and supporting this development; man-on-the-moon gestures — "Our students will be computer-literate in two years" — are not helpful. 

Looking back, it seems something happened on the way to the computer lab. The walls around what we had thought would be a rich and au courant but contained space became permeable and, in time, evanesced altogether — not because the hardware therein became smaller, less expensive, and more agile, but because, alongside the explosion of activity in software development and web construction, we saw opportunities for learners and developed teaching practices concordantly. 

One hundred years ago, a Model T sat outside someone's barn. Neighbors gathered. Some marveled over the technological wizardry of the first car. Others kicked gravel across the rutted road and thought, "Amazing. But where would you go?" 
Jonathan Howland

Jonathan Howland is dean of faculty at the Urban School of San Francisco (California).

Howard Levin

Howard Levin is the director of technology at The Urban School of San Francisco (California).