The Future is Here

from Educators' eZine

Stung by what critics perceive as the failure of the K-12 educational system to adequately educate millions of students each year, educators are under pressure to rethink their processes. Change, however, is slow. Despite many pressures from the federal and state governments, schools today look largely the same as they did last year and 20 years ago. Conventional classroom teaching is still the focal point of the learning process and curriculum is mainly from text books. But we get a glimpse into the future as we peek at innovation that leads the way to change.

The E-learning programs of two decades ago moved first from duplicating the printed page on screen to CD-based "edutainment" games or supplements often used in school computer labs. Some of these programs were "ported" to the Internet in the 90's but most were only using the Internet as an electronic printed page and even the more technically innovative sites were limited by dial-up access speeds, immature Web technology, and content designs that didn’t take advantage of unique Internet features such as interactivity.

The dot-com bust and subsequent quiet period of 2001-2004 belied the steady march of technology and social change that has gradually manifested itself in Web 2.0, with slicker technology that is faster, more intuitive, and enabling. It's in this environment that we see pockets of the future of schools. For the immediate future, innovation isn't hitting the mainstream but we can see it where the system allows experimentation, in charter schools and virtual academies.

With online curriculum, there is no need for an IT department to set up a server. Content doesn't have to be stale, waiting for an annual update via CD. With Internet connectivity parents don't have to pry a report card out of their child's hands or go to a PTA meeting to check up on what's going on. Improved programming techniques are transforming the Internet and E-learning, with user-created content, communities of collaborative learners, and opportunities for learning by anyone, anytime, and anywhere.

Two decades ago, technology meant schools installed a computer lab. Now, it may mean providing a laptop for every child. But that's not where the real technology action is for the future. Kids and teachers are writing blogs, making podcasts, and creating their own video vodcasts. With cell phones always close at hand, moblogs (mobile Web log) are integrated with photos from built-in cameras. Parents don't need to invest in expensive volumes of always-outdated encyclopedias when Wikipedia is at the student’s fingertips. And kids are making their own wikis as yet another illustration of collaborative learning. Internet-based language translation programs are a click away for any online learning content. Newspaper archives bring access to history as seen by the media at the time it was happening. All this stuff isn't canned up in a top-down, buttoned-up rigid course created by an educational system designed to teach a former generation. Technology tools and resources are taken for granted by today’s kids, most of whom never knew a time without the Internet; kids that expect no less than what they use in their personal lives all the time.

Even more startling than the dazzling capabilities of technology and how it may address age-old learning challenges is the reality that the kids themselves are not the same kids that came to school even five or ten years ago. Parents can confirm that kids today are moving like swarms of fish working in unison as teams, seeking experiential learning, and using all forms of technology for social networking. Asking kids to park their cell phones, iPods, and laptops outside the classroom, schools fail to recognize how kids have woven these devices into their personal learning spaces.

Innovators are succeeding with true online curriculum, some in virtual schools. Schools dabble with Moodle, an open source learning management system that lets everyone, even the learners, create content, sometimes for their fellow students. Students film instructional videos, syndicate learning content, and they're even going to influence teacher ratings, whether schools like it or not. How long will it be before we find that a K-12 version of holds the fate of teachers in student postings — much like one blogger or a YouTube video can send a major corporation reeling with embarrassment and bring about quick changes?

It will be a long time before we see mainstream schools connecting all the dots, but watch for great innovation among the millennial generation as they embrace Internet-driven technology and translate it into new forms of social networking that can, in turn inform learning. Pioneering educators will see how compelling this technology can be and how it can open up a new world of learning, beyond classroom walls and the printed page, for America's kids.

Email:Bill Lanphear