We have reached the 21st Century’s fourteenth year, but the technology-rich 21st Century Classroom has failed to materialize beyond a few pockets of innovation. Notable pockets, but pockets all the same. Born of the idea that rich learning requires flexibility, the ”21st Century Classroom,” was to be equipped with spaces conducive to student collaboration, plenty of internet-connected technology, and … presumably … teaching strategies that fostered the appropriate use of these places and tools. Yet, today, even our newest schools are engineered around the prevailing notions of “classroom,” “teacher,” and “student.” The idea of place-driven technology integration, while theoretically sound, has not helped much at ground level.
Recently, the concept of the Connected Classroom has gained significant popularity. But will the Connected Classroom succeed in mainstreaming educational technology where the 21st Century Classroom achieved notoriety but only narrow relevance?
Many of us in the ed tech world have been excited by the idea of the Connected Classroom as the future of technology in education. The ability for students and teachers to connect – virtually and in real-life, synchronously and asynchronously – with other students, content experts, families, and the rest of the world, reflects the nature of living in the 2010s. Smartphones, the iPad (which just celebrated its fourth birthday, believe it or not), and now a range of highly-mobile devices operating on many platforms, enable a ubiquity of connectedness, which may signal a certain maturation of our information society.
The Connected Classroom logically follows from this new connected society. In concept, it creates places (virtual and physical) where student-centered learning has the potential to emerge by focusing on students as those doing the connecting. Initiatives such as Google’s Connected Classrooms (http://connectedclassrooms.withgoogle.com/) and the US Department of Education’s Connected Educators program (http://connectededucators.org/) are high-profile examples of the view that we should think more of connections-driven learning than place-driven learning … or even technology-driven learning.
Here’s the scary part, known well by educational technologists: implementation and systematization. Fundamental forces that have felled almost every effort to broaden the scope of technology-integrated education continue to dominate our view of what the K-12 system should look like. There is a real danger here for the Connected Classroom, just as there was for the 21st Century Classroom. The 21st Century Classroom failed not in concept, but in its broader application. Certainly fiscal and political realities conspired in refusing to bring the 21st Century Classroom to any scale. But the bigger barrier has been that we too frequently reward teaching methods and philosophies that center on teachers and teaching less than on students and learning. As a society we value (and as schools we exemplify and reward) omniscient, omnipresent teachers, and their attentive, subdued students, thus disempowering both.
The Connected Classroom is founded on personal empowerment in learning, and thus it is highly threatening to (even subversive of) the current classroom setup. But we must recognize that it is human nature to find comfort and safety in old ways. And this applies not just to teachers, but to students. Several years ago, in one of my first forays into a more inquiry-based way of teaching, I conducted a not-very-scientific, but nevertheless instructive experiment in my own middle school social studies classroom. I assigned one class a reading and worksheet, and another class an open-ended leaning goal with a choice of creative activities to demonstrate mastery. The worksheet class dutifully completed the work and turned in the paper; the class given a choice of activity buzzed with questions. I wish I could say my students’ questions were about content – questions that demonstrated a desire to learn more and engage with the content. They were not. The questions focused on how grades would be assigned, which was the easiest choice of activity, and how much time the activity would take. Empowering students requires a different skill-set for teachers, and we did not learn to teach that way. And we cannot neglect that empowering students requires an alternate skill-set for learners, and we did not learn to learn that way.
Hope for the Connected Classroom
My concern with the Connected Classroom is not with the concept, it’s with our capacity to implement it. For the Connected Classroom to become a reality, it must be widespread – not just practiced among the vanguard of technology-adopting teachers. This won’t happen if we see the Connected Classroom as a technology initiative. Nor will it succeed if we just push devices out to traditional classrooms. We must frame the Connected Classroom as an education initiative and a 21st Century learning competencies initiative, and … of critical importance … a student-centered learning initiative.
The good news is the Connected Classroom is far more achievable than the 21st Century Classroom – we can relatively simply connect the occupants of our classrooms with each other – given a little wiring and a few devices. This is much easier than constructing new, and reconstructing old buildings. The Connected Classroom also is a more realistic outcome than the 21st Century Classroom because those outside the classroom see more immediate value in it – the same changes to connectedness are occurring in our own homes and workplaces. But we need better answers to the questions that have chronically plagued ed tech: How will connecting classrooms result in connecting learners? In what contexts does better learning result from connecting learners?
Moving from the Dis-connected Classroom to the Connected Classroom means re-envisioning, articulating, and supporting clear, new roles for our teachers, and acknowledging their professionalism by not shielding them from the substantial shifts required of them. If we plan to connect our classrooms in the advancement of learning, we must recognize that learning to teach in different ways is a process, not a switch to be flipped, or an end-point.
And we must be careful not to focus too heavily on the connections; by doing so, we are focusing on the tool, not the learning – the reason for most ed tech failures.
cross-posted at The 21st Century School
Robert C. Sidford is the Coordinator of the 21st Century Learning Division in Washoe County School District. Read more at http://robertsidford.com.