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The Classroom of the Future: Student-Centered or Device-Centered?

A basic question is emerging as our schools are urged to embrace the Common Core State Standards and the computer-based learning systems aligned to the standards. Are these digital devices becoming central to the classroom—and coming to dominate the way we teach and learn? And how will this serve our students? 

 From Bill Gates last month we heard the virtues of the common core explained this way:

"If you have 50 different plug types, appliances wouldn't be available and would be very expensive," he said. But once an electric outlet becomes standardized, many companies can design appliances and competition ensues, creating variety and better prices for consumers, he said.

In the classroom, these "appliances" are the tablets and other digital devices now being aggressively sold. Gates explained this model of device-centered  "personalization" last year: 

Teachers have not had these tools before. Fragmented standards that differ from state to state and district to district have made it hard for innovators to design tools to reach a wide market. The common core will help change that.

In the classroom of the not-too-far-off future, kids will have computer devices with phenomenal interactive content. This will allow teachers to do what they call "flip the classroom." Instead of learning a concept in class and applying it at home, students would learn the concept at home, on video, and apply it in class, where they can get help from the teacher. 

When students learn a concept on video, they can take as much time as they need and learn at their own pace. They can pause the video, rewind it, or just listen to it all over again. 

Then the students can use class time to do the problems. The teacher sees instantly on the dashboard which kids are getting it, and steps in if someone is stuck. The students move on when they master the material, and not before. This is very different from the old method where every student moves on to the next topic after the test, whether you got an A or a D.

Iwan Streichenberger, the CEO of the Gates-funded inBloom project used a slightly different analogy.

Our purpose is to remove the friction in the deployment of technology in the classroom. It's not very exciting, but if you don't have plumbing you can't have appliances.

In the case of inBloom, the "plumbing" is the system that will allow data from all these devices to be collected and used by all the appliance makers. Our classrooms are being re-wired and standardized to allow the proliferation of appliances that will transform education.

What do these appliances look like? What does this transformation entail?

At SXSWedu a month ago, I attended the product launch for one such appliance. Rupert Murdoch's Amplify has produced a new tablet for the classroom market, which comes with a complete ELA, math, and science curriculum. The program promises:

With an e-library stocked with more than 300 books and educational games, and tools for immediate, in-class student assessment, Amplify ELA aims to help students read three times more and write three times more, and to help teachers provide three times more meaningful feedback.

As the students work, the device keeps track of what they have read and written. Words that were misspelled are repeated on new assignments they are given. The teacher has an interface that allows them to monitor student work, and choose from a menu of pre-programmed feedback responses with a tap of a finger.

Another provider of "appliances" is Microsoft, which has partnered with Pearson to produce what they are calling the "Common Core System of Courses, with the Windows 8 touchscreen technology."

Margo Day, the vice president of U.S. Education, for Microsoft explains,

Personalized learning for every student is a worthy and aspirational goal. By combining the power of touch, type, digital inking, multitasking and split-screen capabilities that Windows 8 with Office 365 provides with these new Pearson applications, we're one step closer to enabling an interactive and personalized learning environment.

In this mode of instruction, these devices become the mediator of almost every academic interaction between students and their teacher, and even one another. Students are assigned work on the device, they perform their work on the device, they share work through the device, and they receive feedback via the device. What is more, the means by which learning is measured—the standardized test—will also be via this device.

It is the appliance that now becomes "intelligent" about each student and the appliance is the vehicle by which lessons are "personalized," because the appliance is what is keeping track of what the student is capable of, and where the student is weak.

Of course the teacher has the ability to oversee and monitor the assignments the device is making, but the whole idea is to automate this process. And this is happening in an environment where there is a clear desire to increase class sizes. Thus we have "personalization" via digital device, at the same time we make teacher-student relationships far more difficult because budget constraints are increasing class sizes.

The Rocketship charter schools have attempted to make this formula work, but thus far have not seen good results

Unfortunately, school finance has become a zero sum game, so that when Los Angeles Unified decided to invest a billion dollars in iPads and Pearson curriculum, that meant that this money was diverted from sorely needed facility renovation bond funds.

I know from my many years teaching middle school that students LOVE new technology. I recall when we got laserdisc machines back in the 1990s. Students enjoyed playing Science Sleuths and using the barcode reader to find the answers. 

But as enthusiastic as the laserdisc vendors were, they never reached the ambitions of the current generation of appliance peddlers. And I think these devices will fail ultimately fail to deliver. Here is why.

  1. Students are best motivated and engaged by teachers who have the time to give them individual attention.
  2. The most engaging lessons are not going to come from a device, programmed by Pearson pedagogs who have never met my students. They are going to be developed by creative teachers building on the interests of their students.
  3. The initial excitement of using touchscreen tablets, and seeing little animations whiz around the printed words of a reading assignment is likely to wear off in a year or two, leaving students with an expensive portable textbook/workbook.
  4. Parents have become increasingly alarmed at the ability of these devices to capture vast amounts of highly detailed information about their children, and have mounted such opposition that just last week, the state of New York walked away from its arrangement with inBloom to house such data. 
  5. Teachers with manageable class sizes are far better at understanding and relating to the personal interests and abilities of their students than even the best device. Teachers have the added capability of interpersonal relationship - which no device has yet achieved. Thus, smaller class sizes remain a more prudent investment than devices which will be obsolete in a few years.
  6. While the Amplify tablet boasts of more than "300 books and games," a good school library might house thousands of print books, allowing far more options for readers. There are also concerns as to the way the human brain interacts with a screen compared to the printed page.
  7. The idea that educational improvement will be driven by innovations resulting from competition between these various designers of devices is based on a basic misunderstanding. Creativity and innovation have always been of greatest educational value when they emerge from the autonomy given to classroom teachers and students.

It is understandable why people who have made their fortunes on the transformation of commerce and industry through the almighty combination of computers, software, data and the internet would project a similar revolution in our schools. However, there is a fundamental difference between commerce and the classroom. Our students learn in a social environment in which human relationships remain central. A model which makes a device central to the learning process is flawed.

These devices have some value as tools. I am not suggesting they be abandoned. I am suggesting that they are being greatly oversold, and the imperative to standardize our classrooms so they become uniform "sockets" that will allow these devices to readily plug in is misguided. We stand to lose far more from this stultifying standardization than these devices can ever provide.  

What do you think? Should we embrace standardization so as to allow our classrooms to be uniform sockets for the latest devices? 

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter. 

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