Our Learning 2030 series has been exploring what the future of education might look like. Throughout the programs and blog posts that have been a part of the series, a sense of optimism has often been expressed about how education can be improved through the use of technology and new teaching styles.
Andrew Campbell teaches Grade 4 and 5 in Brantford and has a blog on issues in education. Like many educators who have expressed their views during Learning 2030, he hopes for a bright future in education. But he sees some major obstacles in the way of that future being achieved. He shares his concerns in the following blog post.
Watching TVO’s Learning 2030 series stirs up a vague sense of déjà vu for me. Steve Paikin intones over scenes of smiling children using electronic devices ...
“Children born this year in Canada will be ready to graduate from high school in 2030. Most of them will grow up playing with a tablet computer ...”
And I’m reminded of another TV show that began with a monologue over scenes of an idealized future ...
“Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. It's five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life ...”
Like Star Trek, Learning 2030 offers a utopian view of the future. It predicts a wonderful world filled with children engaged by technology and happily learning. All that’s missing are the matching jumpsuits.
We’ve been impatiently predicting a new frontier in learning with technology for a while now. Alvin Toffler wrote in Future Shock in 1970 that he expected educational institutions to be leaders in adapting new technology, incorporating it long before industry and private organizations. We’re still waiting.
Learning about "the future" from TV has taught me to be skeptical. I’m still waiting for flying cars, hoverboards, and commercial space travel. And not everyone sees "the future" as wonderful. George Orwell famously said, "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- forever." Grim.
In spite of this, I remain optimistic about the potential of technology to transform how we educate children. Like many Ontario educators, I’m trying to create the future of learning in my classroom; my students use technology daily and we’re increasingly integrating mobile devices into learning.
But I also see obstacles, and challenges to be met. If we’re to move towards the vision of learning in the opening of Learning 2030, I believe we must address the following:
Education Minister Liz Sandals has made it clear there’s "no new money" for education. In Ontario, enrolments are declining, schools are closing, and education budgets are shrinking. Technology will probably save schools money in the long run, but will require an initial investment that schools and school boards don’t have. Some schools acquire technology as pilot projects, for special programs or through parent fundraising, but this only equips a few schools. What about the rest? We need to put our money where our mouths are if we’re serious about transforming the standardized teaching of the past. Eleven years ago, Maine began a program that provides every student in grades 7 through 12 with a laptop. Why aren’t we doing this in Ontario?
The biggest trends in educational technology are the flipped classroom and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs, where students bring personal devices from home to use at school. Both programs address the lack of funding for educational technology by shifting responsibility for providing technology from schools to families. Such practices embed economic inequity into children’s learning. According to a 2010 report, one in 10 Ontario households can’t afford "dental care or daily fruit and vegetables" for their children. These and many other low-income families probably can’t provide devices for their children. Approaches like flip teaching and BYOD don’t address the technology needs of students from low-income families. They’re the students that need technology in schools the most, and have the most to gain from it.
The unspoken truth about technology in education is that devices don’t change things, teachers do. A colleague reports that at her son’s school, devices are locked away until "writing day," when students take them out, do word processing, then lock them away until next week. There’s nothing substantively different in doing worksheets on a tablet than on paper. Technology facilitates a shift in how we’re able to teach and learn, but if educators don’t accept and embrace it, nothing changes. We need to support educators who are taking risks and using new ways of teaching, and thinking about teaching. Devices without a shift in pedagogy won’t make any difference.
Resistance to Change
Seymour Papert starts his seminal book on educational technology, The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer, with a "thought experiment" about time-traveling teachers. Papert compares how little classrooms and schools have changed in the last 100 years with how much hospital operating rooms have changed. He wonders, when so much has changed in society, why haven’t we seen a comparable change in how we help children learn? Schools are resistant to change and have been for a long time. They are conservative institutions with deep roots in industrial thinking and the principles of conformity and standardization. They are General Motors, not Google. Schools are limited by our own thinking about them. We remember schools fondly from when we were children and they get caught in our nostalgia. The world is changing quickly, and so must schools, if we want to prepare our children for 2030.
The promise of a utopian future is enticing, but our optimism must be tempered by the shadow of dystopia. Our future will fall between Star Trek and the dark future of Blade Runner. Will we have children interacting with technology to engage in personalized learning? Or will we be closer to a multi-tiered system with underfunded schools, where students struggle to develop the basic skills they need? By successfully meeting the four challenges outlined above, we can help ensure that our children and province can "boldly go where no man has gone before."
Image credits: Wired, and CVLT Nation.