By Deep Sran
One of the biggest questions in education today is what role technology will play in the classroom.
The goal of putting a web-enabled device in every student’s hand (going “1-to-1”) has not been achieved yet, but it is widely accepted as inevitable (and desirable, with some reservations). When that happens and adaptive software becomes available, it will be transformative. What is difficult to predict is how long change will take and how profound it will be. For example, if all content and instruction are delivered on devices, which is a natural progression from today’s “blended learning,” and adaptive software can provide student-specific feedback and make instructional “decisions” based on student achievement, technology will render traditional physical classrooms and schools, and even teachers, obsolete.
Having said this, my experience is that change comes slowly to education. I first used a computer in school in the early 1980s, had my first desktop computer at home in 1985, took my first laptop to law school in 1993, and regularly used email and Internet searches as a first-year lawyer in 1996. The transition from the first computer in the classroom to the first computer I brought to the classroom took almost 15 years. In 2016, more than 20 years since I first brought a laptop to school, many students across the country, including in this county, are still not using a device in every classroom.
At the same time, my experience as a consumer and as a professional have shown how quickly fundamental, even existential, change can happen when technology matures and is widely adopted. Smartphones have changed how I find information, buy things, pick restaurants, travel, and communicate, all in less than 10 years following the launch of the iPhone. Ten years ago, no one was on a mobile device in an elevator or in line at a grocery store or on an airplane, and now almost everyone is. In terms of existential change, the fact that anyone anywhere can now work in the web-enabled information economy, and that algorithms can replace humans for sophisticated tasks, means that the only problems and questions that cannot be outsourced or automated will be the ones no one has encountered yet.
One consideration as we think about the role of technology in the classroom is whether adopting new technology always leads to improved student outcomes. The answer here is not clear. Web-enabled devices make possible information retrieval, content creation, and communication that expand what students can learn and do. At the same time, the likelihood of distraction while working, the challenges to maintaining stamina while reading, and the perils of social networks and around-the-clock connectedness are troubling.
In my experience, education is at its best when there is a co-located, sustained, and deep conversation between a student, a teacher who knows and loves their subject, and peers who add ideas and ask questions. This is the ideal learning environment. Technology can make the conversations between students, teachers, and peers about course content richer and, in some cases, more personalized, but I do not believe technology can produce better student outcomes than an ideal classroom environment. As long as there are humans, I believe we will need humans to teach them.
However, while the best learning happens in small seminar classrooms with great teachers, this does not mean K-12 education will go in this direction. Changes that save money or add instructional capacity where it would otherwise be missing are more likely to drive change. This is why I think urban and rural school districts that currently struggle to retain teachers or to adequately fund schools will end up leading K-12 education in the direction of a greater reliance on technology.
So, what is the future of technology in the classroom? In the next 10 years, I do not think schools will look or function very differently. I think every student in America will work 1-to-1 on a device with broadband access, but students will still get on a bus to go to a school and sit in a classroom with a teacher and peers. Looking further ahead, however, I think existential change is coming, unless we improve the classroom experience in a cost-effective way. Online classes will proliferate and provide the majority of instructional experiences, particularly in urban and rural schools, because technology will be able to produce student learning outcomes that equal or exceed those possible in many traditional large, lecture-based classes—for less money. And, once it is shown that a significant number of classes can be delivered cheaply and remotely on a device, the case for physical classrooms and schools will begin to erode. This is already happening in higher education.
I think we either make classrooms better or hope technology doesn’t make things worse.
[Deep Sran, founder of Loudoun School for the Gifted in Ashburn, has been on a mission to improve formal education for two decades. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]