Educational Technology: Scenario

I’ve wanted to post some of the papers that I’ve written as a part of courses that I’m taking while working towards my Master of Educational Technology degree at UBC … and here’s the first installment.

It’s a scenario: how will education be different in 5 years? I chose to be a little optimistic, and wrote it how I wanted it to be, not necessarily how I think it will be.

I’ve excerpted a section – read on to see it – and also posted the file in PDF form ….

What will it be like to be a student at Anytown Middle School in 2010? Let’s project five years into the future to imagine a scenario, a future in which an energetic young leader and a cadre of dedicated teachers have used technology-based tools to reinvent schooling at Anytown.

So let’s imagine a day in the life of a student: Jane Doe, a 13-year old in the eighth grade.

A Day in the Life: Jane Doe

On Monday morning, Jane doesn’t go to school immediately. She stays home a little longer, because her mother doesn’t start work until 10:00. But at 8:00, Jane starts up her eMate, a Mac tablet that Anytown Middle School gives every student. Jane’s tablet supports wireless internet access, and fortunately, the Starbucks across the street from the Doe’s second-floor apartment has a free wireless network.

Jane logs into Anytown Middle School’s web-based learning management system (LMS), which then knows that she’s “in school,� and records that fact with a time and date stamp. Now Jane’s teacher can find her online, as can any of the students in Jane’s cohort, no matter where she is.

Jane is nearing the closing stages of one of her courses: American History 10a, which deals primarily with post-World War I domestic issues. Since she’s at the end of the unit, she’s heavily involved in analyzing the economic and political factors that led up to Roosevelt’s New Deal, and attempting, with her team of three local students, to synthesize the data and produce a report.

This four-person Anytown learning team is in touch with a group of German students who are studying the inter-war period in their own country, and occasionally the two groups meet to compare notes in a Multi-User Domain (MUD) attached to Anytown’s learning management system. When both groups finish their projects, they’ll present their findings to each other and compare notes on how Germany’s and America’s responses to poverty and depression differed – and on how they were similar.

Jane is nearing the end of this unit and she’s working on one section of the report that her group will present. To make sure she’s accurately representing the facts, she reviews a video that the learning management system loaded onto her tablet and checks a few trusted websites. As she does so, a plug-in to the school’s learning management system pops up on her tablet’s screen and asks her a few questions about what she’s just seen, which she answers. The data, which provides a snapshot of Jane’s understanding at this point, will be used to help her teacher (and the learning management system) customize further materials for Jane to access and digest.

She also checks the text for this class. Since the district negotiated a bulk deal with a consortium of textbook manufacturers at the beginning of the year, any textbook in the consortium’s digital library is automatically available in the Resources section of Anytown’s learning management system. Jane’s teacher highlighted this book as one that offered not only a succinct reporting of salient facts about the New Deal, but also had insightful commentary from a variety of perspectives on the significance and impact of key events, decisions, and policies. The text also includes period video, audio of Roosevelt’s speeches, and interactive pictorial representations of life in the 1930s.

After Jane spends an hour or so reviewing information and making notes in her own handwriting on her tablet, her mother is ready to go to work. Jane checks to be sure her eMate is fully charged, and knowing the battery will last all day, puts it in her backpack. Her mom drops her off at school.

Anytown now serves almost 700 students, but is not over-crowded: schooling is a year-round occupation, and there is always one set of students on break. As Jane walks in, a RFID tag in her backpack notifies the student information system (SIS) that she is in the building. The student information system notifies the learning management system, but Jane does not appear as active on her cohort’s digital dashboards: she has not logged in yet.

Once in school, Jane joins her cohort in one of the learning labs. Learning labs are modified classrooms that feature multiple team workspaces for discussion, projects, and interaction. Each lab is presided over by a teacher/media specialist/librarian, who maintains order, ensures students are on-task, and assists in a general way with learning, information retrieval, and project management. Each of these teacher/facilitators also has an area of focus, and teaches regularly.

Jane’s cohort is a loose grouping of 15-25 students who have overlapping and complementary interests and abilities, and are of generally similar age. They do not all take the same courses, but there is sufficient overlap that creative cross-fertilization of ideas is a common occurrence. The cohort is a fairly stable grouping, but it divides into a variety of 3-5 person learning teams which are dynamic and changing as projects, courses, and interests change. Each cohort has a teacher/coach who meets with the cohort regularly, almost daily, and ensures that each student has every opportunity to participate in full. The teacher/coach is also is the first point of contact when conflict resolution and/or discipline are needed.

While working with the group on their report, Jane presents some of her findings from the morning. The group agrees to add some of the new data to the text of the report, but decides that some of the conclusions will be added to the audio-visual presentation that will be part of the final multi-media report.

After lunch, Jane joins her cohort as they and another cohort start a new unit together: Ecology 8c. At the beginning of this unit, as with all units, students gather in a lecture theatre that has been cobbled together from two or three classrooms.

All learning units start with old-style teaching: a summary of basic information in the relevant area delivered in a number of seminars. They are delivered by teachers in their area of expertise and interest who do not have learning lab duties at the required time.

Anytown’s learning philosophy emphasizes that although students must, to master a subject, use higher-order thinking and critical analysis skills both cooperatively and independently, the starting point is the basic facts. Not only does this give students an adequate foundation on which to build their personal learning inquiries, it helps Jane and her fellow students score sufficiently well on state high-stakes tests.

The lecture part of a learning unit, however, is not a dry listing of facts. It includes multimedia, and reasons why students should find the particular subject important, relevant, and interesting. Typically, a learning unit features between 5-8 lectures, although more can be added if required.

The seminar lasts an hour. After a brief break, Jane’s cohort meets to discuss what they’ve heard. They compare notes, scan the SCORM-compliant course that their instructor downloaded from a best-practices teacher’s site and added to the learning management system, and start to offer opinions on the data presented.

After 45 minutes of discussion, the school bell rings, and most of the students break up and head toward home. Jane, whose mother is working late, walks to this month’s designated late learning lab, which is open and staffed until 9:00 PM every weeknight, and catches up on some of her other work while waiting for her mother to come pick her up after work.

Hardware, Software, and Money: How it All Comes Together

The scenario above is technology-intensive: software, hardware, and media. How can a school that does not expect significant funding increases accomplish this?

First of all, the school district negotiated a bulk purchase from Apple Computer for the eMates, acquiring them at just under $450 each. Moore’s Law and the continuing downward pressure on the pricing of digital components has, by 2010, resulting in a fairly powerful unit that holds over two hundred gigabytes of data (including media documents), runs quickly, accepts pen-based input but has an attachable keyboard and mouse, runs 9 hours on one battery charge, and features a large, clear, high-resolution display. Since the tablet comes with all the software needed to view and create any kind of content, the school has not needed to purchase any additional software for general use.

Second, the digital library that the school negotiated ‘full-meal-deal’ access to offers more than conventional hard-cover textbooks at a lower price. In fact, a per-student annual savings of $75 is partially funding the tablet, which have a projected useful lifespan of three years.

Third, Anytown sports a powerful array of software that is has acquired for precisely zero dollars. Both its learning management system, which helps teacher tailor each student’s educational path, and its student information system, which manages all the data regarding grades, attendance, and so on, are open source projects that already in 2005 were showing significant promise, and by 2010 are full-featured, stable, easy-to-use packages that interoperate easily with other software.

Both of these open source packages run on top of the most famous open source success story: Linux. Using Linux the school is able to use older hardware for its servers and still have high availability and quick response times … besides saving the money that would otherwise be needed to purchase a server operating system.

Fourth, some of the physical infrastructure that supports wireless networks and the RFID security system was paid for by the state to answer public outcry after a series of school shootings.

Finally, Anytown was able to access some additional funding for truly critical needs: ongoing training for staff, and a full-time technology coordinator who assists teachers whenever needed and slowly instigated change over a 5-year period.

In summary, the physical tool is getting cheaper and cheaper, and by judiciously using open source software wherever possible, Anytown was able to put a compelling solution together at fairly low cost.

Here’s the entire paper …

I did get an A for it. If you use it or parts of it, attribution and a link would be appreciated.