The Future of Educational Computing

(This was written for PCGuia, a leading Portuguese technology magazine. It was published in the April 2010 edition.)

Imagine the classroom of the future. All students have a laptop, all textbooks are interactive and immersive, all teachers have access to rich data on student achievement.

Is this a fantasy … or is it already almost a reality?

The Magellan project in Portugal to give each student a tool for 21st century learning has world-wide visibility. Other projects such as the Maine Learning Technology initiative – supplying a laptop for each middle and high school student in the US state of Maine – are also bright lights in educational technology.

Via projects like these, we are learning what it takes to make technology in schools work: for students, for teachers, and for the economy of tomorrow.

Let’s take a brief step into the classroom of the future. What do we see?

The digital learning “life cycle”
A teacher creates a lesson based on materials provided by the Ministry of Education and available for download on a server. She adds a few local details, a Flash animation she found online, and a chapter of a digital textbook.

When students enter the classroom, lesson resources are automatically downloaded to each of their laptops. As the teacher introduces the lesson, students answer quick one or two question quizzes that give her instant feedback on what they understand – or don’t.

After the introduction, students gather in small groups to discuss and apply their new insights. They work on shared documents, collaborating to produce presentations that can be simultaneously edited by each of them on their individual computers.

That evening, students each take their own laptop home. They open the lesson resources their teacher provided, and read the chapter in the textbook. The textbook was automatically downloaded to their PCs at the beginning of the semester, and includes audio clips, Flash animations, and short movies that illustrate and explain the concepts. The textbook also includes interactive exercises that students must complete to demonstrate their knowledge.

The next morning when students enter the classroom, data automatically flows from their laptops to the teacher: what they studied, how long they read, what questions they answered, and their scores. Graphs and charts of student comprehension are automatically created for the teacher, and she can instantly see which students are ready to move on to the next lesson, and which need some extra help on the current topic.

Based on scores on the in-class quiz the previous day as well as students’ results on the interactive exercises completed at home, the teacher then assigns new lessons. Students who understand the current topic receive more advanced material; students who do not receive a different lesson on the same topic.

The teacher manages this on her laptop, and then asks students to work in small groups that are automatically assigned based on appropriate mixes of knowledge and ability. As students work quietly, she acts as a coach, moving from group to group to give quick, focused feedback or input as students require.

Since the teacher is receiving constant daily feedback on students’ learning in the form of simple visual graphs, she can proactively target any weaknesses. For some, she provides extra coaching and teaching. Others may require tutoring, assignment to a study group, or intervention with a parent. None will be surprised at the end of a term with a failing grade.

At the end of the semester, data from all of students’ learning (not just tests or exams) is automatically collated and graphed, allowing the teacher to assign a grade that accurately reflects each student’s learning and growth, knowledge and effort.

The challenge and opportunity
This, some may say, is a great vision … but far from reality. And reality is a little less amenable to change than we might like.

But what makes technology in schools so hard? Why is it that supplying millions of euros of technology to students does not instantly increase achievement? Well, big ships are hard to turn, and large institutions do not change overnight. Moving from a 19th century factory model of education – students in, citizen-workers out – to a 21st century model focusing on learning, evaluation, synthesis, and creation skills is a major change.

Most educators are willing to do what it takes to prepare students for a future in the knowledge economy. But it takes support at all levels for meaningful, lasting change to happen. And the critical steps are those taken before any laptops enter the classroom.

The first step is develop a clear vision: what are the goals and what is the plan that will achieve them? A recent study of multiple laptop projects found that committed leaders who did thorough planning before purchasing any technology were key to success .

But just as important is early and committed involvement of teachers. Nothing will change a teacher’s world as much as moving from traditional education to 1:1 computing … so it is little wonder that without teacher support, educational technology fails. The same study states that teachers play an essential role: in fact, that the responsibility for actually implementing the use of technology falls to teachers.

School systems that achieve success with educational technology also often find that their methods of teaching and learning change, moving from lecture-style teaching to project or problem-based learning: learning that is focused on real-world issues and forces students to bring multiple competencies (math, language, geography, etc) to bear on a single multi-faceted issue.

Given the changes teachers need to make, and that fact that they are critical to success, plenty of time for professional development and training before the laptops arrive is critical. Ongoing coaching and resources for teachers are also highly correlated with successful projects.

So it’s not simple: it’s not just a matter of signing a check and dropping technology on school desks.

But the pioneers, including Magellan, have shown the path to success. And the opportunity is to transform learning into something that all students enjoy, and to make school a launching pad for careers and innovation and success.

The needs right now
We are no longer at the beginning of the revolution. The rebels of educational technology are starting to be the leaders. But what is needed now? What are the next steps?

  1. Integrated tools
    Today, teacher PCs are not talking to student PCs simply and easily, communicating what students need, delivering lessons, collating results. Student planning tools don’t integrate with teacher assignments. Textbooks do not have interactive quizzes and tests built-in. Digital reading software doesn’t report back to teachers or parents on what students have done. Why? These tools need to talk.

  2. Simple computer management
    In a school with 1500 laptops, or a district with 15,000 … how can schools possibly manage? Schools need to be able to enable or disable software. Districts need to be able to push updates to computers. Teachers need the ability to customize a learning environment on their students’ computers. All of this needs to be possible with a computer science degree.

  3. Next-generation digital textbooks
    Textbooks need to be digital. But they need to be more than simply digital copies of dead-tree versions. Textbooks need to come alive: to integrate rich media where and when appropriate. Textbooks also need to be integrated: to know what teachers have assigned and to be able to measure and communicate student progress. Textbooks need to be connected: to link to resources, communities, and knowledge outside their digital pages on the web.

  4. Friction-free digital distribution
    Textbooks, software, and learning objects of all kinds need simple and friction-free distribution … so that schools can assign software and textbooks to students class by class as required, and it just happens. No wizardry, no technical genius needed: just a simple graphical distribution system that gives teachers the power to supply whatever is needed to students.

The classroom of the future is closer than you think
The Magellan project has given students in Portugal the tools they need. Other projects around the world are following. Teachers are developing pedagogy for the proper use and implementation of educational technology. And software developers and technology companies are providing the tools the connect, to analyze, to empower, to enable.

The classroom of the future … could it be here tomorrow? It is only as far away as our imagination and vision allow.

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