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Technology and the Evolution of the PK-12 Classroom (4/4/15)

Mass production and availability of computer technology since the year 1980 has forever changed the fabric of society throughout the world. As computer technology has become more and more pervasive, the cost of owning a personal computer has become more and more affordable. The emergence and subsequent prolific public use of the internet since 1990 has further amplified the impact of computers on our lives. Through the internet we now have access to an almost infinite worldwide network of information. Given this context, it is no surprise that computer technology and the internet have the potential to impact PK – 12 classrooms in ways that were unimaginable just 20 years ago.

A 3/30/15 article in the Atlantic titled The Deconstruction of the K – 12 Teacher explores the potential future impact of computer technology on PK – 12 education.  The article’s author, Michael Godsey, proposes that in as little as 5 – 10 years we may have classrooms that feature:

Fantastic computer screens at the front, streaming one of the nation’s most engaging, informative lessons available on a particular topic. The ‘virtual class’ will be introduced, guided, and curated by one of the country’s best teachers and it will feature professionally produced footage . . . Ted Talks, interactive games . . . and a formal assessment that the computer will immediately score and record.

This is very interesting to say the least. Godsey also goes on to assert that the shift from the teacher’s role as the knowledge disseminator to the facilitator of instruction is an initial signal of more significant changes to come. Godsey cites at least one teacher who laments this change in role. Godsey also explores the idea of how many of the new online platforms that allow educators to post and share lessons and all the needed related content are really the building blocks of a school in the cloud that bureaucrats will one day use to replace the current classroom teacher structure with a video monitor and a “tech” person to ensure that the technology is working and that students do not misbehave.

Godsey’s article is entertaining, and it certainly raises some interesting questions while also pressing the envelope on some concepts that are currently in practice, like virtual school in the PK – 12 arena, however, it is a bit far-fetched. I believe that computer technology and the coterminous use of the internet will never wholly replace classroom teachers in the PK – 12 setting. I base my assertion on three groups of necessary factors that are inextricably linked to the current structure of PK – 12 schools in the United States. These factors are the extracurricular programs offered by schools and their socialization of students, the necessary human assessment factor provided by teachers, and the serendipity of authentic learning.

Regarding extracurricular programs and socialization, these are two of the most important services/functions of schools in the United States. The extracurricular programs allow students to explore and develop their gifts in athletics, the arts, and in the academics. These experiences sharpen students’ real world problem solving ability while teaching skills like teamwork, leadership, and the ability to respond to adversity. These are things that cannot be learned on the internet.

In addition to the skills taught through extracurricular programs that teachers in schools lead, schools also serve as the socializing agent for the future adults in our society. School is the place where students learn to relate to and coexist with their peers. School is the great mixer where our children are exposed to the diverse perspectives and backgrounds of their teachers and peers. This experience is what sustains the social fabric of our nation as students learn that while they do not have to agree with others empathy, tolerance, and the need for a broad view of issues are needed in a society that justly meets the needs of its citizens.

Teachers also provide human assessment of students’ progress and development of skills. This takes place in real time in the classroom and throughout the course of the school day and year. An internet based course, no matter how thorough in design, does not provide the opportunity for real-time low inference feedback, which is what students need to continue to develop. Also, the absence of an assigned teacher within physical proximity does not allow the student the authentic ability to follow up on questions as they arise, outside of the assigned class time.

Finally, there is the serendipity of learning; embarking on one journey and discovering something totally unintended along the way. This experience is what helps to broaden and expand our knowledge. Teachers are crucial to this process as they help guide students when teachable moments arise and provide new information or reference points to explore as students develop questions that point inquiry in new directions. Limited access to an instructor in an online format does not provide the opportunity for this.

To close, technology is a wonderful tool. Advances in computer technology since the 1980s and the emergence of the internet since the early 1990s, have literally put the collective recorded knowledge of human civilization at our fingertips. In addition, the development of the online learning environment and databases for teacher lesson plans provide options for teaching and learning that have not been previously available. While all these advances certainly position the PK – 12 environment to better serve students through a variety of paths, with enhanced access to information, they certainly do not serve as an appropriate substitute for the current classroom teacher based model for schools. The extracurricular programs offered by schools and schools’ socialization of students, the necessary human assessment factor provided by teachers, and the serendipity of authentic learning are human factors that the online environment simply will not be able to replace.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO