Too Simple to Fail

How to improve the educational system.

Replacing the Obsolete Classroom with Digital Tutoring

The End of Classroom Instruction as We Know It

Anyone who has thought about public education must surely recognize how woefully obsolete our century old classroom model of one teacher delivering the same instruction to 35 diverse students is in the 21st century. For anyone who hasn't thought about the topic, perhaps a brief mental experiment would be in order.

Think about the last time you observed the pedestrian traffic along a busy city sidewalk or in a shopping mall after school hours. Wasn't 90% of the school age population fidgeting with some sort of mobile device: reading or sending text messages, surfing social network sites, updating their own, or simply endlessly scrolling who knows what?

Retaining this image of a digitally addicted generation, now try to visualize these young people caged in a stereotypic classroom sitting at wooden desks, all with their textbooks opened to the same page, and ostensibly listening to a teacher droning on about something that some of them will typically already have learned, some may not have an adequate background to follow, and some are studiously ignoring. And, dress codes and architecture aside, would a classroom 100 years ago have looked that differently?

Now try to visualize a classroom 100 years from now. Don't you image that things will have changed a bit by then? Will there even be an adult standing in front of the classroom at all? Wouldn't he or she be more likely to be seated at the rear at a raised workstation, electronically monitoring students working individually on digital devices at their work stations? What need, after all, would there be for the current teacher role of idiosyncratically preparing and delivering lessons when every component of the curriculum has been digitized and individualized based upon what each student had already learned?

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And of equal importance, what need will we have for black boxed assessments delivered at the end of the school year to measure learning, the contents of which are jealously guarded to prevent anyone from "teaching the test" (which is another way of saying to prevent everyone from knowing exactly what should be taught and learned)? Especially if the assessment of school learning occurs on a daily basis following the digital presentation of each instructional objective (or group of related objectives), which is then immediately scored and recorded to ascertain whether more instruction on the topic is needed or if it is time to move on to the next prescribed part of the curriculum? And if summative tests survive at all, shouldn't they be administered both at the beginning and end of the school year and be comprised of transparent items randomly (or otherwise purposefully) selected from the explicitly defined curriculum upon which all instruction is based?

We could go on with this mental experiment, but there are so many possible iterations of the evolution from our current obsolete, teacher oriented classroom model that no one can precisely predict what form its final replacement(s) will take. What we can be sure of, however, is that the delivery of instruction (and the assessment of learning) will be vastly different than it is today. We can also be reasonably sure that the live teaching role, if it plays anything other than a supplementary role, will be one of monitoring engagement with digitized tutoring (and its myriad supplementations such as DVDs of exemplary lectures, online discussions between students from diverse backgrounds, virtual field trips, remedial human tutoring or small group instruction when required, and so forth).

And regardless of whether students are assigned to specific rooms or grade levels, progression, curricular, and grading decisions will definitely not be made by individuals based upon their "professional experience" anymore than current heart surgery is performed according to the idiosyncrasies of cowboy surgeons in lieu of best practice protocols. Almost all individual educational decisions, in fact, will be made on the basis of the continual flow of learning data emanating from daily learning assessments, automatically collected and automatically compiled in an easily interpretable manner.

Given current fiscal and political priorities, how we will make this massive transition to digital instruction is anyone's guess. The necessary technology already exists, however, and the majority of it has already been implemented in one site or another. [See, for example, Education Week's informative March 17 supplement entitled "K-12 Seeks Custom Fit: Schools Test Individualized Digital Learning."] Unfortunately, while promising, these efforts are scattered, uncoordinated, and the many will disappear at the end of their funding.

Hopefully at some point the development of the necessary infrastructure for the digitization of school instruction will occur, comprised first and foremost of an explicit and K-12 curriculum, minutely and broadly defined - not by broad state or national standards - but by specific instructional objectives accompanied by sample items by which each will be assessed. We will also need to agree on some sort of universal intelligent tutoring software by which each objective can be taught and its mastery assessed. And then we can begin developing systems by which these resources can be implemented in day-to-day school instruction.

While this may appear to be a daunting task, it isn't really. 95% of the instructional objectives, at least for K-5, have already been written - making the task more one of compilation than creation. Writing sample items for those objectives lacking them is also not onerous if the objectives themselves are properly composed. The hardware and software for such a system already exists, requiring only some adaptation and standardization.

The entire system also need not be implemented fully developed like Athena leaping from her father's head. It can be implemented one grade, one district, one school, one classroom, one subject, or one topic at a time. And implemented it will be, whether through corporate initiatives or a societal shareware type effort. The question is not whether the obsolete classroom will be replaced, but when.

Based upon TOO SIMPLE TO FAIL: A Case for Education Change (Oxford University Press) [bausell@gmail.com]

 

R. Barker Bausell, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore.

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