Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Classroom of the Future... tomorrow!

Spurred on by Margaret Wente's shrill diatribe against teachers and their unions in Ontario (not wholly undeserved - I could say two or fifty unpleasant things about the Ontario College of Teachers), and by the end of the school year, I started thinking about what would an effective classroom look, say, 7 years from now. A lot of this is going to be generalizations though, but I think the numbers bear out. So given that:
- the supposed purpose of education is to provide valuable skills and knowledge to the new generation
- the costs of education per student are going up, while enrollment is actually slowly decreasing, and education is consistently the second highest portion of government spending not just in Ontario but across Canada
- education is seen as being vital to a 'successful' career
- teenagers are busier than ever with part time jobs, community hours, trying to find internships to help with business/pre-law/pre-med/etc. applications
- all phones will be equivalent to today's cutting-edge smartphones
- Internet access will be ubiquitous (it might be heavily censored in the future, but at least access to it will be a given in Canada)
... I think that the current model of education will be dangerously unsustainable and counter-productive in every way. The province is already trying to cut $70 million this year in under-used schools (see link above), and this number will only increase in the future even as class sizes increase. Education as it is right now is unsustainable. It is unsustainable economically, it is unsustainable environmentally (the cost of power, the cost of fuel to transport students to the school, the tremendous waste of supplies created by ever school, cost of constant renovations), and it will soon become unsustainable morally.

"Wait, what?!" Hear me out. Schools no longer have a monopoly on information for young people, nor do they any longer have much of a moral ground when it comes to teaching some kind of objective knowledge and giving useful skills. Maybe up to a certain point (say Grade 6 or 8) the institutional, structured, orderly classroom is preferable, but afterward the students are wasting time and potential. I'm not talking just about gifted students, I'm talking about students in general. The only reasons the lesson periods are as long as they are is because we (education system and society) need to: a) keep them from 9 to 3, b) because the classes are damn big and much of the lesson gets lots in the static and needs to be repeated. The high school years as they are structured now are a big waste, and the amount of time spent on transmitting the curriculum requirements into their fragile young minds can be condensed. Even if we keep 12-grade system, the amount of time per grade could be reduced without sacrificing quality. Assuming that we are willing to do some radical changes, that is.

So here we go, let's put our futurology hats on:
- Education needs to be far more virtual and distributed than it is now. Rote memorization of knowledge in the age of ubiquitous internet access and smartphones is laughably obsolete. A smartphone with net access is for most intents and purposes a crude exocortex memory. The age of polymaths and encyclopaedics is over - you can either be an expert in a very specific field, or you can know a little about a lot of things and depend on freely accessed knowledge for anything that requires greater detail. What we really need to focus on is the development of research, search and analysis skills. We assume that young'uns today are super-duper tech savvy because they spend so much time on their damn phones, but nothing is further from the truth. I can do things with browsers, spreadsheets, word processors, or PowerPoints that leaves their mouths gaping, and I'm not even especially computer-literate.
- To make education more virtual and distributed than it is now, reverse classrooms need to be implemented widely, from Grade 9 on. What is a reverse classroom? The teacher posts the lesson in the form of a document, a YouTube video or podcast (typically 20-30 minute length), Smarttech lesson, etc. online and assigns work related to the lesson. The students watch/read the lesson on their own, and come to class to work on their homework, assignments, or get further assistance from a teacher. Only we need to gradually push the envelope further. The work can also be completed online - a simple bot could watch the completion of work and compile a report for the teacher on which students did their work and in what time. What does the teacher do with the rest of his/her time? Well...
- The class sizes will become bigger. That is inevitable as the governments (witness McGuinty's slow about-face on teacher wages going on right now) will reduce education expenses. With reverse classrooms, however, the class sizes will approach mid-range university classes (40-50 students per teacher). The teacher, however, will spend most of his/her time evaluating work, preparing lessons, assisting with any inquiries, and facilitating. Facilitating what...?
- Student apprenticeships. This is not a new idea and indeed many schools already implement it, but rather stupidly only for those students who have no chance at all of academic success. Well, we should replace those community hours (so many of which end up being faked anyway) with meaningful and varied apprenticeships. Build a professional online network of Ministry-of-Education-approved local businesses in each school area. Let students have a large degree of freedom when selecting their apprenticeships, let them try out a different job every month, maybe even hold bidding competitions on who gets what position.
- A typical student day might be something like getting up in the morning, checking messages from guild members (read on!), teachers, heading off for a few hours of apprenticeship. While on the way, listen to a lesson or two, fire off a couple of questions or quick homework. After work meet up with guildies online or IRL, raid some lessons (OK OK, I'll get to it in a second), complete the work. Once or twice a week come to progress meetings with the teacher, or remote in.

Alright, so here's my crazy/maybe-revolutionary idea of the day. Education needs to start taking cues from the psychology behind social networks, facebook games, and Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs). All three of these are so wildly successful because:
a) we connect to other people and we can share our success and brag about it
b) the tasks are broken down into small incremental steps, and the completion of each step rewarded with small but increasing rewards
c) as rewards increase, so does the difficulty
d) they create a community built around common interests and goals
I think it's all too plain how the MMO/social network can apply to education. The requirement for teamwork and cooperation and social learning is already written in the curriculum, but it's not very meaningful in the current homework. Students can complete work in short bursts, with each successful completion opening up new challenges, but also rewards. What rewards? Maybe preferential bids on apprenticeship gigs, grades, whatever. Even money (see the effect financial rewards have on grades - heck universities and colleges already do so with bursaries and scholarships)! So while the overall grades and performance of the student will be assessed on an individual basis, progression through curriculum and additional perks will be possible through social interaction and actual teamwork. Heck, plug in augmented reality eventually and it will really be like something out of science fiction!