Divorce or Remarriage of K-12 and Silicon Valley?


For the past decade, we have heard a lot of talk about computers in the classroom. School system after school system (including Edison Schools, which I lead) has pumped funds into technology, cumulatively totaling billions of dollars.

A portion of the spending has provided teachers with their own personal computers--a good idea. Other dollars have paid for more work stations for school libraries, another good idea. But most of the funds have been invested in the placement of two to four computers each in a number of classrooms. Should you visit these classrooms without giving notice, in some you would find teachers and students using this new equipment. In many more instances you would find the computers sitting like silent sentries in the back of class while teachers and students do pretty much the same thing they were doing long before the digital age arrived.

Why is this? Is it because computers don’t hold great promise for education? No, they do. Is it because teachers are technophobic? No, they are not.

It is because in our rush to marry off the Little Red Schoolhouse to Silicon Valley we made classroom technology an end in itself, not a specifically designed tool for the teacher. It is as if we placed four computers along the wall of a surgical unit or behind the pilots in the cockpit of a commercial airliner or along the side of a typical business conference room. Would anyone expect such installations to be used frequently? Unless the equipment had been developed to help surgeons, pilots or business people better perform a specific function, all of these groups would correctly do with this technology what many teachers do--ignore it.

So the bad news is that we have pumped untold billions into an execution that is not yielding adequate results. The good news is that the benefits of the rapidly emerging and magnificent digital world still lie before us, largely untapped. Though computers are now somewhat deployed in our schools for research and student information systems, in teaching and learning--what schools are really about--we have not begun to see the real impact of the computer age. When we do, it will greatly advance student achievement.

Better Connections
How will this unfold?

Though flying a plane has little in common with teaching a class, comparing the cockpit of a modern-day airliner with that of a plane from the 1950s may provide clues to how radically different the classroom of 2025 will be.

The cockpit of old was literally hundreds of mechanical gauges completely disconnected from one another. (Think of those gauges as pencils, papers, workbooks, textbooks, chalkboards, slide projectors and, yes, computers in the back of the room.) Today’s cockpit is largely two or three computer screens. On those screens you can find all the same information the gauges once provided--just far better displayed, interpreted and connected.

In addition you’ll see new and important information that wasn’t possible in the old mechanical format including weather radar, collision avoidance data and specific checklists for each function of a particular type of aircraft. Every aspect of the cockpit has been designed and integrated with one objective in mind: to help the pilot better fly the plane.

Classroom technology of tomorrow should be similarly developed to help teachers and students do their jobs. Such resources would have a dramatic effect on the typical classroom in 2025. Let’s imagine what one of those classrooms might be like.

An Interactive Classroom
It’s 9 a.m. one day as Jim Cameron calls to order his 8th-grade science class and the class of one of his faculty colleagues. Every couple of days these groups meet together in one of the school’s three "amphi-classrooms" as a double class of 44 students. Each "pod" of desks is slightly elevated from the group in front of it, allowing for better communication and viewing. Each student has a large keyboard and flat screen built into his or her desk that easily connects to his or her files through school servers. A 6-by-10-foot flat screen display at the front of the class is used for video presentations to the class.

"Students, as you know, over the past few weeks we’ve been working via the Internet with Dr. Sylvester, Edison’s science specialist in Berkeley," Cameron announces. "He’s here again this morning with a 10-minute presentation on gravity. Let’s give him our attention."

Cameron then plays the tape-delayed lesson that he previewed the night before in preparation for the class. The video lesson was specifically prepared as part of the science curriculum Cameron is using. It is not your 1980s vintage educational television--low-production-value talking heads--but a compelling, well-researched, well-produced segment complete with animation, quality sound and various "field trip" aspects.

It ought to be this way. A substantial science research and production unit connected with the school’s national headquarters backs up Sylvester. Cameron uses the video lesson because he knows it is far more effective than he could possibly be on a day-to-day basis.

Following the 10-minute lesson, Cameron leads a 20- minute discussion with the students using the approach suggested by Sylvester’s team. He then directs the students’ attention to their terminals and asks them to spend the remaining 30 minutes on some interactive exercises on gravity, prepared and downloaded to each of their mailboxes by Sylvester’s group. As the class works away, Cameron circulates among them, answering questions and giving guidance.

As all this is happening, a server stores and interprets each student’s work in an individual electronic portfolio for the teacher’s later review and comment.

"OK, students, you need to close your files as our time is coming to an end," says Cameron. "But before you leave, make sure you check your science mailbox tonight as we have about 20 minutes of homework on gravity that includes some research I want you to do at some interesting sites. If you could return the completed assignment to me before 7 a.m., I’ll try to have comments on it during tomorrow’s regular class."

Cameron is referring to special "digital homework packages" that Sylvester’s team has prepared and that students will access through their school-provided laptops. As with the in-class interactive work, the server will organize and interpret the completed student work.

The students protest about the amount of work as they file out. (Some things never change.) Later that day, Cameron heads home with no paper in his briefcase--just his laptop. That evening he taps into the school network to see how the students are doing on their digital homework. Not bad, he thinks.

Integrative Nature
Aspects of what you have just heard occur in some classrooms today. Through enormous initiative, some teachers make elements of the above experience happen. But it is unrealistic for us to ask teachers to prepare 1,000 or so sessions of this nature every school year. No teacher would have the resources to do so.

What will differentiate education’s technological future from its past will be the integration of all the various elements noted above. When Boeing builds a cockpit, it does so as the system integrator. It doesn’t make all the things that go into a cockpit, but it ensures they come together properly.

So it will be with schools of tomorrow. Although average-size school districts will not be able to provide the required investment in research and development and design, they will reach out to national schooling companies, such as Edison, to play that role. These entities, using their scale, capital and expertise in digital and video production, will bring together all the specialties and disciplines required.

This is not just talk. This winter, in at least three of our 79 schools, we are planning to test our first version of such a classroom experience. To bring it about we will be working with a consortium of curriculum producers, video experts, software providers, hardware manufacturers, professional development specialists and school schedulers.

Our aim is not to bring more technology to schools. We’re interested in making each class, every day, more effective for children and more satisfying for teachers.

Chris Whittle is the founder of the Edison Schools, 521 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10175. E-mail: cwhittle@newyork.edisonproject.com