iEducation: Obsessively Compulsory
If you walk into any classroom in America you will likely find a teacher’s station and a chalk board along with roughly 20-30 front-facing desks filled with young minds and thick paper textbooks. Not a lot that has changed on this front in the last half-century and based on the quality of student we are pumping out it’s proving to be problematic not just for them but for our country as a whole. That is precisely why I believe that it’s time to change things up. There is an opportunity right now to affect change in a big way. There is an opportunity to make our educators more efficient teachers and our students more efficient learners. The payoff will be a leaner, more effective, educational system. (Something we sorely need by the way)
So how do we do it? Simple, along with an infusion of technology, we need a willingness to be flexible and the boldness to be innovative. Let’s take a moment, if you will, to think about the process of teaching and how it translates to learning. First off, we know that learning involves two actors primarily; teachers and students. Their relationship is defined by a conveyance of knowledge and information involving books, papers, pens, and lectures. That “conveyance”, and how technology can improve it, is exactly what I will be focusing on in this article.
Now, I want to preface what I’m about to say by making one thing very clear. I am speaking to the rule not the exception. Some schools give laptops to every student. Some schools have armed guards and metal detectors. My hope, my objective, is to address the educational status quo across the board. That said, I’m not just talking about fitting the classroom with the latest and greatest that Best Buy has to offer and expecting the quality of our educational system, or its results, to miraculously improve. It’s going to take more than that. Technology, in and of itself, is not the answer. Then again, fire, in and of itself, it not the answer for keeping your home warm either. The key is to figure out how to utilize it in such a way that you reap maximum benefit with minimum cost. We don’t just start fires in the front room and gather ’round do we? No, we turn on the HVAC and let the ventilation system circulate heat throughout the house. It’s much more efficient that way. You’re also a lot less likely to burn your house down.
Computers, useful as they may be, are not new in the classroom for the most part. Unfortunately, they are not being used nearly enough in primary and secondary education. How can we expect our young people to compete in today’s tech-savvy workplace when their exposure to technology is so limited? Many Asian countries are introducing computers at the kindergarten level. A couple years in when their students are learning keyboarding ours will be wasting their time learning how to write in cursive. I’ll let you take a guess as to which one of those skills will aid them the most in the workplace. We cannot afford to let ourselves continue to fall behind if we have any interest at all in competing with the rest of the world. It’s time that we take that next step.
So what do I propose? What is this “next step” I am alluding to? It’s simple. Integrate computer systems into all parts of the learning process. Remember that “typical classroom” I described in the opening paragraph of this paper? Imagine if you took that same classroom and replaced the chalk board with an interactive white board and the books/papers/pens with a tablet computer such as an iPad, Kindle Fire, etc.
At this point I would wager that the question of, “Even if every student had one, what would they do with it?” is probably coming to mind right about now. That is completely fair. Please allow me to explain. It’s not technology that will improve teaching, because it’s already here, it’s what you do with it. (Remember the fireplace analogy?) When you combine touch screen computers with today’s network communications technology you get the potential for a truly unique learning environment. Imagine this; everyone in the class has a tablet computer including the teacher. When you look down at your desktop what you see, instead of paper and pen or a stack of textbooks, is a common workspace that you share with the entire class, your teacher included. To the front of the class, you have a large blackboard-sized LCD screen that shows the instructor’s notes as well as a shared space for you and your peer’s class work. Everything that you record on your tablet displays on your section of the classroom blackboard. You could then work interactively with your peers and the instructor on your lessons. It in the end, this would be beneficial to both the teacher and the student. By including the whole class in one ecosystem participation would grow exponentially.
One example of how this would help the teacher is that it would enable him or her to monitor his student’s progress in real-time. Instead of having to stop what he is doing to take a lap around the room to make sure everyone is on the same page he could simply glance over at the shared workspace and quickly focus his attention on the students who need it as opposed to slowing the whole class down. It would also allow greater peer participation. This could be helpful if one student wants to assist another student or even answer the call of the instructor. Classroom interaction would be seamless. Not to mention, if you have any shy students in the classroom, they could help solve a problem for the class without physically standing in front of them.
Here’s another way of looking at it. If that goofy, “it takes a village” phrase, applies to raising a child, then why not education? You think being able to go online and connect to your child’s classroom camera is useful, how about being able to plug directly into their workspace and see what they are learning as they learn it? You want to help him or her on their homework later? This will give you the ability to review both their and the teachers exact notes from the lesson. The smart phone application possibilities here alone are endless.
One last point I’ll touch on here before moving on is how the teacher/student dynamic could rapidly evolve if these methods were embraced. If there was one constant with school growing up it was schoolwork. Existing in a real-time environment with your students would allow the teacher to assign homework, quizzes, and tests with the swipe of a finger. Furthermore, it would allow students to “hand-in” their assignments just as easily. Loosing paperwork associated with a major project would be a thing of the past. Sure, many schools already utilize shared network drives, but that pales in comparison to your teacher instantly dropping those same documents directly onto your desktop or into a designated folder. That means no more having to remember to get it later. If you’re there, it’s there.
Now, obviously, there will be some costs associated with the startup of a program like this. Fortunately, there will also be some cost savings. Remember, your finger and/or a stylus would now be the writing utensil and a tablet PC our textbook/notebook. Just like that, we are saving hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in paper, pens, and other related school supplies.
And then there are the textbooks to consider. When I was a college student, I could have most certainly done without spending $500 a semester on textbooks. As a matter of fact, I could have done without having to lug it around with me as well. Realistically, even the lightest textbook will still weigh twice to three times that of the average tablet. Furthermore, a tablet, like any computer can carry, or at least access, an infinite amount of information. And that’s not even taking into consideration the ecological impact of not having to kill God knows how many trees to print half a million text books every year. I remember taking classes where the prescribed text was not only specific to that class, but also specific to that university. Was there anything unique about it? No, not at all, it was the same book. It just had a special stamp on it. It also happened to be one of those classes that the iteration changed every other semester. That is a complete and utter waste of both money and natural resources. At least with e-books all that would be required is a software update. This is applicable to primary and secondary education because they depend on a large collection of books that are assigned to students on a year-to-year basis. Moving to an e-book format would not only save on physical holding space but you would also avoid situations where a textbook has been reused so many times that the wear and tear has rendered it unreadable. While a license would probably still be necessary, it would, at least in theory, be cheaper as it wouldn’t have the associated print and holding costs built in. Furthermore, that license could be passed on to the next student in much the same way that e-book rentals expire after a set time. You might even save a tree in the process.
Implementing interactive whiteboards and tablet computers into the classroom would be beneficial for everyone because our educators would become more efficient teachers and our students more efficient learners. School districts would greatly reduce their annual spend on classroom supplies by not having to continuously purchase consumable items like chalk, pencils, dry erase markers, and paper. This, in-turn, would reduce the amount of leased office equipment required due to diminished paper consumption. They could even retire those archaic overhead projectors that still haunt some classrooms.