Putting Tech in Today's Classroom

Let me start this post from two quotes from Dr. John Medina's book Brain Rules:

At the end of the introduction, he writes,
If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom (p. 5).”

Near the end of the final chapter, he writes:
"If you could step back in time to one of the first real Western-style universities, say, the University of Bologna, and visit its biology labs, you would laugh out loud. I would join you. By today’s standards, biological science in the 11th century was a joke… But if you went down the hall and peered inside Bologna’s standard lecture room, you wouldn’t feel as if you were in a museum. You would feel at home. There is a lectern for the teacher to hold forth, surrounded by chairs where students absorb whatever is being held forth. Minus perhaps an overhead or two, it looks remarkably similar to today's classrooms. Could it be time for a change? (p 278)"

The book itself is a fascinating read, and as a brain researcher, Dr. Medina draws on the lessons learned by studying the behaviour of this most fascinating of the bits and pieces in our bodies, particularly where it applies to learning and remembering.

Dr. Medina's research has shown that the traditional classroom design, very much in use today, is probably one of the most inefficient environments for learning.  We learn best when we can move around, when we can focus, when we are well rested, when things are presented visually.

Even if you aren't in education, this is a fascinating read.

At Appleby College, the school where I work, we are in discussions about the redesign of our teaching spaces.  Based on significant research from Dr. Medina and others there have been some ideas for classroom design brought forth.  Of course the best ideas came from the people in the trenches, the teachers and students themselves.

Let me start by saying we are considered a high-tech school.  I really hate that moniker.

While we have had a 1:1 laptop (now pen based tablet) program for 13 years, and while every classroom has an interactive whiteboard, projector and sound reinforcement, and while our students get over 90% their homework, do their homework, and submit their homework on the computers, and while many of our administrative tasks (marking reporting, professional development tracking, scheduling, etc.) have been automated, and while we have a sophisticated and modern server and network infrastructure, we like to consider ourselves a school obsessed with an outstanding learning experience - aided and abetted by technology. (Sorry for the long rambling sentence. Every editor and English teacher in the world is cringing right now.)

So what are the features of our new learning spaces from a technology perspective?

First and foremost, there is the philosophy that "any space can be a learning space".  Fixed purpose rooms and facilities are created only when absolutely necessary (e.g. science labs). Since everyone at our school has a computer (and multiple other devices) to connect to the network, it makes sense that the "invisible" part of the system needs to be robust and work well.

Every time I read about a school using precious dollars to "put computers (or iPads) into the classroom" I can't help but wonder what happens when the whole class tries to connect to the Internet at the same time.

Secondly, the curriculum needs to be designed to leverage the advantages technology can bring. I know this is a huge topic, and I won't spend much time on it in this post, but the key focus in your classroom has to be learning, not the computer.  This takes time to implement well and is driven from the academic side of the house (in partnership with technology) but is critical to overall learning success.  If you simply automate the old process, you'll get the same results, only faster.  If you want new outcomes, you need new processes.

The curriculum and tools used should be device agnostic.  Students and teachers should be able to access all their resources on an device, not just the computer the school provides.  (There is a solid reason for a 1:1 program in K-12 schools today which I'll cover below).  Device agnostic delivery requires significant planning and understanding of the virtualization and cloud services available today.

Thirdly, the traditional rows of desks and chairs have to go. The furniture needs to be able to be pushed into small pods, or assembled in a conference format. This means putting power plugs in the desks is not an option anymore.  This means robust wireless access in the classrooms (We are using Cisco's CleanAir high capacity wireless).  This means more power plugs around the perimeter of the room since there will always be students who forget to charge their stations.

The teacher's station should be movable, both in height and location.  The teacher (using her tablet pc) can stand facing the class while her notes are projected.  There is plenty of whiteboard space for interactive working on problems or "idealizing".  Hint - Check out IdeaPaint - any surface can become a whiteboard.

Fourthly, the students need to see and hear.  The new classrooms make good use of natural light, but this is an enemy to the projectors that are typically in the classroom today.  The new short-throw projectors, typically mounted less than 24" from the wall solve both the brightness issue, but also minimize the squinty eyed teacher effect from staring into thousands of lumens of projector bulb.  These projectors also come in an interactive version that replicates the behaviour of a Smartboard on any surface - whiteboard, wall  or IdeaPaint.

The room needs a good sound system, since media (DVDs, YouTube, etc.) is becoming a tool increasingly used for instruction.

Fifthly, from a technology perspective, there needs to be a strong support system in place to:

  • Ensure availability of the system. If the technology cannot be counted on, it won't be used.
  • Get students back in learning mode as quickly as practical when their computer breaks (and it will).  Do you have a loaner program? Does their profile/files/resources move around with them as they move between devices?  Are their assignments automatically backed up on your servers? etc. This is one of the major advantages of the 1:1 program.  If the student's laptop breaks, we can simply exchange the hard drive and have them back to the class in minutes, without disrupting the rest of the class.
  • Training and PD sessions for faculty on new tools is available online and in regularly scheduled sessions.
  • Support for faculty experimentation from IT.  Is there help if they want to try something new?
And lastly, the most effective tool the technology department can put in place is a system that moves the complexity and security into the network layer, and provides an open platform for academic innovation to the faculty and students.  It's not about control, it's about management.  It's about not being prescriptive, but enabling.  It's about IT leveraging IT to make technology "invisible".  

To see what this looks like at our school, I wrote an earlier post about why we don't block the Internet at our school, but what we have done to address the sharp edges of the Internet. That post is found here.

To summarize, here are the key things that IT needs to provide to enable today's classrooms:

  • A solid, robust wireless network infrastructure and Internet connectivity.
  • A curriculum designed around learning outcomes, not adding technology to existing processes
  • Flexible furniture design, lots of collaboration space.
  • Pragmatic equipment in each classroom. Short throw projectors, good sound system.
  • A strong support system for availability, repair and training.
  • An open platform for academic innovation.

This list is by no means comprehensive, but gives you an idea of where we think we need to head.

What would you add to this list?

1 comment:

  1. I would add good lighting - or the right type of lighting. I feel this has a big impact on our enjoyment of the screens either in our hands or on the wall.

    The SCALE-UP pedagogical methodology is similar to what you describe - except that you provide more technical support: http://www.ncsu.edu/PER/scaleup.html