For the past quarter-century, I have written about teacher and student access to, and instructional use of, computers in schools. In those articles and books, I have been skeptical of vendors’ and promoters’ claims about how these ever-changing electronic devices will transform teaching and learning.
Amid that skepticism, however, I have noted often how teachers glommed onto the latest devices not only for home use but also to become more efficient in planning lessons, using the Internet, grading students, communicating with parents and other educators, and dozens of other classroom duties. Nor have my criticisms of policymakers’ decisions to purchase extensive hardware (often without teacher advice) prevented me from identifying (and celebrating) teachers leading classes in computer graphics, animation, and computer science as well as classroom teachers who have imaginatively and creatively integrated new devices seamlessly into their daily lessons.
I do confess, however, that I have had little patience for champions of new technologies who have written scenarios of a glowing future rich with technology. For more-technology-the-better advocates, those past rosy scenarios must be painful to read since, time and again, futurists predicted the end of schooling yet public schools are still around. So what might 2020 look like?
Predictions about future use of computers are often made by projecting existing trends into the next decade. This tactic embraces a conservative view of the future since it is rooted in the now. No-more-traditional-classroom scenarios, on the other hand, leapfrog the present and build on the potential of the new technologies, thereby painting a Utopian picture. Any prediction, of course, can be easily undercut by unexpected natural and man-made disasters, political and social revolutions, or similar events. So given my allergy to Utopian scenarios, I will stick with current trends, acknowledging that they, too, may end up in a pile of debris should major unplanned events occur.
Clear trend lines for U.S. classrooms in the next decade are hand-held mobile devices (iphone, Blackberry, Kindle variations) and online learning (distance education).
Handhelds will permit the digitizing of texts loaded on to the devices. Student backpacks will lighten considerably as $100 hardbound books become as obsolete as the rotary dial phone. Homework, text reviews for tests, and all of the teacher-assigned tasks associated with hardbound books will be formatted for small screens. Instead of students’ excuses about leaving texts in lockers, teachers will hear requests to recharge their Blackberries, iPhones, etc.
Based on current Twitter and other future social networking traffic, shorter and shorter messaging will also become a mainstay of teacher-student communication. Some sample Twitter messages:
*In a college course on consumer sciences, the professor asked his 250 students to post questions on Twitter. On the topic of car insurance for those under 25 years of age, a student asked: ‘What happens if you get married and then get divorced at 24? Would your insurance go up?’ ”
*In the same course, during an exam, a student tweeted a fellow student and asked for the answer to a question. Teacher caught the student because although the software said “anonymous” on the handheld, the name of the student showed up on the teacher’s screen.
Proponents talk about how this form of teaching and learning as a powerful innovation that will liberate learning from the confines of brick-and-mortar buildings. Estimates (and predictions) of online learning becoming the dominant form of teaching turn up repeatedly and, somehow, fade. Surely, there will always be students and adults drawn from rural, home schooled, and adult populations that will provide a steady stream of clients for online courses. Nonetheless, by 2020, well over 90 percent of public school students will be in places called schools going at least 180 days a year to self-contained classrooms where a teacher will be in charge.
The error that online champions make decade after decade (recall that distance learning goes back to the 1960s) is that they forget that schools have multiple responsibilities beyond literacy. Both parents and voters want schools to socialize students into community values, prepare them for civic responsibilities, and yes, get them ready for college and career. Online courses from for-profit companies and non-profit agencies cannot hack those duties and responsibilities.
So by 2020, uses of technologies will change some aspects of teaching and learning but schools and classrooms will be clearly recognizable to students’ parents and grandparents. Online instruction will continue to expand incrementally but will still be peripheral to regular K-16 schooling. End of prediction.