Classrooms are Changing part 2 (Feb 27)

Location, Location, Location

I was already in high school by the time my local school board took the initiative to do away with overhead projectors; those clunky but reliable fixtures of my grammar school days that meant the next thirty minutes would be spent with the lights turned blessedly low. Of course, this only came after they had installed laptops in all the kindergarden classrooms. The result was a bizarre amalgamation of old school and new school. Literally.

In my Algebra classroom a SMART board was mounted sandwiched between two chalkboards, one of which featured a Victorian-esque calligraphy guide. In French I watched my teacher lose a daily struggle against the pull-down screen projector and Microsoft PowerPoint. It was as if every old school academic in the building, the kind who still administered blue book exams and spent a good five minutes finding the YouTube “play” button every single damn time they wanted to use a video clip in class, were putting up a silent resistance. I can remember my history teacher complaining daily about being forced to record her grades online through the school network instead of in an old school gradebook, which she still insisted on carrying to every single class and taking with her whenever she left the room. [Never mind that the digital gradebook would calculate the grades for her.]

However, by the time I graduated the school board had installed several of what it liked to call “classrooms of the future,” accessorized by walls that were floor to ceiling white boards and interactive touch screen projection systems. Instead of organized rows we sat at adjustable communal worktables in chairs of modish color and design, all white or orange or kelly green. The whole classroom could be rearranged from the tables to the teacher’s workstation, as if even the furniture resisted the very idea of sitting still for hours at a time. But sitting still and silent was all I understood of school. If there was discussion or interaction it was limited, cultivated and artificial. Everything, from how I was taught to structure my notes to the conclusions I would make in class, had been prepackaged for me. To a certain degree I didn’t know how to operate in the wide open space of the interactive classrooms. I couldn’t associate the new, more casual atmosphere with the serious academic practice of memorizing names, dates and tables for an exam. Where was the final test? Where was the rigor and the pressure?

 

The so called “classroom of the future” is a larger concept educators, not-for-profit organizations, administrators, developers, IT professionals, parents and amateurs with a video camera have been striving toward for years. I’ve heard it bandied about on blogs, in interviews and by my own teachers. Though more often than not it was used sarcastically as if referring to a Jestons-esque concept of a distant future, rather than the very real possibility of technology in the classroom. I can understand the skepticism. After all, what happens to the traditional structure of education when students are allowed to write on the walls and talk openly during class? Where is the structure and order that we have come to associate with the learning process?

The guiding principle of the “classroom of the future” is that technology will enable students to have more control over the learning process. Instead of a collective grind students will engage in self-directed learning, say by doing internet research on an iPad, and engaging in collective discussions with other students and with the instructor. Hence worktables instead of silent rows of desks, and interactive projected images that reflect onto every surface instead of solitary screen projectors. Ideally the interactive classroom of the future contains no barriers, physical or otherwise.

As a result, the implementation of technology has changed the geography of the modern classroom. The director of the Office of Education Technology, Karen Cator, gave an interview for Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development [ASCD, and more on that in another post] in which she outlines the role of technology in classroom conduct and the nature of interactive learning. She described a gradeschool she visited in North Carolina as “exemplary” in its use of technology in the classroom. She states, “In several classrooms, I couldn’t tell where the front of the classroom was. On one side of the room was an interactive whiteboard; on another side, a regular whiteboard; and the teacher’s desk was on a third side.”

It reminded me of the interactive classrooms of my own high school, all open and free and casual. According to Director Cator the technology itself should not be the focus of learning but an aid in the process. The entire room should be, “a learning environment, and the technology was just part of the infrastructure.” Sort of like high tech wallpaper. Ideally it should straddle the line between being completely invisible and totally distracting while still defining the learning environment.

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