What's Missing From The New Digital Classroom?

As part of my research at Forrester, I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know companies developing technology solutions for K-12 and higher education. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) like Coursera and Udacity give students around the world access to high-quality courses for free or at a fraction of the cost of a traditional university. Platforms like Inkling, Kno, and CourseSmart make distributing, purchasing, and consuming digital textbooks more convenient and engaging. Supplemental content sources like Khan Academy and TenMarks give students resources to learn at their own pace.

It’s worth thinking seriously about how these solutions will change the nature of education. Many of the changes are positive. We expand access to education across the globe. At the same time we increase scale, we also enable more individualized, self-paced learning, presumably at a reduced cost. For example, millions of students can dissect a cow’s eye in a virtual biology lab without the incremental cost of buying more cow’s eyes or scalpels or formaldehyde - and they could do it again if they miss something the first time. Through analytics embedded in texts, apps, and diagnostic tools, teachers will get real-time feedback and can make more-informed decisions about how to teach.

Education ≠ Screen Time

But they also make me think that the future of education is a lot of screen time.

We all love screens, but physiologically, they’re not that good for us. They come with tradeoffs of eye strain, bad posture and sleep interference; they’re so immersive that it takes us longer than we think to recover and engage with the physical world, even to the detriment of our and others’ health and safety.

Marshall McLuhan is long passé, but it’s worth considering that if “the medium is the message,” the message we are sending to students is that engaging with content and people via screens is a more valuable use of their time than engaging with the physical world and the people in their physical presence. (We also embrace that message as information workers, but that’s a topic for another day.) K-12 students are in a physical school building for 7 hours or more per day, and college students are on campus together in physical space for most of the year. That may not be the case forever, but today, those are the physical realities of education, and they deserve attention, too.

We need to complement the digital tools we’re developing by strengthening students’:

* Social relationships. Helping answer questions in a MOOC forum is great, but it’s not the sum total of what students need to learn about how to relate to peers and teachers. The flipped classroom concept is one solution - the idea is that students absorb the lecture or course materials online outside of class, and when they arrive to the physical classroom their time is used for discussion or group activities.

* Physical activity. A major downside of screen time is sedentariness, and the research is pretty clear that sitting kills. Intriguingly, wearable devices could actually play a role in increasing students’ activity levels - and could be applied to cross-disciplinary lessons, not just gym class. For example, wearable activity trackers could be used to integrate physical education and math curricula (students move and then analyze the data); add GPS and you get a geography lesson; add heartrate tracking and you move into biology territory.

* Hands-on experimentation. Many research studies show that hands-on experimentation helps students learn better. I’ve experienced this myself recently as a student in a workshop hosted by the software company Intuit, where the company shared its design-thinking approach to innovation with customers and partners - and the participants tested out the methodology with our own hands-on experiments. A new startup high school in San Mateo, Calif., wants to apply this kind of design thinking, influenced by Stanford’s d.school, to its own curriculum.

Technology Is Only Part Of The Education Equation

Technology is just a tool; it’s how we apply it that will determine the future of education. We need to pay attention to what problems we aren’t solving with the current crop of technology innovations - and what gaps these solutions create - so that we can figure out where to innovate next. In particular, we need to complement these tools with innovation in how we use the physical space of learning environments, and how we engage with the people in them.

Organizations like The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz, technology companies like Apple and Intel, numerous software startups, our government, universities, every teacher and every parent actively invest in the future of education. Increasing access, improving outcomes and cutting costs absolutely deserve investment - but so too does the physical experience of learning.