SMT Technology Forum Panel Discussion

On Monday, November 26, 2012 the OISE Centre for Science, Mathematics, and Technology (SMT) posed the question “What will schools look like in 25 years” to Technology Forum panelists Clare Brett, Jim Hewitt, Alexandra Makos, Marlene Scardamalia, Jim Slotta and Earl Woodruff.  Although the focus of the panel was on technology in education, it remained salient throughout the discussions that technology was the enabler, rather than the cause, of some of the key structural and pedagogical shifts occurring both within the K-12 context and higher ed.  

It was interesting to note that higher-ed has been taking the lead over K-12 in many of these changes.  The advent of MOOCs and other forms of online courseware have lead to increases in distance education, rendering this form of learning more accessible to low SES groups as well as those in geographically disparate areas.  Although this increase in accessibility may have an overall beneficial effect towards those who would not otherwise receive these educational opportunities, one point of contention is the notion of a digital divide between low vs. high SES groups.  For example, Marlene Scardamalia suggests that those entering online learning environments with less cultural capital tend to take on the role of “lurkers” or passive recipients of content, whereas those with high cultural capital tend to be the active participants and “innovators” in these contexts.

The increased prevalence of online courseware also raises the question of how the role of the university campus might change – specifically, for tuition-paying students who opt for the face-to-face experience.  Some instructors have begun implementing a hybrid model to their courses, whereby the transmissive, lecture component is completed at home online and class time is used for collaborative inquiry activities, however, there is still some uncertainty surrounding the types of activities that can and should be implemented during class time.  Low-level changes include the integration of interactive materials into existing lecture structures using technologies such as clicker surveys or Twitter feeds, which are displayed on overhead screens during class time and used as a source of formative feedback for students and instructors.  More radical approaches entail a complete overhaul of curriculum designs and classroom architecture. The UofT Physics department, for example, has redesigned their curriculum to allow students to engage in interactive, small-group physics practicals in newly designed, state-of-the-art, collaborative workspaces.  Although in-class lectures have not disappeared completely, these re-designed physics practicals offer students a tangible, face-to-face, collaborative experience that an online digital environment could not provide.

K-12 is faced with a similar challenge as “flipped classrooms” remain a common buzzword.  As with higher-ed many challenges remain, however some of these challenges are perhaps amplified in a K-12 context.  For example, it becomes more difficult to monitor whether Ministry-mandated content learning is actually occurring outside of the classroom and, additionally, whether or not there is equitable access to online course materials at home. From a pedagogical standpoint, Jim Hewitt suggests that acquiring content and engaging in dialogues about the content should be something that occurs both at home and at school.  Scardamalia further argues that we must overcome the notion that students have to first learn “the basics” before they are able to engage in higher-order knowledge work and that the very act of engaging with higher-order ideas will result in a deeper and more thorough understanding of content knowledge compared to a “back to basics” approach.

Arguably one of the biggest challenges with flipped-classrooms or similar hybrid models lies in reducing the load on the teacher to orchestrate effective, collaborative interactions in the classroom.  Jim Slotta emphasizes that we currently don’t have anything close to a ‘silver bullet’ solution as to how these new types of interactions can and should occur.  However, he and members of his Encore lab have been researching ways to facilitate these collaborative orchestrations using networked devices within a “Smart Room.”  Within the Smart Room, students use tablets to gather data, make observations, and contribute to a shared knowledge base – however their actions and movements within the room are controlled by an intelligent agent that clusters students based on their inputs and aggregates their information in real-time.  The teacher tablet provides similar real-time feedback to the instructor, showing what different groups of students are doing when, and whether particular students are finished a task and/or require the teacher’s attention.  By transferring the burden onto the technology to coordinate the students, orchestrate their movements throughout the space, provide instructions, and visually assemble the knowledge base (rather than merely delivering content), this frees up the teacher to deliver more meaningful learning supports to the students and groups who need it.

Predicting what classrooms will look like in 25 years is not an easy task.  Earl Woodruff suggests asking ourselves “what isn’t likely to change” may provide some insight.  There are several “big ideas” within educational research that have been under investigation for decades and have yet to come to fruition on a large-scale (e.g. how do we assess ‘progress’ in a collective knowledge space?).  In addressing some of the challenges surrounding the reinvention of our classrooms, technology is quite likely to be part of the solution.  However its applications must be considered in novel ways, it must be effective in reducing teacher load (i.e. lecture is easy), and it must allow for new forms of assessment based on the new types of collaborative interactions it enables.  Overall, as Slotta says, “this is a tough nut to crack.”