Published Online: July 23, 2008

The End of School as We Know It?

When a member of our TLN daily discussion forum asks a big question that demands fresh thinking, the responses can pile up faster than a stack of memos from administration. Not long ago, Bill popped this question: “Will technology change school organization as we know it?” He wrote, in part:

I'm reading Clay Shirky's new book, Here Comes Everybody. In it, he explores how technology is changing human interactions—and he shares an interesting example:

In 2007, several conservative parishes of the Episcopal Church in Virginia voted to break away from the American branch of their church. The parishes chose to align themselves with the Nigerian branch of the Episcopal Church—whose views aligned better with theirs.

Shirky argues that this shows a shift in our thinking about how we organize ourselves. Typically, humans have used geography as the primary factor when determining how to join together with others. Technology has made it possible to align with anyone, however distant, based on like-minded beliefs or other factors.

So my question is this: Will we eventually see similar changes based on the ways people think about schools?

Right now, in the public school sector, most people send their students to schools based on geography. You go to the building that is closest to you, whether you are satisfied with that building or not.

Is it possible that technology may change all of that and allow families to select schools based on design and ideas that best represent their personal preferences and values instead of choosing schools based on physical location?

And if so, how will that change our work as teachers? What impact will it have on us as taxpayers? On our nation's guarantee of providing a sound basic education for all children? On any efforts at all to provide a uniform curriculum?

Renee replied:

Interesting ideas, Bill. There is much talk in many circles right now about the 24/7 digital classroom and what "schools" of the future will look like. A meeting I attended last summer at Aspen Institute asked exactly that question, and the consensus among everyone EXCEPT the educators in the room was that schools of the future would certainly not be brick-and-mortar places or limited by geography.

At the very least, technology makes it possible for us to have a more fluid concept of enrollment for students and assignments for teachers. The question is—will this necessarily make the quality of that education better?

Parents could theoretically have greater (dare I say it) “choice” in the source of their children's instruction. Will school systems and legislatures make it possible for students to receive full credit for “a la carte” educations? Will colleges and jobs accept students thus prepared? Are they already accepting them?

Can you envision teachers as freelancing professionals, advertising to attract students (sort of like Socrates or Aristotle)? "Schools" might become learning cooperatives where several educators work together like lawyers or doctors in a practice together to provide either specialized or comprehensive learning services. (This could all be virtual, of course.) To quote one of my favorite authors ... "Oh, the places we could go!"

Marjorie wrote:

We’ve had open enrollment for a long time in our system—before technology. Parents can open-enroll their students in any school in the district (or state, if there is space). Here, space is supposed to be based on lottery. I would not have had my son in this public system if it were not for the open enrollment option to a diverse experiential school instead of the very traditional affluent neighborhood school.

However, it has also led to some big problems with what our district is now calling “stratification.” Without relying too much on euphemisms, what has happened is that as the population of certain schools became increasingly Latino, more and more of the middle and upper middle class liberal white parents in the neighborhood became uncomfortable and open-enrolled their kids in schools with more “familiar” demographics. Generally, it is the kids who are already privileged who have the means and desire to leave their neighborhoods. Would this happen in a virtual setting as well?

Kim wrote:

I think I'm an old fuddy-duddy who just doesn't see technology being as completely revolutionary in education as others do. There are still too many jobs—in fact entire career fields—where computer skills are a minimal part of the job. And for most students (at least most students that I work with), the primary draw is still the social interactions that they get during the day. Don't get me wrong. I wouldn't give up my SmartBoard, document camera, or video streaming for anything, but the academics are only part of the reason kids come to school.

My high school is piloting a tech academy. It is project-based, they have their own bell schedule, and the kids are all assigned their own laptops. The kids have Internet access 24/7 and are supposed to be completely paperless (which drives their English teacher a little nuts because he is an English teacher and loves books). After the first semester, several kids dropped out because of the social limitations they felt in that program. Several more have opted out for next year so that they can go back to their districted schools to be closer to their friends. Athletic programs, music programs, drama, and art programs will also draw kids to a classroom where hands-on instruction is needed.

I have a friend who recently went to a teaching job that is completely on-line because she wanted to be able to work from home to be with her daughter. She said that most of the kids who are in her classes struggled with conventional school because they were already involved in professional activities or had been predominantly home-schooled. She also has said that she will be sending her daughter to a conventional public school and wouldn't let her stay at home all day just working on a computer.

Cossondra wrote:

Interesting question. I am assuming you mean a more "home-school" approach as the alternative to a traditional program, one which offers a technology-based, online delivery of services.

Such a program would indeed open up a diverse selection of possibilities for education opportunities for students, particularly those not serviced well in traditional settings or those seeking special offerings more geared towards their personal interests.

I do not see such programs replacing traditional schools. One of the most important parts of school is teaching non-content skills, like socialization, working with others, being on time, being prepared, learning to meet deadlines, dealing with a "boss," or simply being responsible to and for others in your group. An independent online learning experience would not be able to provide this skill set like a classroom setting can—and it’s a set often identified with “21st Century skills.”

Ellen wrote:

Bill wrote: Right now, in the public school sector, most people send their students to schools based on geography. You go to the building that is closest to you, whether you are satisfied with that building or not.

Not necessarily. I teach at a public charter school where kids from outside the city with long commutes attend. My school is a classic example of a school community aligned with people with similar values and beliefs about education, from the staff to the parents and children.

Speaking as someone who feels (almost) every day as if she's died and gone to heaven, I think it's wonderful. I love that my school is a school of choice. We work hard to include all of our stakeholders—parents, children, teachers—in our thinking and decision-making. Our school is supported by most of the people there because they've chosen us. Do we all agree 100%? Of course not! But when there is common agreement about some basic philosophical and pedagogical issues, as well as what we're trying to do with children, it makes everyone's jobs easier.

And responding to another question Bill asked, I'm going to say a "uniform" curriculum doesn't seem like something to strive for, necessarily. What is wrong with individualizing schools and curriculum to meet the needs of the specific children and families who are there? The needs differ from school to school; one-size-fits-all is ludicrous. I think the move toward more choice is good for teachers and students ... and their families. Or at least that's been my experience.

Mark wrote:

What schools produce today does not match what business requires. I believe that technology is coming to the point where there will be other options that are acceptable to employers.

In the chapter of Shirky’s book called “Publish, Then Filter,” there are two passages that really made me stop and think about what was going to happen to education. The first one is:

“. . . when new technology appears, previously impossible things start occurring. If enough of those impossible things are important and happen in a bundle, quickly, the change becomes a revolution. The hallmark of a revolution is that the goals of the revolution cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the existing society. As a result, either the revolutionaries are put down, or some of those institutions are altered, replaced, or destroyed.”

Schools’ bans on cell phones and iPods as well as highly restrictive content filtering, in my eyes, are schools’ attempts to “put down the revolutionaries.” I don’t know how much longer this will hold the revolutionaries at bay. How successful have recording companies been in reducing file sharing by suing the people who are sharing files?

The second passage:

“Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without significant alteration, and the more an institution or industry relies on information as its core product, the greater and more complete the change will be.”

Dissemination of information is the reason for the existence of schools. I think education is ill-prepared to deal with the change that is coming.

Ellen replied:

Mark said, “Dissemination of information is the reason for the existence of schools.” I would say that schools need to take a hard look at this viewpoint. With information widely and easily available from a variety of media, and the amount of information we value increasing exponentially, should we be focused on being disseminators of information? Or is a more process-oriented, deeply critical thinking model (where information is embedded) called for?

Nancy wrote:

I want to say something about the shrinking globe and aligning ourselves with those whose views match ours (isn't that the premise on which Fox News was built?)—

I am not excited about transcending "geography is destiny." It's just another manifestation of what Robert Putnam called "bowling alone"—where fear of rubbing elbows with those who are different keeps us from building genuine communities.

I'm a great proponent of virtual relationships, but only if they are accompanied by real human connections—and more importantly, if we are not allowed to escape our moral obligations to get along with, even care for, our neighbors, putting self-interests aside.

A couple of years ago, someone in TLN shared a video clip on how technology was molding and shaping our media exposure, based on preference. We no longer have to watch the same news as everyone else, or go to churches, schools, workplaces, or civic organizations where there is diversity. We can hang out with "just our kind" and never have to challenge our thinking. We can see and hear only what and who we are comfortable with. Is that an education? I think not.

Mark replied:

I guess part of what I'm saying, Nancy, is that we can stand back and say "that will never happen" and allow others to shape what education becomes or we can embrace the technological shift and shape what the new organization will look like.

I don't think real human connections will ever go away. I think new social structures will take the place of the social interactions children experience at school. There are a lot of opportunities for children to socialize that don't involve school. In my area, there is a relatively small but significant home school population. There are many structures in place that allow these home schooled children to interact. Social interaction is part of what makes us human. I don't see the need to socialize going away because of technology.

Bill opened another door:

Shirky also argues that technology will never replace human interactions primarily because humans are deeply drawn to face-to-face interactions. His point is a simple one: For most people, "digital worlds" and "the real world" aren't different spaces with different people. They are overlapping versions of the same groups. Technology just "greases the wheel" of interactions between individuals.

His quote: "The internet augments real-world social life rather than providing an alternative to it. Instead of becoming a separate cyberspace, our electronic networks are becoming deeply embedded in real life."

So what does this mean for schools? Do they become hybrids? Places where students from across disparate geographical areas primarily interact with one another electronically and then come together a few times a year?

Or do schools themselves stay largely unchanged—with the exception being that learning is extended far beyond the school day by electronic interactions with peers?

Or (as some people have suggested here), do people finally realize that they don't need formal school buildings at all—instead, building networks of learners "practicing" together both online and offline?

—edited by John Norton, TLN moderator

What do you think? Join our conversation and tell us what you imagine the future of “school” might be. How about the future of teachers?

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