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Education Opinion

My School of the Future Begins to Come Into Focus

By Peter Gow — May 02, 2013 5 min read
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What’ll it be? MOOC or meatspace?

Too often the discussion in education these days swings between extremes, especially when it comes to the application of technology. We’re either going to scrap our schools and especially our universities and replace them all with giant online courses, or we’re going to cleave, in an act of defiance, to brick-and-mortar education, and reject the interwebs altogether.

This is something we’re each going to have to come to terms with individually. I’ve enjoyed my one expertly designed “connectivist,” exploratory MOOC experience, and I’ve been less than thrilled by most of my other forays into online learning. I’m fine with the intermediary role of technology, but I didn’t love the clunky “self-reflection” that made up too much of the early coursework. Perhaps some of them got better, but I confess I didn’t always stick around to find out.

On the other hand, I’ve got nearly forty years of daily immersion in Kid World under my belt, and I still love to find myself in a room full of students with some learning to be done. I also treasure the time I’ve spent as an advisor and a coach, which offer significant further perspective on kids and great chances to deepen relationships.

Ask any independent school graduate, and they are likely to say that the relationships with adults were the high points of their experience. “My teachers cared so much” is a phrase we hear over and over again--more than excitement about particular courses. Often enough, that caring was expressed in advisory meetings or on the playing field or the stage or at the club meeting. Running a close second is the peer camaraderie developed on those teams, those ensembles, or those clubs. All of these, you will note, presuppose a physical presence, relationships developed working and playing shoulder to shoulder with other human beings.

My fuzzy vision of the School of the Future, then, is blended in ways that accomplish these critical relational tasks and yet harness technology where it might yield the most value. My even fuzzier math suggests that this vision could mean lower costs, hence (for private schools) lower tuitions, but that’s another discussion. And you’ve seen some of this before, I’m sure; we all read a lot of futurists these days.

Imagine a school--I’m going to stick with secondary here, as I haven’t quite worked this out for younger students--that offers core functions including a somewhat stripped-down, even generic curriculum: for ninth graders, for example, Language Arts 9, Math 9, History 9, and Physics 9. There are advisors, clubs, and required sports or participatory arts offerings--the basic components of the community and “character ed” programs that are fundamental to most independent schools. The courses are reduced to pretty bare bones--basic facts, understandings, skills--with an emphasis on the types of thinking and systems connected with each.

We’ll offer languages online at all levels, although we could have regular discussion groups for languages in which there is a critical mass--maybe even discussions with native speakers from the local community.

The arts are a bit more of a challenge. Perhaps we might offer a menu of foundation courses, with a required module around the creative process. Advanced work could be online, through projects (see below), or even through internships/apprenticeships with local artists.

At the upper levels elective courses and advanced courses would all be offered on line, in all disciplines. (These would have to be more exciting than the ones I have experienced, incidentally. The good news is that groups like the Online School for Girls and the Global Online Academy are working on this, as are of course the Big Guys at EdX, Coursera, and the like.) We could require a certain number of these under a distributional umbrella, and the school would of course cover the costs of enrollment--these courses would still be only a fraction of the cost of offering a physical class. Incidentally, I’d push the exploratory model wherever possible--for reasons I outlined in a post last week.

The centerpiece of the program would be a series of real-world-related and community-connected projects, perhaps by grade level in 9 or 9-10 and then open thereafter. Each would last for some weeks, growing longer as students become more proficient. The projects would be designed and coached by experts in their particular field and carefully structured to require--again cumulatively in a distributional kind of way--the application in authentic contexts of the learning that students do in their basic courses like English 10 or Math 11.

I’m also thinking that the arts--visual and performing--can be built into these projects; I have always liked that Odyssey of the Mind, which I once briefly coached, has performance and aesthetics built into its project briefs. If they can, so can my school of the future, with expert instruction included.

This structure would address the greatest concern about project-based learning: that students can do spectacular project work but miss essential disciplinary fundamentals. The world is not short on great examples of project-based learning, from the NuVu program to the Ninth-Grade Program at Lawrence Academy in Massachusetts to the scores of great projects that have been showcased by organizations like Edutopia. There are already schools working toward fully project-based learning.

Couple great large-scale projects with the evolving efficacy of elective online coursework and strong communities built around collaborative learning, effective advising, explicit exploration of values and social issues, and ever-popular athletic and performing arts programs, and it seems to me that schools of the future could easily encompass all the compelling ideas of the present. We’d have schools, in the end, that would teach the hard and soft skills that our times demand while tapping into both the connective power of technology and the relational richness of human contact. I suspect such schools might also be really fun and engaging places to learn--and to teach.

MOOC or meatspace? I’ll have both, thanks.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

The opinions expressed in Independent Schools, Common Perspectives are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.