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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Shaping Tech for the Classroom

21st-century schools need 21st-century technology.
By Marc Prensky
Credit: Bill Duke

The biggest question about technology and schools in the 21st century is not so much "What can it do?" but, rather, "When will it get to do it?" We all know life will be much different by 2100. Will school? How close will we be to Edutopia?

First, it helps to look at the typical process of technology adoption (keeping in mind, of course, that schools are not typical of anything.) It's typically a four-step process:

  • Dabbling.
  • Doing old things in old ways.
  • Doing old things in new ways.
  • Doing new things in new ways.

Until recently, we have mostly been dabbling with technology in our schools: A few Apples here. A PC there. Random creation of software by teachers and other individuals -- some very good, much bad. A few edutainment disks. Dabbling.

Old Things in Old Ways

When a new technology appears, our first instinct is always to continue doing things within the technology the way we've always done it. People still illuminated the first printed Gutenberg Bibles by hand. Television pioneers set up single cameras in "great" theater seats. The result was pretty much like what came before; some elements may have been lost, but the results were certainly cheaper, and far more efficient.

That is almost exclusively what we now do with educational technology. We use it mostly to pass documents around, but now in electronic form, and the result is not very different from what we have always known.

People certainly are putting courses, curricula, and lesson plans online. This trend is important, but it's hardly new -- it will be new only when those courses, curricula, and lesson plans are very different and technology influenced, when they are set up so they can be found and mixed and matched easily, when they are continually iterated and updated, and when the kids have a big say in their creation. Certainly, systems for maintaining records and assessment online, such as PowerSchool, a Web-based student-information system from Apple (and similar products from Pearson School Systems and Chancery Software), have emerged, but the records and assessments we ask for and keep, for the most part, haven't changed.

I would even include writing, creating, submitting, and sharing work digitally on the computer via email or instant messaging in the category of doing old things (communicating and exchanging) in old ways (passing stuff around). Is there educational progress, though? It appears that students who write on a computer turn in longer and higher-quality assignments than those who compose by hand, even though it's still writing. A middle school principal in Maine (where all middle school students are supplied with computers) proclaims that the debate over handwriting is finally over -- all assignments must be keyboarded. You can mourn the passing of handwriting if you must; the kids certainly won't. If they are writing better and more detailed papers, yes, there has been progress.

But new technology still faces a great deal of resistance. Today, even in many schools with computers, Luddite administrators (and even Luddite technology administrators) lock down the machines, refusing to allow students to access email. Many also block instant messaging, cell phones, cell phone cameras, unfiltered Internet access, Wikipedia, and other potentially highly effective educational tools and technologies, to our kids' tremendous frustration. Even where technology has not been blocked, much of the digitized educational materials and records are just examples of using computers to collect old stuff (such as data or lesson plans) in old ways (by filing). There are some educational benefits, though, including allowing teachers to access data more easily and parents to do so more extensively.

Old Things in New Ways

Recently, a number of our schools (a very small number) have entered the stage of doing other old things in new ways. Now, it begins to get a little more interesting.

"I used to have to tell my students about phenomena, or have them read; now I can show them," says Jim Doane, a science teacher at Scarborough Middle School, in Scarborough, Maine. When we begin adding digital demonstrations through video and Flash animation, we are giving students new, better ways to get information.

In a growing number of simulations, ranging from the off-the-shelf SimCity and to Muzzy Lane's Making History to MIT's experimental Revolution and Supercharged, students -- even elementary school children -- can now manipulate whole virtual systems, from cities to countries to refineries, rather than just handling manipulatives.

In Education Simulations's Real Lives, children take on the persona of a peasant farmer in Bangladesh, a Brazilian factory worker, a police officer in Nigeria, a Polish computer operator, or a lawyer in the United States, among others, experiencing those lives based on real-world statistical data. Riverdeep's School Tycoon enables kids to build a school to their liking. With these tools, students act like scientists and innovators, rather than serve as empty vessels. They arrive at their own conclusions through controlled experimentation and what scientists call enlightened trial and error.

Still, our best teachers have always used interactive models for demonstrations, and students, like scientists and military planners, have been conducting simulations in sand, on paper, and in their heads for thousands of years. So, though some observers trumpet these uses of technology as great innovations, they are really still examples of doing old things in new ways.

But there are many more old things children are doing in new ways -- innovations they have invented or adopted as their preferred method of behavior -- that have not yet made their way into our schools. These include buying school materials (clothes, supplies, and even homework) on eBay and the Internet; exchanging music on P2P sites; building games with modding (modifying) tools; setting up meetings and dates online; posting personal information and creations for others to check out; meeting people through cell phones; building libraries of music and movies; working together in self-formed teams in multiplayer online role-playing games; creating and using online reputation systems; peer rating of comments; online gaming; screen saver analysis; photoblogging; programming; exploring; and even transgressing and testing social norms.

An important question is, How many of these new ways will ever be integrated into our instruction -- or even understood by educators? If we want to move the useful adoption of technology forward, it is crucial for educators to learn to listen, to observe, to ask, and to try all the new methods their students have already figured out, and do so regularly.

Two big factors stand in the way of our making more and faster progress in technology adoption in our schools. One of these is technological, the other social.

The Big Tech Barrier: One-to-One

The missing technological element is true one-to-one computing, in which each student has a device he or she can work on, keep, customize, and take home. For true technological advance to occur, the computers must be personal to each learner. When used properly and well for education, these computers become extensions of the students' personal self and brain. They must have each student's stuff and each student's style all over them (in case you haven't noticed, kids love to customize and make technology personal), and that is something sharing just doesn't allow. Any ratio that involves sharing computers -- even two kids to a computer -- will delay the technology revolution from happening. (Go to Project Inkwell's Web site for more information about one-to-one computing.)

Many groups are working on solutions to the one-to-one problem, and this approach is being implemented in several places, including Maine; Vail, Arizona; Florida's Broward County Schools; and the Lemon Grove School District, in Lemon Grove, California. Those who cite cost as a barrier to implementing one-to-one computing should know that the prices of these devices, as with all technology, are falling dramatically. Although the expense is often estimated at $500 to $1,000 per unit, this year, according to longtime computer visionary Nicholas Negroponte, we will see a basic laptop computer for roughly $100.

The Social Barrier: Digital Immigrants

A second key barrier to technological adoption is more challenging. Schools (which really means the teachers and administrators) famously resist change. Though some observers, including multiple-intelligences guru Howard Gardner, point to schools as the "conservators" of our culture, and therefore instinctively conservative in what they do, the resistance comes more from the fact that our public school system has evolved an extremely delicate balance between many sets of pressures -- political, parental, social, organizational, supervisory, and financial -- that any technological change is bound to disrupt. For example, such shifting certainly initially means more work and pressure on educators, who already feel overburdened.

In the past, the pressure against disruption has always been stronger than the pressure for change. So, as new technologies -- from radio to television, from telephones to cell phones, from cameras to video cams, or even Wikipedia -- have come down the pike, American public schools have fearfully stood ready to exclude them. Change hasn't happened.

But resisting today's digital technology will be truly lethal to our children's education. They live in an incredibly fast-moving world significantly different than the one we grew up in. The number-one technology request of today's students is to have email and instant messaging always available and part of school. They not only need things faster than their teachers are used to providing them, they also have many other new learning needs as well, such as random access to information and multiple data streams.

These "digital natives" are born into digital technology. Conversely, their teachers (and all older adults) are "digital immigrants." Having learned about digital technology later in life, digital immigrants retain their predigital "accents" -- such as, thinking that virtual relationships (those that exist only online) are somehow less real or important than face-to-face ones. Such outmoded perspectives are serious barriers to our students' 21st-century progress.

Many schools still ban new digital technologies, such as cell phones and Wikipedia. Even when schools do try to move forward, they often face antitechnology pressure from parents demanding that schools go back to basics. Many teachers, under pressure from all sides, are often so afraid to experiment and to trust their kids with technology that they demand extensive training before they will try anything new. All these factors impede even the many schools trying to change.

New Problems, New Solutions

With very few exceptions, our schools have not been physically designed for computers. Much time in our schools' 45-minute instructional periods is often wasted in computer setup and shutdown. Teachers are often unsure about how to integrate technology in their lesson plans and, often, administrators have little, if any, guidance to give them. In many places where technology could liberate teachers most, such as automatic grading of homework and tests, automation has been neglected. Adding digital technology is generally disruptive to what schools and teachers do, and the pressure of high-stakes testing only exacerbates this problem.

How, then, do we move forward?

First, consult the students. They are far ahead of their educators in terms of taking advantage of digital technology and using it to their advantage. We cannot, no matter how hard we try or how smart we are (or think we are), invent the future education of our children for them. The only way to move forward effectively is to combine what they know about technology with what we know and require about education. Sadly, in most cases, no one asks for their opinion. I go to conference after conference on school technology, and nary a student is in sight. I do hope that, after having pointed this situation out a hundred times or so, I will find that it is starting to change. Students will have to help, and we will have to think harder about how to make this happen.

New Things in New Ways

For the digital age, we need new curricula, new organization, new architecture, new teaching, new student assessments, new parental connections, new administration procedures, and many other elements. Some people suggest using emerging models from business -- but these, for the most part, don't apply. Others suggest trying to change school size -- but this will not help much if we are still doing the wrong things, only in smaller spaces.

What we're talking about is invention -- new things in new ways. Change is the order of the day in our kids' 21st-century lives. It ought to be the order of the day in their schools as well. Not only would students welcome it, they will soon demand it. Angus King, the former governor of Maine who pushed for one-to-one computing in that state's schools, recently suggested our kids "should sue us" for better education. I suggest that every lesson plan, every class, every school, every school district, and every state ought to try something new and then report to all of us what works and what doesn't; after all, we do have the Internet.

Some people will no doubt worry that, with all this experimentation, our children's education will be hurt. "When will we have time for the curriculum," they will ask, "and for all the standardized testing being mandated?" If we really offered our children some great future-oriented content (such as, for example, that they could learn about nanotechnology, bioethics, genetic medicine, and neuroscience in neat interactive ways from real experts), and they could develop their skills in programming, knowledge filtering, using their connectivity, and maximizing their hardware, and that they could do so with cutting-edge, powerful, miniaturized, customizable, and one-to-one technology, I bet they would complete the "standard" curriculum in half the time it now takes, with high test scores all around. To get everyone to the good stuff, the faster kids would work with and pull up the ones who were behind.

In other words, if we truly offer our kids an Edutopia worth having, I believe our students will work as hard as they can to get there.

So, let's not just adopt technology into our schools. Let's adapt it, push it, pull it, iterate with it, experiment with it, test it, and redo it, until we reach the point where we and our kids truly feel we've done our very best. Then, let's push it and pull it some more. And let's do it quickly, so the 22nd century doesn't catch us by surprise with too much of our work undone.

A big effort? Absolutely. But our kids deserve no less.

Marc Prensky, founder and CEO of Games2train, is a speaker, writer, consultant, and game designer. He is the author of Digital Game-Based Learning and the upcoming Don't Bother Me, Mom, I'm Learning.

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Rafael's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reeading the essay. Yes, change has been slow integrating technology in the classroom. As teachers, we have adapted and now can communicate more efectively with others. Our records are more consistent with other grade level teachers. Yet, we are not progressing like we can be. I believe in regular student reflection. Having available computers for each student would be ideal as they would have the ability to reflect and give feedback to the teacher or other students. I know studetns would take education to the next level, if we could just open the door to technology.

I our school spending tremendous amounts of money into textbooks for newly adopted programs; programs that have faded. Why not invest just a bit more. Computers hold so much more vital opportunities for students and are adaptable. I am a student at Walden Univesity, and I enjoy being able to read linked articles that relate to the program. Our students could really take advantage of similar opportunities!

Suzanne Genser's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like how the author divides the different ways we have integrated computers into the curriculum. I didn't think my students really used computers much in the classroom, but so much of it has become natural that it does not feel new or unusual anymore. One of the biggest hindrances I see is in how expensive computers are and how, just when a school orders the latest technology enough so that the students can really begin immersing themselves into it, then there is something newer and better coming out that makes the last thing outdated.

Sean's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like many of the ideas that you examine. I think greater investment in individual student laptops as opposed to textbooks is an idea whose time has come. I would hope that the very presence of the laptops would force teachers to adopt more student-centered lessons, especially Problem Based Learning. I think that as educational software improves, teachers will be more apt to adopt it. The only thing you said that gave me pause is letting students have access to email and instant messaging at all times. Personally, I'm curious to hear more about this opinion. I sit in a class with doctoral students who have laptops. They surf the web, email, and chat at the expense of listening and participating in class. How would you expect 14-16 year olds to be engaged in the classroom with the curriculum if adults are not disciplined enough to to that?

Pino Fiermonte's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Today there certainly is a strong move towards technology in Luxembourg for instance, where I live and work. But putting computers into classrooms isn't enough. I know that this has been said again and again, but in my view we shouldn't stop saying it to soon.

I have noticed during my years as a teacher and now as an educational consultant, that teachers are most reluctant to give up their assumed role as the one who is in control of the learning process. There are many reasons to this reluctance. One is certainly that they feel being forced to teach to the textbooks or to the tests, which most of the time reproduce what is found in the textbooks.

And even if teachers know or suspect, that this is not the best way to teach anything that students will retain much longer than is needed to pass the tests, they will continue to teach that way as long as the majority of the teachers does. Why? Because when you fail (meaning that your students have bad test results for instance) it is easier to cope with criticism when you did what the "systems expected" you to do, than if you tried to explore new teaching territories without being sure of the outcomes.

Another reason why we haven't noticed a big difference in education, despite the introduction of new technologies, is that teachers have only vague theories about learning. If so, teachers may well think that computers will help innovate or differentiate their teaching, but their vision will be one of doing "old things in new ways" as said in the article. I am convinced,because I have experienced it many times, that teachers will reproduce the same classroom experiences as before technology entered thei school as long as they are not involved - as reflective practitioner - into a collaborative and personal investigation on how learning works, with or without computers, and what it means to the learner and teacher.

And I doubt that technocrats and technology fans or freaks who do a lot to bring or force technology into schools (sometimes for the right and sometimes for the wrong reasons) are rarely the best partners when it comes up to clarify the big questions on education and to scaffolding teacher's or student teacher's inquiries on learning and teaching.

sue's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Going global.... Many students view the world outside of their classroom from a textbook picture (and those are usually dated!). Watching a few minutes of the respective channel one (which they are REQUIRED to watch because the districts contracts with them), are nothing more than sound bites. I've yet to see a student bring their home laptop into school and utilize it as a global interface with a teachers lecture.
Technology and hands-on applications bring the students closer to asking why, or begin to make them curious. That's a start. Bringing ownership into their classroom with instructors that continue to want to learn themselves and bring that to the students also helps. Bringing the world to them and creating that global community begins with providing them and the TEACHERS with the tools to do so...Here, here for a computer on every desk. I've asked for that for years but it always fell on deaf (broke) ears.

Bryan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would have to say that I'm going to agree with Suzanne on this one.

My background comes from the computer/technology/engineering field and I have spent more time with computer than I would care to admit. After college, before I started working as a teacher, I worked for myself doing computer repair and installations. I was the hands on guy for our small company of 3 employees, but I was in charge of building the actual computers from components to the finished product.

Ok so relevance. The computer industry is so hard to keep up with that it is VERY difficult for schools to have what would be considered "latest and greatest" because yes, by the time the bureaucracy and the ordering and the shipping and the clearing and the set up, sometimes it can be over a full year before you end up with your what was new equipment a year ago, now is well outdated.

For most school uses computers that aren't cutting edge work just fine. There are some programs though that need up to date high tech machinery, like my program I teach at my school, Project Lead The Way. It is an engineering initiative by RIT, to get more students interested and evolved in the fields of engineering. We use CAD design software that can be quite taxing on computers cpus, memory and can take up a lot of hard drive space.

Computers can be a great tool/ gateway for student learning as long as they are used properly, too many times I see teachers who really don't even know how to use a computer themselves try and teach students. It doesn't help anything.

Krystal Kreger's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was born shortly before computers and the internet came around. While in my beginning years of teaching, I like to think that I am up-to-date on the latest technology that my students are into. The more I search the web, the more I learn that I have more to learn! Teachers are definately overwhelmed with how to incoporate computers and programs into their lessons. There is so much out there and to pick and choose what to learn and how to make it work for their classrooms can be very exhausting and time consuming. Can we ever keep up?

I agree that we must ask our students for help - and have them share their interests and learn to collaborate their technology into our everyday classroom. Our future, the students, deserve everything we can do for them.

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