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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.

Comments (143)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Leslie Kiper's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently working on my M.S. in Ed. with a specialization in Adolescent Literacy and Technology. The article resonated strongly with me especially when they talked about asking our students about the technology. No, the kids may not be able to tell us all about the megapixels and such, but they definitely help me figure out the Smartboard and even the old VCR.

A presenter at one of our professional development sessions talked about the new technology guidelines at his CA high school. He said he was against allowing the children to keep cell phones on and usable during school hours. Since he did not make the rules, what he decided to do was use the permissive guidelines to teach children how to use technology in a polite way. All of us see or hear people who loudly chat away on their cell phones while at the register, shoppng, or even in the restroom. He wants his students to know when and how to talk on the phone without alienating others, revealing personal information, and getting distracted from the task at hand. I should set the same objectives for my students even though they are not allowed to use phones during the day. "Technology Immigrants" must take the opportunity to teach kids about the human element of technology, ie. manners and predators.

Linda Woodard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This topic is a bug-a-boo, that is for sure. First, though, I think Mr. Prensky needs to step into a classroom before giving such "pie-in-the-sky" advice...and he is welcome to come into mine and see what the real world of educating teeneagers is like any time. Of course he would have this attitude and outlook, for he lives in a "game world" for goodness sakes as that is what he does! And what is it in this world? It is obviosuly a place where all students WANT to learn; and all students are on the same page emotionally, intellectually and economically. Oh and each classroom has under 35 students. This is the reality of what most of us face (and not one of the schools that makes Edutopia).

I am not knocking this idea totally(for what the net has to offer is awesome at times), but I am one who is resisting total change. First, I am not too sure that "asking a student" what he/she wants would truly help in the long run...for are not educators really the experts? Yes, the students can offer advice on how to get where we want them to go (as I am wont to do in my classroom), and I do take and use some of their ideas, but to design a curriculum is needed to be done by the professionals. Second, I guess too, I am being "old school" when it comes to writing (and reading in a way). I cannot see just writing papers on the computer, for students have to know how to write "timed" essays in a classroom atmosphere where computers are not available. I also think that proofreading off a screen is not as effective as doing it on hard copies, for one can only see the screen and not pages that may need to flow together. ANd there is nothing like annotating a book that helps a student to remember what is important or to make connections.

However with that said, I do a lot to keep up with my students in an interactive/online manner. Doing all the "wiki" and "twitter" stuff, does help connect, and I am one to be available to IM when assignments are due, BUT I draw the line on cell phone usage for any of this in the schools. And to me, this is where the author and many of the respondants here are off the mark. Yes, our students need to be taught how to use these devices respponsibly, but first that should be the parent's responsibility. Do you wonder why they are banned or the schools have zero tolerance for them? These devices have made teaching a nightmare...and no amount of instruction on how to use these will stop what is going on due to "nature of the beast"- the child. First, it is like what was written in the June edition of Edutopia, that we are becoming a "detached" people due to technology; and if you cannot see this, then you are blind. Texting is used for cheating; texting is used for mindless messages that are sent/received during classroom instruction which keeps the student from paying attention. Some can even do this with the phones in their pockets!!! Students are using the phone to send sextexts and to take inappropriate photos which could get a teacher fired, for he/she allowed it to happen while at the board instructing!!!(this happened in my county). Anything that goes on in and out of a classroom, including fights, can now be found on Youtube. Our privacy is nil; and that is not only scary, but also illegal! But besides this, drug deals are texted via codes as well as where and when someone will be alone, so he/she can be "jumped". THIS is the REAL WORLD of cell phone usage and not the Disney/Edutopia utopia that is talked about in this article, and what some of my colleagues are making it out to be. I have NO PROBLEM in banning them (and mp3 players as well) from first bell to last.

Yes, technology can "save us" in a way; but it is a double-edged sword. And we as the adults and the experts, have to make sure we keep our students focused on what is really important and to not lose what it is to be "human".

John Scognamiglio's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article is full of both good ideas and seemingly unrealistic ideas. The good ideas include consulting the students and incorporating technology into the classroom as being more than just a PPT presentation here and there, an online class syllabus, and texting homework to students as I've had teachers do with me. One of the above comments concerns budget and students. I agree with that, however, I think that with the budget concerns could be resolved by teachers that are knowledgeable in applying for outside grant money and teachers who are not afraid to stand up to administrators and demand things after doing research to back up their claims. The concerns about having uninterested students will never be known without trying the new methodologies on the students. I can't imagine that students would react to two completely different methodologies in the exact same way.

 Learner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Technology is great, but it's not free.

Michelle K's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The comment that many teachers and most older adults are technology immigrants reminds me that we have to keep an open mind to knew ways of thinking and learning. Using these resources in a classroom can benefit students far more than just a classroom lecture. I think much of the opposition is from those who feel intimidated by technology and don't want change. However, as educators we need stay stay ahead of the latest resources that can be used to enhance learning.

Rebecca Bonilla's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I fully agree that there are many veteran teachers that are lacking technological skills. Schools try to provide them with extra developmental opportunities to grow their skills in technology but many of them are still hesitant to use them. There are several ways that these teachers can be helped in bringing technology into their lesson planning, though they need to be open to suggestions and teachings. I have seen many teachers not open to using technology because they are what students call "old school". Placing lesson plans,homework and student progress online provide the opportunity for not only student self monitoring but also ofor parents to go online and be involved in what their child is doing day to day. Schools need to recognize that parents today are not as involved with their childs learning because it is not accessible to them due to long work hours and busy schedules.
I feel that in order to start allowing students to use technological tools in the classrooms, teachers need to be very aware and informative on the proper use of technology in our classrooms. Students need to be taught daily the expected responsibilities to using techonological devices. All in all though, I am definately open to using all forms of technology in my classroom because lets face it, if we don't teach how to use the devices properly they are going to learn how to misuse them first.

Steve Burgoon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I do not think it is fair that educators have to work in outmoded classroom environments simply because a handful of people fear change. It should be the teachers and the students who make policy changes, not the politicians.

Dennis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The article is interesting but not helpful. I'm at a school that has a 1 to 1 with netbooks. We have an agreement with Pearson Education to use digital curriculum and I designed our website www.indymet.org using GoogleApps. It has been an incredible kick off, but still is a struggle to get it beyond reading the same old stuff in English, turning in the same old math and so on. I need examples of how entire schools have used technology differently! My school is a charter and is all about change. Help!

tt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

the last 2 schools i've taught at (writing, theater, english, journalism) have essentially seen computers as a threat. computers in the mind of administrators AND IT departments are machines that allow students to move beyond control. add to that the state of california, which blocks the computers so thoroughly i can't use many major news sites in my journalism classes. so the big advance in my school? we've got computers. period.

Susan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We need to capitalize on the opportunity to utilize the cell phones that students bring to school everyday, yet are forbidden to have turned on. How could we use them to inform instruction? Students today are tied to their cell phone, why not make it part of their learning experience?

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