George Lucas Educational Foundation

Shaping Tech for the Classroom

21st-century schools need 21st-century technology.
By Marc Prensky
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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 (150) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Mike's picture
Science teacher from Connecticut

I am always looking for newer technologies and how to properly utilize them in my classroom. I, like many of the posters above, will be a lifelong learner and will look forward to the newer technologies to come out to see how they will work in my classroom. Great article!

slburns's picture
CAS Coordinator/Teacher ICS Addis

Reading this Blog/article? (I don't know the difference yet.) what struck me in Marc's artical is "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." I think that they are demanding it by the way in which they dis-engage with the content and check out. When I look around my classroom I can see that the "old way" is no longer ok for me. I feel like my desire to connect with them and engage with them is greater as I witness loosing them. I can't help but feel that there is an urgent-ness for me to get with it and start creating new and inventive unit plans with students playing a role in this creation.

Claudelle Lewis's picture
Claudelle Lewis
Year 6/Grade 5 Homeroom Teacher

Great post. I do believe that currently technology in my school is very much like doing old things in old ways, it is simply modernizing old systems, mainly by using internet/computer based programs to record/share and document information. For me, a prime example is our use of Managebac throughout the primary and secondary school.

That said, I do have some misgivings about the necessity of one-to-one computing after I watched a TedTalk by Sugata Mitra's based on his real-life experiments with students using internet and computer programs to learn. Click on the TedTalk URL below to view:

In his experiments using 4-to-1 computing (or more) in impoverished areas, allowed students the collaborative skills necessary to change information into memory. Maybe that's one way we can do new things in new ways. Give the students an open-ended question and see them negotiate, collaborate and create independently with the teacher as the guide. Instead of teaching them the topics as educators we can allow them the time and technology to discover and interpret what they need to know in a true constructivist or rather connectivist model.

Ann Lautrette's picture

'Old things in old ways' very much resonated with me as I see so much evidence of this branded as 'innovation'. We see now in schools teachers using iPads to take photographs and record video - which cameras and video cameras have been able to do for years. Students making movies instead of performing plays, or creating infographics instead of posters. Interesting, yes and perhaps more engaging, but still doing old things and not particularly innovative.

But, where do the real innovations come from? If digitally immigrant teachers are designing the curriculum, much innovation is perhaps inconceivable to them. Personally, I don't purport to know the answer to that, but I do know a few hundred people in my school who might. I agree that starting with the digital natives is the way to go - but not for them to teach us about the variety of technology we can use, rather the ways in which we can use it to connect and learn. It doesn't matter that students know how to make an infographic rather than a poster - but it matters that they know how to present, share and assess validity of information. Going back to the underlying concepts of education, rather than the skills and content will stop a fixation on devising the 'method' of learning. Asking students, 'so we want to explore the concept of equity, how do we do that?' may lead to innovations from students beyond our imagination.

Erika's picture
Grade 6 Classroom Teacher

While reading through the process schools take with technology, I couldn't help but to think of my own personal journey with it. I am from the generation where teachers used to hand write my school report cards! I cannot even imagine the pain haha. I also remember taking computer classes in high school where your mark was solely dependent on your ability to type, and fast, with all five fingers (a skill I am actually still happy to have been taught).

Now as a teacher myself; however, I question how much times have truly changed. Sure we are making progress from those hand written reports, but as Marc Prensky states, how much of what we are doing are just the same old things but in new ways? The problem for me is exactly the two roadblocks explained above: technological and social. In the process of "dabbling" it becomes expensive for schools to find the correct path. In the meantime, we have to live out decisions made, whether they were the correct ones or not. In addition, unless teachers take the initiative to grow and change their thinking towards technology in their classrooms, the top-down approach does not work. You have to be passionate about making changes, and confident at the same time. Not always easily done, especially when forced.

Yet at the same time, I do question throwing out all of the old with the new...Nowadays I know more students probably use devices such as phones and tablets more than the basic laptop or desktop. As Clarence Fisher wrote in his blog post, "Phones and Tablets and Missing Skills" ( "[s]ome would argue that their skills aren't poor, they are just different. I'm going to disagree because the skills that kids are gaining are mainly consumption skills and what they are losing is information verification, location and creative skills needed to share their point of view with the world." Just last week I had my students type out one of their written pieces and they had difficulties properly setting up a Microsoft Word page. Even when searching for things online, many have difficulties thinking of key words to search. Yet if you were to ask them how to create a video using whatever program available they could.

So where does that leave us? Feels like a bit of a revolution mentality haha, but we cannot sit around waiting for someone to tell us what to do, we need to make the changes ourselves. Enroll in a course if your school won't send you. Sign up for a variety of professional learning websites and blogs, and find out what it is out there for yourselves! But at the same time, remember your students are students, and you are the teacher so find out what skills they need, and teach them.

Chelle's picture

The idea that strikes me most in this article is Mr. Prensky's comments regarding our students when he states, "We cannot ... invent the future education of our children for them ... Sadly, in most cases, no one asks for their opinions." This is really quite profound. I have been teaching for over 16 years, and after reading this I asked myself how often I ask students for input on how and/or what they would like to learn. The answer was "not a lot." Some of this is due to the fact that I have to follow a highly mandated curriculum and some is because I have just not thought of it. And isn't that the saddest part - that I haven't thought to ask the people whose lives I am trying to shape?

So I am left with one vital, and hopefully practice changing, thought from this article and that is "to try something new and then report to all [my colleagues on] what works and what doesn't".

k_dao1's picture

I've been working really hard on trying to use technology in my classroom and found that I was doing what most teachers do which was similar to the "old things in old ways". I am comfortable using technology but sadly realized that I am not using it in the best way possible. For the first time in my 10 years of teaching I am finally looking for new ways to incorporate technology and have found this month to be quite exciting. I loved the idea of asking students what they wanted to see or do so I asked them this week. Some mentioned Facebook so I created a class page on Edmodo for them to use to inspire each other and share ideas. Some of the homework is online as well and I'm currently working on creating a "Flipped" classroom. Sadly, I've had 1-2 parents push back on the idea of having the students "online" but I am still determined to use "new things in new ways" and appreciate all the advice, opinions, and ideas that others are sharing and posting online. This is a great article indeed!

Abby Moore's picture

I have been using technology in my classroom for the past couple of years in the "old things in new ways." I think most teachers and schools don't realize they are not doing anything new. I sometimes feel stuck because I am told I have to teach certain things and teach them in a specific way. I don't necessarily have any control over the tech I can utilize in my room. The change that needs to take place is with boards and government views on education.

Jessi Fisk's picture

I too was dabbling, sometimes doing old things in new ways. I think it's overwhelming for teachers to feel like they can deliver all of their content in a new way when they can barely get through it with the last overhaul/change. I know that it can be done. We completely revamped classroom delivery this spring, doing new things in new ways. And the students not only met us half way, they exceeded expectations. They were EXCITED to learn and to demonstrate their learning. They were coming in sharing their research and their findings. And I learned from them - they were showing me new apps, programs, and simulations. It was GREAT!

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