We stand in the doorway between two ages. Behind us is the Knowledge Age. Fueled by the Industrial Revolution and the need to educate as many children as possible, as efficiently as possible, the Knowledge Age created brick and mortar schools to provide a Free and Appropriate Education to millions of children. The sole purpose of these schools during this time was to feed the insatiable appetite of the Industrial Machine with new workers.
Ahead of us is what Texas A&M University Architecture professor and acting director of the Institute for Applied Creativity Dr. Rodney C. Hill describes as the Conceptual/Creative Age. "In this world of accelerating change and global access to knowledge, the only people who cannot be outsourced are knowledge generators. We approach the necessity for creativity and problem identification and solving to be able to survive and strive in this century," Dr. Hill said.
For some educators this transition has been and will continue to be very difficult. They will see the passing of Florida House Bill 7197 - Digital Learning Act Now and decry the eventual destruction of the education system as we know it. And they are right. The education system as we know it must be destroyed. The model does not fit our students and they are turning away from the school in ever growing numbers. There has got to be something wrong when the education system designed to service student needs is actually pushing them away.
So to help teachers through this transition we should think about the advantages to education especially from the perspective of the suits sitting in various administration buildings around the country and three challenges that teachers need to face immediately and get over even faster.
Advantages to Education
Individualization of the Curriculum:
For decades educators have been asked to meet the needs of the individual learner. In 1984 educational reformer Theodore Sizer said, "That students differ may be inconvenient, but inescapable. Adapting to that diversity is the inevitable price of productivity, high standards, and fairness to the students."
As teachers we know that one size fits all education does not work for all students. We know it in our core and for years we have worked hard for and worried about those students who are outliers to the mainstream delivery of instruction. But year after year, despite our resolve to be better, we find the needs of 25 individuals are too diverse to meet adequately in an eight hour day constantly interrupted with distractions.
The advantage of the digital classroom is the ability to individualize or differentiate the curriculum. Technology makes it easier for teachers to differentiate by plugging students into the timeline of the curriculum which is appropriate for their Zone of Proximal Development. Technology also makes it easier for educators to tap into student interest. When teachers can match developmentally appropriate learning objectives with student interest then the learning becomes relevant to the student.
With all students, especially with gifted students, the information has to be relevant so that there is enough intrinsic reward to engage their brain's attentive focus (Willis, 2009).
The Cost of Education
From a school business perspective this news from Florida is awesome. The University of Phoenix model can now be brought to the public school system. UP has over 400,000 enrolled students in their various programs. In 2010 University of Phoenix made a profit of over one billion dollars (University of Phoenix (2010) 2010 Annual Academic Report University of Phoenix AZ: University of Phoenix).
My school district services around 69,000 students with an operating budget of $488,500,000. That is about $7,000 a year spent on each student. When my students see that number they want to know where all that money is going and I have to just smile and say, "Eight five percent of it goes to pay me and your other teachers."
The fastest way for school districts to cut costs is to maximize the student teacher ratio. If the recent education budget shortfall in Texas has taught us anything it is that school districts are going to cut their operating costs and teacher salaries is the fastest and easiest way to do it. Now that secondary teachers have 40 - 45 students in their classrooms it will become very clear that it will be even easier to have the students access the content online and have one teacher administer to 100 or more students.
From a financial standpoint this Florida Bill makes sense. Times are tough and for administrators it just makes sense if they can educate even more students, more efficiently and at a cost point that is much lower that what they are paying now. It will also be easier to assess more students at a much lower cost point.
Ease of Statewide Assessment
The Florida Bill makes it so that all state assessments will be delivered virtually by 2014 - 15. I, for one, am very excited about this development. We pay our bills online, we shop online, we make reservations online, we communicate online. Why not handle the monetary and logistical nightmare that is state assessment online?
The biggest benefit to virtual assessment would be to minimizing the cost of administering state assessments. In 2009 the State of Texas paid NCS Pearson Inc. $88 million dollars to test Texas students. A virtual alternative would eliminate many costs, right off the top would be the paper waste created by printing testing booklets and answer documents.
Another benefit I see associated with virtual assessments is that they will minimize the ability of teachers and administrators to alter student answers. The most recent example of large scale cheating occurring recently in Atlanta. Nothing puts me in a worse mood than sitting through my yearly test administrator TAKS Power Point for an hour listening to all the ways I can lose my job based on administering one test. It is a no win situation for those of us who have to administer these tests. A virtual administration should lower the risk that teachers take when administering statewide assessments and decrease the opportunities for cheating on a large scale.
Challenges to Teachers
Getting up to speed
Compared to other industries education finds its woefully behind the times. For some teachers the curve is so steep, and they feel they are so far behind not only their digital coworkers but even further behind the students, that it is easier to throw up their hands and quit before they even try to understand the digital opportunities for their classroom.
Teachers are going to have to spend more time in staff development or using their own time to take advantage of the numerous online courses that are available like Atomic Learning 2.0 or simplek12.com.
The good news is that this cloudy sea of technology gets easier to navigate as more educators embrace Web 2.0 and connect to each other via Facebook, Twitter, Edmodo and blogs like this. The purpose of technology is to make it easier for us to communicate with each other, to share, to challenge, to learn. When we embrace the tools ourselves it becomes easier to see how to integrate technology into our classrooms.
The stark reality is those teachers who do not embrace technology, or worse stubbornly resist, will not be teaching a decade from now. Maybe sooner in Florida.
Educators have to make a fundamental shift in how they view their profession. The ability to access information on the internet has made our job as knowledge disseminators obsolete. It is no longer appropriate for teachers to stand at the front of the room showing off how much they seemingly know. Our job now is to teach the students what to do with the information, to verify its credibility, to connect and synthesize their thoughts with the information and most importantly to generate new knowledge.
We have to reverse the role of the learner and as we reverse the role of the learner so do we reverse our own role in the classroom.
Our standards are not going away, nor should they. Virtual schools will still work to teach state standards to the students. It is yet to be seen how effective that will be? In the end its still about connecting students to the content. We know what best practice says about how to do that. The key is finding the best digital tools to help us connect more kids to the content, faster and in more meaningful ways so that they become knowledge producers.
The full ramifications of the passing of HB 7197 in Florida are unknown. What we do know is that virtual school or brick and mortar school, teachers will remain the heart and soul of education. But we have to adapt to the changing needs of our students so that we do not become obsolete and replaced by computer servers.