It’s becoming clearer by the minute that, as Web technologies open more and more doors for learners, they also pose more and more challenges to traditional thinking about schools. At the center is figuring how best to prepare students for the vast learning opportunities they have outside of the traditional education system. While the challenges are different for each individual school and district, all will be forced to come to terms with five new realities in the short term.
The exploding anytime, anywhere, anyone access to information and teachers/mentors/co-learners via the Web is pushing traditional school structures, instructional methods and relationships toward obsolescence There’s no question that schools will be around for a long time. But there’s also little question that the way we do school is going to change as our ability to learn informally expands. I don’t need my own children to attend a school to learn algebra or French. More than anything, I need them to attend school to learn how to learn. Sooner rather than later, we will need to redefine our value now that teachers and content are no longer scarce.
The drive to privatize education by for-profit companies and the growing emphasis on online learning, virtual schools and personalized instruction delivered via technology is threatening to make physical-space, community-run schools irrelevant. Again, while physical-space schools will remain a fundamental part of our society in the near term, the options for self-paced, highly personalized, on-demand curricula are exploding. Add that to an influx of corporate-run charters that will compete with public schools for students and dollars and there is little question that the role of traditional schools will have to change. If it doesn’t, there is a real danger that public schools will serve only those students who cannot opt out.
The increased focus on standardized tests to assess students, schools, and educators is narrowing curriculum, inhibiting the development of learning dispositions in our kids, and diminishing the stature of the teaching profession. While the Common Core assessments are still in development, there is now a clear possibility of a national exam for every student, one that is now also “high stakes” for teachers and schools. Whether or not we choose to challenge that scenario and refocus our work on learning, not testing, remains to be seen.
Due to the speed with which the Web and other technologies have evolved and are evolving, current teachers, education professionals and teacher-training programs are ill-equipped to employ sound pedagogies for learning with technology or to prepare students for the technology rich, unpredictable, fast-changing, globally networked world they will inhabit. While to some extent this has always been the case, we are currently in the midst of a sea change when it comes to the ways in which the Web connects us around learning. Preparing new and old teachers to model and contextualize modern learning is now essential if we are to help students reach their potential as learners.
The growing ability of technology to replace both unskilled and, increasingly, skilled labor is disrupting traditional thinking and practice about how best to prepare students for careers and is challenging the view that a college degree is a ticket to a middle-class existence. The traditional picture of jobs with stable incomes, pensions, health insurance and profit-sharing plans is quickly fading. Today’s students will be faced with a more unstable, shifting job market and will need to rely on entrepreneurial instincts and experience to create value for employers and customers. In addition, new forms of accreditation such as badges and portfolios will require new thinking around the definition of expertise.
All of this assumes, of course, that everyone has access to the Web and related technologies. Such access is not yet universal. Still, there is little question that schools will be significantly changed by these new realities. Yet to be answered is the question of whether those changes will be done to us or whether we will drive them ourselves.
Will Richardson is an author and educator who also blogs about teaching and learning at willrichardson.com.