Disruptive Technology

I constantly hear teachers, administrators, and media folks talk about needing to integrate technology into our teaching. I also hear education advocates and parents bemoaning current trends in education. I am a huge tech geek, but I wonder if anyone is truly looking forward to what this will all look like in 25-50 years.

Here’s a picture for you. Students log into their tablets from home, or come to a public school only if they don’t have access at home. Fewer teachers are employed, and their job is to oversee the personalized work of each child. As this system develops, we see both positive and negative outcomes:

Positives:

  • Students can learn at an individualized pace. No more “teaching to the middle,” with students left out on both ends of the spectrum.
  • Students can take breaks as needed to get up, play, and move around. No more sitting still while the teacher is trying to talk.
  • Instruction can be tailored to individual interests and learning styles. A student who demonstrates interest in dinosaurs can do math word problems with dinosaurs. Even more, we can break out of the morass of over-teaching math and reading at the detriment of the sciences and social studies. Now, everything can be cross-curricular in nature.

Negatives:

  • Students may potentially spend even more time still and passive, due to the lure of the digital screen.
  • Students may potentially fail to learn how to socialize with other human beings, since their primary interactions will be with a computer.
  • Many educators will become unemployed due to efficiencies of computer-led classes. Because of this, the teachers unions will fight disruptive technology to the bitter end.
  • Some subjects that do not lend themselves well to individual instruction may potentially be eliminated or weakened. Music, for example, is a social activity, that developed primarily as a means for us to communicate and share with each other. The joy and social learning of playing or singing in ensemble cannot be replicated on a digital device.

As you can see, there are huge advantages and disadvantages to the upcoming disruptive technology. What I’m trying to make clear with this post is that, given the progress of technology in other sectors, this will happen to K-12 education. It’s not a matter of if, just when. As a teacher who supports my family by drawing a paycheck, this terrifies me. But being scared of it isn’t going to make it go away. Neither is fighting it.

Instead, we need to tailor our offerings and instruction, and advocate for the things that humans do better than computers. I believe that dancing, singing, playing, and acting are social interactions, and children will always need to have time to gather and make music. As digital “interactive” music activities rise (they already exist), we need to advocate instead for the live interaction of musicians and dancers. Physical education teachers and advocates will be our allies in this process, as they also have a clear mandate to continue and increase childhood physical activity. Together with free play time (recess), we can become the social, interactive break for students who are working with computers for much of the day. We could potentially even have more time for music, dance, and physical activity, since students will be learning at an individualized pace!

The trickle will happen from the top down, since older students can of course be more independent with technology. Our university system is already sagging under the weight of digital competition (and bloated administrative costs). Alternative high schools offer quite a bit of online coursework. How far down it goes is open for debate, as there are certainly social aspects (besides the arts) of elementary school that need to be taught by humans, and there could be unanticipated consequences of too much screen time for young children.

But it will be disruptive, and our schools will change, for better and worse. Our job, all of us, is to make it better.

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