Education and Technology

My son is in upper elementary, and his school day looks amazingly like my school day back 30 years ago. A bit more computer work, more time spent testing and reading, and unfortunately less social studies (and possibly science, although I’m not sure elementary students ever got all that much). But they still have home classrooms, arts and phys. ed. classes a few times per week, lunch and recess. Despite all the hubbub of “Common Core Math”, his homework assignments are not completely different from what I was given.

As a lifelong educator, union member, and public school supporter, there is something encouraging about this incredible length of stability in our system. Yet as a person who embraces, studies, and works with technology, I am concerned with the future, and what it brings for public schools.

Teachers are constantly asked by administrators to demonstrate how they are “incorporating” modern technology into their teaching. Many of us will point to the students typing away on computer keyboards instead of hand-writing assignments, and teaching them to use simple applications. Yet the real technological disruption in education is perhaps still to come.

Within the past year, I have taught myself, at home and online, how to be an app programmer for iOS and Android. I paid for no schooling, and required no tools except a Mac laptop. I learned quickly and efficiently because I was self-motivated and studying something I loved.

Imagine if this type of self-guided study truly catches on with our children. Already, many kids are learning to program mods (modifications) for the popular Minecraft game, or creating and sharing games using block-based code on Companies such as IXL have complete home-testing programs in math and reading. Homeschool parents probably are more familiar with the vast online choices than I am.

Certainly, current apps and websites require a teacher or knowledgable parent to guide students in the learning process. But I have little doubt that the technology will continue to improve, to the point that digital assistance will serve most of the current mentor’s role. Would this mean the elimination of schools as we know them, and the teaching profession?

Obviously, not every subject matter lends itself equally to a digital medium. Physical education, art, music, social skills, will likely be among the last holdouts for human contact. I could see schools becoming more community-centers, where children and families gather to share and learn together, before returning to their homes to continue their studies online. I also think it likely that this transition will continue to erode universities, then high schools, with elementary schools being the last to be dismantled from their current structure.

I don’t want my teaching colleagues and future teachers to be out of work. I don’t want students to become automatons who can’t interact with other humans. But not wanting this to happen doesn’t mean it won’t happen. And fighting disruptive technology has proven nearly impossible in every other field. I believe 50 years from now, we will have fewer teachers, fewer schools, and more digital education. I think we should talk about how we get there without ruining teachers’ lives or trusting faulty software that isn’t ready to be as effective as those devoted teachers.

And I think, as educators, the time will come, sooner or later, when our old saying, “do what’s best for kids,” will point not at us, but at our machines.

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