4 – Technology and the Innovative School (*)

1. Linking with the Previous Three Articles

This is the fourth in a series of four articles.

In the first article (“Looking Anew at Education”) I argued that:

  1. Education is a lifelong process of human development that takes place through learning;
  2. Education cannot be limited to the confines of a single institution or organization and so must be seen as the responsibility of the entire society, which is the learning environment par excellence where education takes place;
  3. We learn through continuous dialogue with our fellow human beings about things of the world that interest us;
  4. This dialogue makes us conscious of our incomplete or unfinished nature and leads us to attempt to become more fully human through the implementation of a strategic life project of our own choosing;
  5. This is the path toward human development;
  6. The vision of education that promotes this path (“Ubiquitous Education through the Learning Society”) runs counter the present paradigm of education in that it relativizes the importance of formal education, schooling, teachers, and instruction: education, here, takes place in between the lines, as if it were, as we do something else (especially play and work, but also as we simply live our life).

In the second article (“Change, Innovation and the School”) I argued that:

  1. Innovation involves change, but not every change brings innovation;
  2. Change can be divided in two kinds: ordinary and reformative (within the paradigm) and extraordinary and transformative (disruptive of the paradigm);
  3. It is the degree of innovation present in it that differentiates extraordinary or transformative change from ordinary or reformative change;
  4. The changes that took place in the world in the past seventy years require extraordinary or transformative change of — and not simply in — the school;
  5. The school, however, has been quite impervious and resistant to the demand that it ought to transform itself;
  6. Given the dissemination of the present paradigm of education and the consequent penetration of the conventional school in the social fabric, it may be necessary to go through a transitional stage (that of the “Innovative School”) before we can hope to reach the new educational paradigm (“Ubiquitous Education through the Learning Society”).

In the third (previous) article (“Innovative Schools”), I argued that:

  1. In the transitional stage education will still depend largely on the school but the school will have to become more and more different from the conventional institution that presently bears the same name, since it will serve, among other things, to spread education out of itself and into other institutions of society, tearing down, so to say, the walls that demarcate, and so isolate, the school from the rest of society;
  2. Thus the Innovative School must be built upon a different vision (a new understanding of its nature, mission, and values, as well as of the outcomes it seeks to achieve), have different organizing principles (curriculum, methodology, learning resources, architectural design, technology infrastructure, and, of course, evaluation procedures), and be staffed by personnel with a distinct mindset and a different set of competencies and talents;
  3. This Innovative School that prepares the path for the “Ubiquitous Education through the Learning Society” paradigm will focus on personalized learning that is conveyed, through a large extent, through technology and can only reach scale through technology.

In this fourth and last article of this series, therefore, technology will be the focus.

2. Technology and Personalized Learning

Socrates was the first great educator of the human race (at least in the West) — and arguably its greatest. It is important to consider how he viewed and practiced education:

  • He did not have a school: he worked in the main square of the city;
  • He did not have a classroom: he worked in the open air;
  • He did not work with a group: he worked with one person at a time;
  • He did not have students: he had partners in dialogue;
  • He did not have a curriculum: he talked about anything in which his dialogue partners were interested;
  • He did not really answer questions: he replied to a question with another question;
  • He did not have ready answers to the questions of his dialogue partners: he helped them find the answers themselves;
  • He saw his task as similar to that of the midwife: to draw out successfully, through plain conversation, what is already inside the mind of this dialogue partner, because it is there, in the mind, that ideas are conceived;
  • He did not use any learning resource except dialogue;
  • He was suspicious of rhetorical oratory, speech making, lecturing, and teaching: these things are all unidirective, and so do not favor dialogue and interaction;
  • For the same reason, he was suspicious of books, because they likewise do not favor dialogue and interaction.

Here we have, in a nutshell, the way Socrates viewed and practiced education, about 2,500 years ago. What Socrates thought and did in the area of education is much closer to the “Ubiquitous Education Through the Learning Society” paradigm outlined in the first article than anything anybody thought or did ever since. Whatever else this paradigm may contain, it is a clear defense of personalized education — and in Socrates’ thought and practice we do find truly personalized education (which is equivalent to personalized learning).

Many educators, today, when they are not constrained to defend the present educational paradigm, find Socrates way of thinking congenial and admire his educational practice. That explains the considerable success of “constructivist” or “constructionist” proposals.

The only legitimate criticism that can be made of Socrates is that his way of viewing and practicing education seems to be impractical in a large society that is committed to universal education, since it is based on one-to-one dialogue. In other words: it does not seem to be scalable. In a small city such as Athens, that was not committed to the education of its women and its slaves, it may have worked, but how to implement this kind of personalized education in a twentieth-first century megalopolis?

What happened in the intervening 2,500 years since Socrates, especially in the 250 years since the Industrial Revolution, to make the education of today a standardized mass undertaking centered on the school was, on the one hand, a gradual but considerable increase in the number of those society felt ought to seek to educate themselves and, on the other hand, a lack of resources, human and technological, to continue to educate the way Socrates did.

The solution found, especially around the middle of the eighteenth century, was to create an educational production line similar to the assembly line of the industrial factory, and process children as if they were raw materials to produce standardized industrial organization people.

Students, contents, methods and outcomes all had to be standardized. When the standardized contents to be transmitted were too complex, division of labor and specialization were brought into the picture…

This way, learning gradually became something that took place in the school, during school hours, in school days — not anywhere, anytime, in the place where people lived, worked and had fun. The focus gradually moved from the broad interest of the learners to the narrow, specialized interests of the various teachers. Inside the rooms of the school there was no real dialogue, but classes or lessons, delivered by the teacher to the student, of whom only silence and attention were required. And thus the students gradually adopted the ideas of their masters instead of conceiving their own and then giving birth to them, as Socrates wanted…

But today we have a different context, do we not?

For a while, it looked as if not

For a while, technology (the computer, the multimedia projector, the projected screen, the smart board, etc. and even the Internet) simply reinforced the traditional paradigm of one unidirectionally talking to many, and the many merely consuming ideas conceived somewhere else and transmitted to them, only now with the help of technology

But then the social networks appeared

Initially, few people believed that the social networks would change education much. Curiously, e-mail, instant messaging, blogging, and media sharing systems were made available to users for free by the large software companies, such as Microsoft, which kept making huge investments in digitizing content, developing authoring tools for teachers, perfecting presentation programs, creating digital classroom environments, etc. These initiatives wrongly assumed that, if technology were used in teaching, students would be easily engaged in learning what the school and its teachers expected them to learn… This assumption was a great mistake.

Then Facebook appeared, and now, a few years later, it has way over one billion active users, more than 20% of the overall population of the globe — but around 50% at least of the better informed, better educated, and more affluent part of the global population. And it continues to be for free, as far as the users are concerned.

Now, at last, we do have a different context, do we not?

Here is a quote from Will Richardson, in his book Why School?: How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere, after he described how his son Tucker, 13 years of age, learned to play quite well a highly complex and sophisticated game, Minecraft, without any formal teaching whatsoever, only through virtual conversations with his friends of the same age, who were also learning to play the same game in their own homes, by themselves (as one would say in the past — today, we know best). The passage is rather long but it is worth transcribing it:

“More and more, Tucker and his connected friends are crafting a new narrative around learning. (Millions of connected adults are its co-authors.) It’s a story that challenges the fundamental premise of this thing we call ‘school’. In this new story, real learning happens anytime, anywhere, with anyone we like — not just with a teacher and some same-age peers, in a classroom, from September to June. More important, it happens around the things we learners choose to learn, not what someone else tells us to learn.

This new story requires us to ask the difficult yet crucial question: why school?

I’m not suggesting we consider scrapping school altogether. I’m suggesting that this moment requires us to think deeply about why we need school. Or to ask, more specifically, what’s the value of school now that opportunities for learning without it are exploding all around us? There is an important, compelling answer to that question. It is most definitely not the same one we’ve been giving for the last 150 years.

Here’s the deal.

The world has changed — and continues changing — rapidly and radically when it comes to the ways in which we can learn, and what knowledge, skills, dispositions, and forms of literacy our children will need to flourish in their futures. Plain and simple, the Web and the technologies we use to access it drive those changes. And those changes are, in a word, profound. Sooner or later, that upheaval will force us to tackle the ‘why school?’ question head-on.

Every one of us has a stake in the answer. It’s not only parents of school-age kids, or the teachers in their  classrooms, who need to grapple with this.  

Schools play an important role in our communities, and not just because they help determine property values. They are part of the fabric of who we are. Moreover, they remain the places where every one of our kids can go (in theory, at least) to get equal access to an education. Between that and the ancillary child care functions they provide, schools as places where children come together to learn will not be going away anytime soon.

But what happens inside of schools is going to change, now that the Web connects us the way it does.

It has to.

[Will Richardson (2012-09-10). Why School?: How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere (Amazon Books, Kindle Edition, Kindle Locations 60-76). TED Conferences. Emphases added.]

Technology, especially by making global social networks possible and viable, is also making personalized education possible and viable in large scale. Because global social networks are not only places where we gather information, share information, and entertain ourselves (although they are certainly that), but also places where we learn what we want and need to learn, as defined by our interests and needs, they have become a macro Learning Environment. As a matter of fact, the virtual space has become the embryo of the “Ubiquitous Education Through the Learning Society” paradigm.

3. Technology and the Development of Competencies

The technology that is relevant to the development of competencies is the same technology that is ubiquitous in the world today: digital information and communication technologies (ICT). ICT is a large set of technologies that were developed on the basis of the digital computer unveiled to the world on February 16, 1946.

This set of technologies is fundamental for education because, to adapt a phrase Bill Gates once used in a lecture, “it exists to place people in contact with people and to give them access to the information they need to do the things they want to do”.

If Paulo Freire is right, and we learn in the world, and primarily through human interaction and dialogue, and if this technology exists for these two purposes:

  • to put people in contact with people, and so allow them to interact, dialogue and collaborate with one another;
  • to give them access to the information they need in order to understand and to improve the world in which they live, learn, work, and have fun;

then this technology is fundamental for learning — as a matter of fact, much more fundamental than it is for teaching.

A. Technology, the Curriculum, and Personalized Learning

If what was said about the curriculum in the previous article (“Innovative Schools”) is taken seriously, then it is basically impossible to implement the curriculum in any large school setting without technology.

  • In the Innovative School competencies are the main ingredient of the overall curriculum;
  • The matrix of competencies in which the curriculum is organized reflects the total set of learning opportunities which the school is willing to make available to its students (the school curriculum);
  • It is likely that this set will be fairly large and complex, given the variety of competencies, and their interconnections, that can legitimately be part of the school curriculum;
  • Each student, after consultation with his mentors and with his parents, chooses the sub-set of competencies that is relevant or useful to the definition and implementation of his life project (the student’s personal curriculum);
  • It is quite probable that there will no identical personal curricula in the school, given the fact that individual differences among the students will likely lead to very personal life projects.

If the number of students in the school is, say, in the hundreds, it is virtually impossible, without rather sophisticated technology, to keep track of such a high number of personal curricula and their interactions with the school curriculum (for instance, to keep an updated registry of which competencies each student has already developed and which ones he must still develop at any given time).  This would be the curriculum component of a major Learning Management System.

B. Technology and Project-Based Learning

The basic way in which a student develops competencies in the Innovative School is by participating in learning projects that help him develop the specific sub-set of competencies that is relevant or useful to his life project. The school must have, therefore, a regular set of learning projects that it offers to its students, from which the students will select the projects in which they will get involved. Sometimes if may be necessary, because of specific student demand, for the school to offer ad hoc learning projects in additional to its regular offerings.

The project database of the school must clearly specify, for each project, the problem the students will investigate, which competencies they will develop as they investigate that problem, and how the solution of this problem and the development of these competencies will be assessed.

The student can, based on his life project, search the project database to determine which learning projects address problems he would be interested in tackling and to ascertain the competencies he will develop as he tries to solve the problems proposed by these projects. When these projects are offered by the school, he can participate in them. Once the projects are successfully concluded, the competencies that they contemplate will be credited to the student’s transcript, with indication of the appropriate level of depth in his mastery of them.

This would be the methodology component of a major Learning Management System.

C. Technology and the Assessment of Learning

As seen above, we learn through human interaction and dialogue. Technology, today, not only facilitates interaction and dialogue, but also makes them possible in contexts where they were impossible before.

As also mentioned above, as we interact and dialogue, and so learn, we need access to information, in order to understand and act upon the world in which we live, work, and have fun. Technology, today, is essential to the tasks of searching, organizing, storing, analyzing, assessing and applying information.

It is this kind of learning that must be assessed in the Innovative School.

In order to assess this kind of dialogical learning, it is fundamental that the staff of the school not only interact intensively with the students, but also that they carefully observe the interactions of the students among themselves. And, of course, that they record their own interactions with the students and the interactions they observe.

But the interactions that matter, in this context, do not take place only face to face inside the school buildings: they also take place in virtual space.

Thus,  in order to assess student interaction and keep track of what sort of information students access, use, apply in discussions, and eventually save, the staff of the school must also be active participants in the school networking facilities but also in the social networking systems the students use.

Of course, a careful balancing between the privacy rights of the students and their need to be accompanied in their learning must be sought and the rules that allow the school staff to monitor student activity must be clear and understood by everyone involved.

But, in any case, it is clear the role that technology must perform in enabling and enriching interaction and information access as well as in the recording of all this information and in its timely retrieval by all interested parties in the process of evaluating student learning.

Also, by extending the network of people with whom the students can come into contact, technology allows students to participate in collaborative learning projects with students of other schools, all over the world (assuming the problem of language is solved, and it will be solved by technology as well), and maintain personalized dialogue with multiple partners about the things that they are interested or need to learn.

The development of competencies that involve the building of psychomotor abilities, such as is the case in medicine, dentistry and several other areas, presents special challenges, which, however, will be adequately met with the evolution of technology. Telemedicine is already a reality, and so the acquisition of medical skills through distance education is also around the corner. Preparation of pilots through flight simulators is already de rigueur. There is no reason to fear that other areas will not face similar developments.

4. In Conclusion

The Innovative School is necessary, as a transitional institution, and it will necessarily depend heavily on technology. But the technology it will use is not information dispensing technology that will automate and, to a large extent replace, conventional teaching functions (information delivery).

The technology that is important for learning and managing learning in the Innovative School is basically of three kinds:

  • The sort of technology that young people already master: technologies that allow them to communicate with each other quickly and easily and that gives them access to whatever information they need to learn what they want or need to learn;
  • Technology that helps them simulate rather complex processes — and games are important simulators;
  • Technology that helps them make complex decisions and solve complicated problems in various areas — the so-called “expert systems”.

As mentioned above, learning  takes place as we do something else: play, work, live our lives in the world. Thus, the technology that is most relevant to learning is the technology that helps us do the things we want and need to do. It makes no sense to speak of technology that only helps us learn: learning or educational technology.

Good Learning Management Systems help the Innovative School do something quite important: monitor (track) and evaluate each student’s development toward the achievement of his personal life project. But they must really manage learning, as a process and as an outcome, not school or classroom attendance, teaching, or test results.

São Paulo, on the 31st of October, 2012, revised in São Paulo, on the 22nd of August, 2017

(*) I thank Microsoft’s Brazilian subsidiary for the authorization to use in this article material that I wrote at her request five years ago.


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