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The (Un)Connected Classroom: When Will Education Catch-up with Technology?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

"the classroom is one of the least connected places left’ So true and quite sad, we Will Change this!" – @ken_ingle (Twitter.com, 11 April, 2012)

Back in 2004 I was "lucky" enough to be assigned to a classroom in the renovated basement of an ancient building that had one been used as a hospital during the Civil War. The room was set-up horribly for the seminar that I was teaching on "The Future of Education." The long bench-style desks were in unmovable straight rows rising in tiers from the front of the classroom and beams obstructed the view for someone no matter where I stood. But what this classroom did have were pretty decent computer workstations at every seat and a digital projector. I used the computers and networked technology to my advantage, running the class as a strange "online in the same room" hybrid. It worked well; I pushed information to my students over the Internet to supplement what we were talking about. We held online discussions while watching films where, for example, I sent along the text of the poems being referenced in Dead Poet’s Society as they were mentioned in the film.

Since then, I have focused almost exclusively on teaching courses using or about technology (that’s easy to do when your Ph.D. is in Instructional Technology), so I have always been in a well-appointed, connected classroom. The aesthetics are seldom great in these rooms, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too, can you? Despite the challenges created by teaching in "classrooms" designed to be computer labs, I have been spoiled by having great access to technology for my students and myself. But, as the Tweet above from Ken Ingle demonstrates, my experiences are far from the norm.

Technology is the core element of 21st Century society; it mediates our communication, provides us with information, facilitates socialization, dominates our economy, and figures intimately into almost everything we do on a daily basis – except education. What is it about education that makes really powerful technological integration in the classroom so difficult? What should the 21st Century higher education classroom look like and how would a change to a technology-focused teaching environment alter education?

Where’s the Tech?
There are four main obstacles to a full integration of technology in the higher education classroom; infrastructure/cost, lack of faculty technology know-how, a lack of inspiration, and institutional inertia.

  • Infrastructure and Cost – This is an institutional limitation that constrains the use of technology in the classroom. Computers are expensive and it is much more cost effective to have one workstation connected to a projector than it is to have 20-30 machines in a classroom. The cost associated with connecting a classroom would include the computers and software, the wiring of the room, Internet access, electricity, data storage, and maintenance, repair and replacement of damaged, broken, or virus infected machines, and the personnel to do the work. Setup alone could total tens of thousands of dollars per classroom plus the maintenance costs. It is a matter of simple math, and, given the reality of the next two points, the return on investment would probably be minimal for most institutions.
  • Faculty Know-how – Technology is intimidating, changing a course to incorporate new methodologies, media, and communication strategies is both daunting and challenging, and many faculty members have had little or no training or professional development about incorporating technology into their curriculums. If professors use technology in their classes, they have most likely taken the entire burden of learning to do so onto themselves. This is a two-fold problem: first, graduate programs in many fields do not emphasize the use of technology in the classroom for the same reason – those faculty members have never been trained to do so. Secondly, most faculty members simply do not have the time or support to delve deeply into new technologies for learning given the rapid pace of technological change.
  • Inspiration – Playing off of the first two points, most faculty members simply do not have the resources needed to learn about new technologies and how they could help students learn better. Colleges and universities that do not employ full-time staff to support faculty in the exploration and incorporation of technology in the classroom are missing an opportunity to advance their own missions, make professors lives easier, and to help their students learn more efficiently.
  • Institutional Inertia – Colleges and universities follow an educational model that is a holdover from a time when the most advanced learning technology was the stylus (and I mean a pointy stick, not a digital writing implement) and instruction happened through smaller, more personal interactions. As with all systemic change in education, there is a significant amount of resistance, both consciously and incidentally. Even if professors want to change, they may not know how to change, or may not have the time or support to accomplish a change, and their institutions are happy to uphold a status quo that has been working for thousands of years.

Making the Change
Overcoming these obstacles is possible, and like any truly revolutionary and successful change effort, the impetus for that change must begin at the grass-roots level. As a higher percentage of faculty members is drawn from the ranks of “Digital Natives” technology will naturally seep into the classroom. Further, as more digital-first students enter higher education they will demand greater access and technology integration in their education. These students realize that the world is digital and will naturally migrate to educational options that support that reality.

There is also an opportunity for graduate programs to focus on incorporating technology into their programs as a way of preparing new professors who understand the power of digital tools and how to integrate them into their courses and research. There needs to be a concerted effort on the part of graduate schools to produce scholars who can leverage the power of Information Age tools. Assuming that they will come to graduate school tech literate and just "figure out" how to best incorporate technology into their academic lives will not work.

Designing the Dream Technology Classroom
So what exactly would the dream 21st Century classroom look like and how could it be used by instructors to support their teaching and student learning?
The dream classroom for higher education that would address the greatest possible number of needs for curricular integration of technology might not need to be a classroom at all. The University of Kentucky’s A & S Wired Residential College provides one possible model for how a tech-connected and fully integrated curriculum might work to support rich student experiences.

This example is useful because it addresses different fields such as science and sociology, and includes a strong community involvement component. The most important consideration when envisioning what a dream classroom would look like is that the boundaries of traditional classrooms need no longer apply to learning. Internet technology and portable devices can now free instructors and their students from the confines of their desks, classrooms, and even the college campus.

The Hi-Tech Future of Higher Ed
The ultimate take away from this exploration of the hi-tech future of higher education is that a fundamental rethinking of the classroom experience is the ideal place to begin when envisioning what the connected classroom of the (near?) future should look like. There are many obstacles to creating this transformative model of higher education, but taking small steps, like UK has done with its wired campus, such as placing technology in the hands of students and raising expectations for the ways in which faculty will integrate that technology into their courses, is one way to begin.

The future of higher education is knocking at the door, universities can choose to open that door themselves by providing the infrastructure and support necessary to change their curriculums, or they can wait and have the door beaten down by the technology itself and the students and faculty members who will demand that it become part of the culture of higher education.

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Image: criminalatt / FreeDigitalPhotos.net