Earth Virtual Academy - An Ongoing Design Charrette

A collaborative effort to design a new model for schools, virtual and otherwise. Click the 'Guiding Principles' link on the side menu if this is your first visit here. EVA could also stand for Extra Vehicular Activity. (Will Richardson is leading a similar design effort here and NAIS here

We are stepping outside of the complex educational vehicles that we work within and are looking around at the larger world. It can be dangerous out there, so we will proceed carefully and slowly.

The following is an attempt at some synthesis after much brainstorming. February 23rd, 2010

The current dominant model of education started developing over 500 years ago with the invention of the printing press. (1)

A new model of education started developing after the creation of the personal computer in the 1970s. This new model borrowed from, and shares many characteristics with, the pre-computer constructivist approaches to education advocated by Dewey, Vygotsky, Montesorri, Sizer, Illich and others.

In the current dominant model education revolves around the book. In the new model education revolves around the computer.

For many years to come the two models will coexist in an uneasy and competitive relationship. The book-centric model has the advantage of a complete set of fully mature interlocking practices, institutions and rationales. The computer-centric model has the advantage of riding on the powerful wave of rapidly developing information technology.

The major disadvantages of the two models are the flip sides of their advantages.

The book-centric model is tied to an old stable technology that is gradually losing its centrality in our culture.

The computer-centric model is very much in the process of birthing the new practices, institutions and rationales that will make a complete educational system. Many aspects of this system still need to be invented, discovered, refined, integrated and implemented.

Confusing the issue is the use of computers within the book-centric model, and the use of books within the computer-centric model.

Book-centric schools have seen massive infusions of computers over the past 30 years without changing their book-centric nature.

Computer-centric schools will continue to make significant use of books, but books will be peripheral to the main thrust of the new model.

Robert McClintock, in Chapter 4 of Power and Pedagogy: Transforming Education through Information Technology, provides a compelling analysis of how the technology of the book, specifically the textbook, has directly led to the structures and processes that characterize our current educational model.

[In the 1660s] ...reformers worked out the basic technology of modern schooling. The most influential among them -- Erasmus, Luther, Melancthon, Sir Thomas Elyot, Comenius, and more -- were great textbook pioneers and prophets of the importance of reflective reading as a source of knowledge and conviction. Others, scarcely less influential -- Loyola, Sturm, Ramus, Ascham, Mulcaster, Rathke, and many more -- worked out the design of the print-based school, developing strategies of competitive motivation, age grouping correlated to curricular sequence, manageable divisions of subject matter, and standards for the training and selection of teachers. Between 1500 and 1650, the key features in the technology of modern schooling were invented and implemented.

Let's try to expand and clarify this.
  1. Textbooks contain the information that students are supposed to internalize in the course of their schooling.
  2. Textbooks for each subject naturally tend to focus primarily on the knowledge domain of that subject.
  3. Subject focused textbooks lead to subject-focused classes led by subject-focused teachers.
  4. Since all students are expected to proceed though a common set of sequential subject-focused classes it makes sense to organize this progression primarily by age.
  5. Since students can only concentrate so long in a teacher-centric classroom setting, it makes sense to move students from classroom to classroom over the course of a school day.
  6. Since all students in a given class are studying the same textbook content, competition to see who can best master the covered material develops as the "natural" primary motivational approach for teachers and students.

It seems possible then that textbooks have led to our current secondary school model, a model which is characterized by very distinct subjects, students advancing through the curriculum by age, school buildings characterized by teacher-focused classrooms through which a common shared schedule moves students over the course of a day, and the use of grades to motivate and assess success at internalizing the course content.

What sort of schooling system is likely to arise when the computer becomes the central technology of education? McClintock again provides a good starting point for this analysis.

Imagine a thoroughly computer-based curriculum. It will reside in a system of networked multimedia. Each student will link to it with a notebook computer. Additionally, small-group workstations will be ubiquitously available, on average one for every four students, and one per teacher. These will be high-powered systems capable of delivering quality multimedia presentations while multi-tasking complex programs in the background. The networking will be very high speed, sufficiently powerful to provide each workstation with its own stream of digitized, interactive, full- screen video and good audio. The library of materials available through the system will be extensive, consisting of a full cross- section of the culture in all its branches and varieties and effective tools to aid its study.

It is interesting to note that McClintock wrote this in 1992, well before the Internet blossomed into the vast information resource it has since become. He simply projected out from current trends and confidently predicted that at some point in the near future most of the world's information would be available over computer networks.

In the quote above, McClintock describes a computer-centric information system, but what does the education system that derives from this look like?

With the electronic system, the scope of the authoritative selection of material will jump significantly and the student will no longer be responsible for simply learning it in full. Instead the student becomes responsible for intelligently exploring it and taking from it a unique but sound and useful sampling. Formal learning thus becomes much closer to experiential learning. The student needs to become a skilled explorer, not a docile learner; the teacher becomes, not the master, but the native guide, like Vergil to Dante, interpreting, elucidating, cautioning, exhorting. Good teachers have always worked this way, but they often find themselves in tension with the system when they do. That tension will diminish with the full development of computer-based education. A different pedagogy will be at work.

What are the components of this different pedagogy?

  • A vast range of resources, available to students via their networked computers, allows for the possibility of each student exploring pathways through this information that are unique and that resonate with individual interests and learning styles. Teachers will work with students to guide individual explorations in ways that encourage visiting productive areas and avoiding pitfalls and dead ends. This resonates strongly with what Ken Robinson has been advocating in terms of helping each student discover their element.

  • With each student exploring their own unique path through the culture's networked information all students develop a specialization. With specialization, cooperation between students in a school becomes a more important motivator than competition. Since no two students are exploring the same information in the same way, the old competitive approaches of comparing how successful students have been at learning the same body of information no longer apply. Since students are being given the autonomy to explore subjects in which they are intrinsically interested, and will likely be strongly motivated to achieve greater mastery of these subjects, they will be eager to get help and feedback from both their teachers and their peers. Almost all student work will be oriented around projects, and most assessment will be based on analysis of the quality of the projects produced. The work that Dan Pink has been reporting on recently strongly supports this approach.

  • Teachers will rarely teach courses in the traditional fashion. Instead their primary responsibility will be to help guide students so that their individual learning paths productively intersect and interact with the important content, concepts and practices in the areas where the teacher has subject expertise. Some of what is considered important will be determined by the culture and some will be determined by the experiences and knowledge of the teacher. In either case it will be the student, in consultation with the faculty, who picks the learning paths and projects that will fulfill the requirements of the educational system. The EdVisions schools provide a successful working model for this approach.

How will the competition between book-based and computer-based schools play out in the future? Provided information technology continues to develop at a pace similar to that over the past thirty years, the advantages of computer-based schooling will become steadily more obvious. One can easily imagine a series of iPad like devices being developed over the coming years, with each new iteration being both more powerful and less expensive. (Or alternatively a series of steadily more powerful and less expensive netbook like devices.) In either case the number of schools with 1-to-1 programs will steadily increase. The tools and information available on the Internet will also continue to improve rapidly over the coming years. The steadily improving personal computer, combined with the steadily improving Internet, will be a formidable force for educational change.

The existing book-based school paradigm will not give up easily, nor should it. There is much in the existing model that is valuable. The advocates of the existing model can play a very important role in the development of the new system by challenging those developing the new model to incorporate the valuable elements of the existing model. Given the highly disruptive nature of the new model, there will be much resistance based -not on a valid critique of the new system- but simply on a reluctance to move away from a familiar, comfortable and seemingly safe approach to education. Schools that fully embrace the logic of computer-centric education are much more likely to be small startups on the margins of the educational system than existing schools that are functioning successfully within the book-based model. Clayton Christensen's theory of disruptive innovation provides a useful tool to understand why currently successful book-based schools are unlikely to take the lead in the shift to the new computer-centric paradigm; even though educators within them may develop and pioneer many of the approaches that are eventually fully fleshed out by the startups.

What can educators interested in moving toward a computer-based educational model do to move the process along? There are basically two viable options. One is to work within existing book-based schools and look for ways to incorporate elements of the computer-based educational model at the margins. This is the approach most of us will take, and there is room for a fair amount of experimentation as long as the experiments don't conflict with the core approaches of book-based schools. Attempts to promote non-marginal changes will be met with strong resistance and have a chance for success only with the backing of the extremely rare leader who is willing to massively disrupt his or her own organization.

The second option is to join or create new schools that embrace the computer-based model of education. Innovative and strong leaders interested in moving away from the book-based model of education are likely to find it necessary to start new schools in order to give their ideas a chance to develop. Two examples of this approach are Chris Lehmann's Science Leadership Academy and Larry Rosenstock's High Tech High. The dynamic leadership qualities of Chris and Larry come through clearly in these videos.

What role do virtual schools play in the transition from book-based schools to computer-based schools? Some, but perhaps less than I believed when I started this process. It is important to realize that online learning does not necessarily imply virtual schools. It is easy to imagine an actual school in which most of the learning is done online. It is also important to note that it is entirely possible to have virtual schools that are very much book-based in their pedagogical practices.

The development of services that connect students online with mentors and peers who are interested in the same subjects may be a productive approach for online learning. This concept needs to be developed, but it is clearly quite different from how virtual schools are currently conceived.