21st Century Schools: Bridging the Gap Between Traditional and Digital Learning Resources

Frank B. WithrowBy Frank B. Withrow

[Note: An earlier version of this article was published in Frank’s personal blog. -Editor]

Our current educational system was designed for an agrarian society where books allowed us to store and retrieve information. Before books, young people were taught through apprenticeships with master workers or scholars. Books allowed us to train and teach children in classrooms and schools with libraries of the world’s knowledge and skills. This meant that the learners had to be convened in classrooms.

With today’s digital world, the classroom is not as critical as it was in a book based learning system. Today, information stored digitally can be retrieved 24/7. Moreover lessons can originate anywhere in the world. If, for example, I want to study Chinese, I can have lessons from China delivered via my computer and I can practice my Chinese via SKYPE with two-way audio-visual conversations with a native speaker.

Distant learning allows us to deliver high quality lessons to the most remote parts of the world as was demonstrated by the Star Schools Program. Early childhood education is now delivered via Sesame Street to 140 countries around the world. This does not mean that we no longer need school buildings or human teachers. It means that those classrooms will be organized differently and that the teachers will be mentors that guide teams of learners as they solve problems and produce projects.

Assessment of a learner’s progress will be based upon (1) projects completed, (2) effectiveness in team work, and (3) creativity. Schools will be open year round. Students will work in teams with clear individual learning plans that define their goals and objectives. Certain skills and background will be tailor made to meet individual needs. That is, sufficient literacy and mathematics skills will be expected, and required remedial work will be provided on an individual basis until basic proficiency is achieved.

Schools will enter into agreements with research and business concerns that can foster interactions with learners. For example, a student interested in weather forecasting may work with NASA or the weather bureau to explore climate change. A student may work with a team at an aerospace industry to study new space drives. Such industry interactions with schools can be carried out across a range of subjects. The school and center will become a working partnership.

We must learn to administer this complex array of learning options so that every child is able to meet his or her potential. This requires a new structure of computer managed learning experiences. Schools should operate year round, be open from 7 in the morning to 7 in the evening, and be digitally accessible 24/7.

Politicians and the general public are not interested in creating a totally modern year round digital education system because it will (1) cost more and (2) tear down the myths of traditional education achievement. Consequently we remain prisoners of time bound by an agrarian society’s model of schools.

There are examples of virtual high schools where a learner might take a French literature class on line from France, an art class from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a civics class from the US Congress, and advanced placement mathematics courses from NASA astronauts. The same student might also play the oboe in his school’s symphony orchestra, be a player on his school’s basketball team, and be an actor in the school’s drama club.

The major challenge to such a system is administrative management of diverse learning resources and procedures for crediting the learner with achievement in multiple learning environments. We have the elements of such systems in place. So far we have lacked the will to implement them on a widespread basis. The federal Star Schools distance learning program has demonstrated the effectiveness of distance learning systems. Virtual high schools in Florida and other states demonstrate that high quality e-learning content can be delivered to schools and homes. Home schooling parents and children have demonstrated the effectiveness of digital based learning systems. Lemon Grove, California, Irving, Texas, the state of Maine and many others have demonstrated the viability of one-on-one laptop educational resources that provide 24/7 learning experiences. These programs are successful. However, they require schools and communities to develop new and different models of education. No longer is learning controlled by the school and teacher, or for that matter the school board. Learning in the digital age requires a new organization within the community and within the professional ranks.

The challenge is how to effectively bridge the gap between traditional schools and digital learning resources. We know that students can learn to play the oboe individually, but without participating in a band or orchestra they never realize the full value of playing such an instrument. The challenge is how to take advantage of both worlds. Ultimately, the solution is in how to ensure credit for non-classroom learning experiences. If I learn to play the oboe and can participate in the school orchestra, I will have demonstrated my competence in this area of learning. If for a science fair I can develop a solar-based car that actually works, I demonstrate my knowledge of physics and some mathematics.

If we are to leave no child behind, then we must provide every child with modern up to date school facilities and technology. The inequities of schools today are striking in that many learners are forced to attend classes in 100-year-old buildings without modern digital equipment and where their understanding of a waterfall is the water pouring in through the roof and cascading down the stairwell in thunderstorms. Others attend schools that are marvelous places filled with modern digital equipment and environmentally sound green school buildings.

We must throw off the bondage of time and myths and redesign our schools to operate at least twelve hours daily and year round. This does not mean that children will attend twelve hours each day, but that schools will be open and different children will have different schedules based upon their personal and family needs. Schools will operate so that there are no longer latchkey kids. Vacations will be available year round and meet the individual needs of families. Every child will have an individual learning plan that is designed around his or her learning needs. Progress reports that provide information on how learners are meeting their objectives will be made available to parents and learners. Built into e-learning lessons will be feedback to instantly allow learners to understand how they are progressing on specific tasks. In addition, smart assessment information will be fed back to students. For example, if they are trying to solve mapping problem and do not understand latitude and longitude, the program will refer them to appropriate lessons. After the lessons, they are returned to the original problem.

In a modern digital world we need a new model for learning in a flexible education system. Learners will not be measured upon time sitting at a desk, but in actual demonstrated accomplishments. We know how, but we just lack the will to radically change the schoolhouse doors. For example, we have known for many years that during summer vacations there is a significant drop in knowledge that has to be taught again at the first of the next school year. When I call for a new year round school schedule, I am not thinking of kids sitting in traditional classrooms in old style schools. Instead, I am thinking of year round alternative-learning environments that may even include residential camp settings, experiences in laboratories, or work experiences.

Learning requires certain foundation skills and knowledge. To be a learner one must master literacy and have a strong mathematics foundation. We must examine and reform how these skills are achieved. If English orthography is a hindrance, we have the digital ability to reform spelling so that there is a more perfect relationship between phonetics and spelling. Have you ever wondered why English is the only language where there are spelling bees? It is because English is a semiphonetic language with many nonphonetic spellings. This means that spelling in English requires memorization rather than phonetic logic.

Finland often scores number one on international tests. Finnish has an almost one to one phoneme letter representation. Consequently it takes teachers only about a year to teach reading. Thus they can devote more time to content. English, on the other hand, has some of the most non-phonetic phoneme letter combinations. The 26 letters of the Roman alphabet are combined in 196 ways to represent the 44 sounds of English. A rational solution would be massive spelling reform, but that might obsolete thousands of millions of written books. Sir James Pitman tried to solve this problem with an Initial Teaching Alphabet. On average, English speaking countries take 3 to 4 years to teach reading. The Cherokee nation, with a phonetic alphabet, taught reading in six months. With today’s computer power we could use Sir James Pitman’s concept of an Initial Teaching Alphabet. Ebooks could go back and forth from ITA to traditional English spelling.

All schools, whether preschools or graduate schools, are a public good and therefore should be supported and operated by tax dollars. Education is the foundation for the USA’s economic and scientific excellence. When we destroy our base of excellence we are destroying our standard of living and our leadership in the world. While we need some local control in day-to-day administration, we need a national system of standards and excellence in all our schools. The GI Bill of Rights after World War II was the most significant economic and scientific development of all time. It created a generation of educated young people.

We fall short of our mission if we fail to include all children in our universal learning systems. The United States of America pioneered the concept of universal education for all children. In the late 1800s and early 1900s we opened a new high school almost every day across this nation. Horace Mann established that public schools benefit all people within a society; therefore all people should share in the costs of public education. Not only has the USA created a great K-12 education system, we developed under the federal land grant college program a network of outstanding higher education opportunities for all that can qualify. Too often we separate K-12 from higher education but in reality the system is one from preschool to graduate school.

The struggle for universal education has not been easy. Each generation has had to fight for the right to enter the schoolhouse door. For years many children of color were provided separate and unequal educations. It was not until 1954 that the Supreme Court in its most important decision unanimously struck down segregated schools. Unfortunately, there are those who still fight this decision and send their children to charter, church, or private schools.

We do not like to admit our racial biases, but they remain. Unfortunately sectional rivalries and false priorities still resonate with some in this great country. Unfortunately, there are those today that would eliminate our great public school system and replace it with an elite private system. Such ideas are often based upon the belief that marketplace principles will force competition, making all schools better. This logic is flawed.

The principles in NCLB are not new but just the latest effort in a long line of federal education programs designed to open the doors of public schools to all learners. While NCLB is worthy, its administration has unleashed a mad search for assessment practices. It assumes that the objective of education is the passing of factoid based achievement tests without understanding the limitations of such tests. Schools are unfortunately becoming testing factories that emphasize the ability to recall facts rather than authentic learning.

Critics have challenged NCLB managers with respect to assessment to no avail. The political infrastructure is convinced that good scores on such tests are the only real measures of achievement. In a modern era of digital tools, a much more accurate measure is portfolios of students’ works on project based activities. Quality assessment programs by their nature cost more than we are willing to invest. The Department of Defense has understood that real tests of proficiency mean that if you are training pilots to land on the deck of an aircraft carrier they must demonstrate landing and taking off from the deck of a carrier. They have simulators that allow practice until the trainee is proficient enough to actually land and take off from the deck of a real carrier. We have not as yet been able to design assessment of school children as effectively as we have Navy pilots. However, competing in science fairs, civics contests, and art festivals are more meaningful examples of student achievement than test scores.

To modernize the American public school system, we must adopt a more flexible approach, and changes I am suggesting in this article include the need to:

  1. Create learner centric schools.
  2. Discard the obsolete school calendar and operate schools year round with alternate time and learning experiences.
  3. Create digital libraries of learning experiences.
  4. Establish individual learning plans for all students.
  5. Provide 24/7 access to digital learning resources.
  6. Create authentic project based assessment systems.
  7. Expect students to work on projects in actual and virtual teams.
  8. Bring the community, that is, the home, business, and governments, into the learning process.
  9. Establish community mentors for learners.
  10. Provide recognition and rewards for outstanding work.
  11. Provide all the technical and human resources to make the new school workable.
  12. Consider schools free and available from preschool to graduate school.
  13. Allow students to remain in the schools as long as they are progressing satisfactorily.
  14. Allow students, at any age, to return to school.

3 Responses

  1. Thank you for this article. Just a comment on the part about spelling:

    French is at least as rotten as English in that. We don’t have “spelling bees” but we have dictation competitions across the whole “francophonie”. There was a 1/8-hearted attempt at revising French spelling in 1990, ca. A revision French primary school teachers had been demanding for over a century. It didn’t even cover grammatical spelling, when grammatical endings sound the same but are written differently (a problem you don’t have in English, btw). And it was quickly buried by the Académie Française anyway, even though it was represented in the commission who produced the reform.

    In 1974, after the fall of the colonels’ dictatorship there was an efficient reform of Greek spelling. But it was a compromise: the [i] sound is still spelled 6 different ways, but at least they simplified the accents and got rid of the “spirits” on initial vowels.

    However, aren’t these non phonetic absurdities a hindrance for learning to write correctly by hand, rather than for learning to read?

    My daughter learned to read in Italian because we lived in Italy when she was small, and by analogy in French too. I don’t think I spent more than one hour all in all explaining odd French written forms to her.

    Writing is another matter. But even there, if a child has read a lot for pleasure, it’s not such an issue, especially with the present spell-checkers that deal with lexical spelling: the main thing to learn is the grammatical rules.

    Of course, using a spell-checker correctly must be learned (just as with dictionaries). Some schools deactivate spell-checkers on the spurious ground that they encourage laziness. That’s silly: employers nowadays expect that employees know how to use a spell-checker properly. And kids quickly understand that learning how to write a basic number of words saves time.

    So rather than making kids go through a different, simplified, spelling system first, would it not make more sense to make them use spell-checkers until they know how to?

  2. English spelling stinks! British and American spellings are even different. Is the edge of the road a kerb or a curb?

    When I was quite young, I ran into a neat short essay that shows how trivial it would be to transform English into a rationally spelled language. I guess the copyright has expired because I found it on the web here: http://english-zone.com/index.php?page=1114&pid=81.

    The title is Meihem in ce Klasrum. If you attempt read its last line before starting the essay, you’ll be surprised that you can read it readily when you complete the essay. The experience of reading that essay is one that I have never forgotten.

    I am not sanguine regarding changing spelling, except to make it more random and worse because of decreasing literacy these days. After all, the U.S. has not even yet adopted SI units, which are nearly universal throughout the world. We persist in using units based on the size of some old English king or other. What nonsense!

    It amazes me that we went to decimal currency right away while Britain still had 12 pence to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound, but we could not wean ourselves from ounces, pints, pottles (not used very much any more), quarts, gallons, et al. — a binary volume system.

    What has all this to do with educational technology. Not much, except that filling your head with how many ounces in a quart or inches in a foot wastes time and mental energy that could better be directed elsewhere.

    But then, as a scientist, SI units are what I use in my work and seem quite natural to me.

  3. Dr. Withrow had delivered quite a laundry list of ways to improve education. He includes student-centered learning. But, he also says, “Assessment of a learner’s progress will be based upon (1) projects completed, (2) effectiveness in team work, and (3) creativity.”

    I am going to take exception to some of the things he said — but do not wish people to think that I’m throwing out all of his ideas, many of which can be found in the writing of quite a few education experts.

    Schools should be open for more days per year, although breaks are important to learning too. Resources should be available 24/7, or are they rapidly becoming that way anyway.

    Education should truly be universal and continue as long as learning does. I could go on and second a great many more ideas Dr. Withrow wrote.

    Instead, I’ll make things more interesting by challenging a couple.

    I believe that overemphasis on projects is just a bad as underemphasis. You may even find a lack of consensus on what a “project” is. There seems to be some confusion regarding the difference between working on a project and on a problem or whether the difference is even important. Being presented with a “problem” or issue to consider is an excellent means for stimulating thinking as opposed to requiring memorization alone. Nevertheless, I have copies of a series of “Project-Based” science textbooks that do the opposite. I find little science in them, and what I do find is just stating of results (or “facts”). You may argue that it’s not the real thing, not true project-based learning, but that misses the essential fact that many who teach accept this incorrect approach as the real thing.

    Measuring based on teamwork goes against student-centered learning. What if I, as a student, prefer to work alone? Why should you, as a teacher, force team learning down my throat? I made it all of the way from kindergarten to a PhD without ever voluntarily joining any learning group. I did not have a problem in my working life dealing with project groups. I hired people for projects. I ran large groups. I managed as many as a dozen projects simultaneously.

    My point here is to be careful what you wish for. You may get it. You might be suppressing an Einstein or Newton or Galileo in the making by insisting on team learning and projects — and showing disrespect for alternative learning styles by giving the potentially brightest person in the room a failing grade. What you measure determines what you get.

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