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SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – So here we are on an official snow day. If your house is a normal one, it’s 11Am and your kids are probably either still asleep, or already at Ward hill skiing. Of course, I woke mine up at 9 to tell them the great news that they had an extra day to study for midterms, but then we all know I’m a nut.
It lead me to speculate though on the simple fact that these days are such a waste, and that with our 180 day school year, in comparison to the 240 day year in other nations, we should be working towards a way to at least maximize our children’s learning opportunities. Tonight, a group of parents will be meeting at the library for the first public meeting of their new “Shrewsbury Advocates” group, which, among it’s many other core objectives, is involved in ensuring that our students get a world class education. The answers to that are clearly complex, to say the least, and many of the objectives will require an entirely new mindset to solve.
One thing that I do know, is that wherever you may be on a host of various issues, you will concur with me that the educational system of the future will look much, much different than it does today. If you don’t believe me, take a look at what a classroom was like 30 years ago, when we all somehow survived without the internet. Who can remember going to the library to look in the encyclopedia, because of course, those were reference books and couldn’t be removed. In the last thirty years, we have moved from that mechanism, which at the time we thought was actually very advanced, to the current system whereby my son can access on his iPad, in the car on our way to baseball practice, virtually every written work every published since the dawn of Gutenberg’s first printing press. There is seemingly nothing that we cannot do today with technology, and to see where we are now, even compared to 5 years ago, is mind boggling.
The question I pose is where will be be twenty or thirty years from now, as most of our grandchildren are in school. By then, I speculate that at the high school level, the model of a single teacher sitting in a room with 25 students, delivering the same lesson six times a day, five days a week, and calling off learning due to snow, will seem as antiquated as that set of encyclopedias and little dewey decimal cards. By that time, we will find that while the education at younger grades may look similar, our upper levels will be taught using a far different method, and having technology as an integral part of the model. That single teacher may very well be delivering a lecture on the rules of grammar, or the periodic table of elements, but be speaking to an empty classroom or lecture hall, into a camera streaming the lecture live not only to their students in Shrewsbury, but perhaps to a consortium of students from around the state or for that matter, around the world. Much as some towns share a building inspector, or a health department, you may see a collaborative of towns sharing a high school mathematics department, delivering high quality streaming lectures to hundreds of students at a time, and then delivering one-on-one assistance as needed to students, again in a virtual setting.
On a snow day in the year 2043, students would wake up at the appointed time, and log right into class, and sitting at their home work station, they would watch the days lesson without missing a beat. I was chatting with someone the other day who’s son has been out of school for over a week with an illness, and has missed some really critical time for a high school freshman, the week before midterms. In the future, they wouldn’t miss a beat, watching class from their bed, and interacting as best as they can, with the teachers and fellow students.
How radical and far fetched is all of this? Well, would it shock you to know that we are already doing it? Yes, this system has been in place for several years in many high schools, and even longer in colleges. Even here in Shrewsbury, we have students taking classes in a strictly on-line system, using any number of methods, from “Virtual High School,” offered at SHS, or through dual enrollment at colleges from UMASS to Harvard, where they attend classes twice a week – online – watching live or pre-recorded streams of lectures, and even interacting in class via a chat room function. Recently, high quality schools like Stanford, MIT and Harvard, have collaborated on something called Education X, which is already allowing over 100,000 people to take free, online courses, through their university systems. Yes, this is nothing nearly as radical as you might think, and rather than it being 30 years into the future, it may be as few as 5 or 10.
That does NOT mean that teachers will be obsolete, and in fact far from it. We will always need high quality teachers, with a passion for what they do. What it means, however, is that we will be changing to a more efficient model of service delivery, reducing costs, and maximizing efficiency in the process. Much as the post office is looking at reducing it’s losses by eliminating Saturday delivery, schools could, in fact, reduce costs substantially by going to a thirty day LONGER school year, but having attendance in the building itself reduced to only 3 or 4 days a week, with the other days being virtual. Just the reduction in bussing costs alone would pay for dozens of additional teachers, enabling a huge reduction in class sizes at the lower levels where it is so much more critical.
The key point I want to leave you with is that the leveraging of technology to completely revolutionize our system of learning is not an “if,” but rather a “when.” Perhaps I’m wrong, and it won’t happen for thirty years, or perhaps I’m right, and this years budget cycle in town like Shrewsbury will see an increase in online learning systems, but one way or another, it will happen, and this would be a great time to begin thinking about it all, and deciding whether we in Shrewsbury ultimately want to be a leader in that effort or just a follower.