Technology guru and University of West Georgia professor Jason B. Huett said a frontier teacher from a century ago popped into today’s modern era would be agape at the changes she saw every place but one — the classroom.
“When she walked into a school, she would immediately know what this is, and she could pretty much swap her prairie dress for a pants suit and go right to work,” said Huett, West Georgia’s associate dean of online development and USG eCore, a multi-institution collaborative where college students can take classes online.
Huett is among the those urging schools to use technology to make schools more relevant, accessible and flexible and less like a prison sentence.
School districts are heeding that advice — to a point.
For example, DeKalb County Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson announced this week that more than 8,200 students at seven middle schools will receive netbooks in the fall loaded with all their textbooks.
“And by August of 2o14, every student — all middle schools and all high schools — will have their own device,” she said. Every teacher will be getting a laptop.
Even better, all 138 DeKalb schools will be wireless by August, she said. Now, only 38 percent of the district is wireless.
“The fact is that our students are digital natives and active learners,” said Atkinson, speaking at a DeKalb Chamber of Commerce luncheon. “The fact is, they are not limited to the classroom. The fact is, they use the laptop and not the pencil. The fact is … they can’t wait for us to catch up to their style of learning, nor should they have to.”
But are schools catching up fast enough to the realities of a world where today’s young learner will have 10 to 14 jobs by age 38?
Students will have to be flexible and adaptable to thrive in this new marketplace. Huett said, “One of the new rules: If you can be out outsourced, you will be outsourced. Are you essential?”
Huett urges a deeper rethinking of how schools function, including the entrenched notion that learning has to be delivered 180 days a year between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Education can no longer be “a cage for every age where we lock students into this planned track,” he said.
Speaking at a Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education forum earlier this year, Huett explained why he fled k-12 education after five years to teach in college: “It felt like I was beating my head into a brick wall. I don’t like to teach people who don’t want to learn.” (Watch video of his talk here.)
He blames a factory model that puts all students on a conveyor belt set to medium speed.
“And the ones that could move ahead faster, we just tell them tough luck. You need to stay on this conveyor belt at medium speed,” Huett said. “And if you are too slow on that conveyor belt, we will take you off, retool you a bit and start you back up at the beginning. We are going to keep running you through this mass-produced system where discipline and order are emphasized above all else.”
To illustrate his point about the tedium of school, Huett shared his favorite student evaluation of a course: “If I had one hour to live, I’d spend it in this class because it feels like an eternity.”
That evaluation resonates because extreme boredom drove Huett to drop out of high school.
“I didn’t stay out for long, mostly because my mother was waking me up every morning by dumping ice cold water on me and telling me to go find a job,” he said. “I was bored to death. When I left school, I honestly did so because I really couldn’t fit in that environment. I was the kind of person who would rather have a fork stuck in my eye than sit for eight hours and listen to someone talk at me.”
Huett said schools have to change because their role has changed. Schools no longer have a monopoly on information. Kids can reach into their pockets, pull out their smart phones and get multiple lifetimes of information. Students need schools to teach them how to critically process all that information, he said.
But Huett cautions educators to avoid the two extremes — online education is going to fix everything or it’s going to ruin everything. “Real reform is almost always to be found in the middle,” he said.
And target reform where it matters. “The meat of real educational reform almost always occurs between the interaction of teacher and student,” he said. “If it isn’t clearly examining and improving that relationship, it probably isn’t going to work.”
–from Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog