When students wake up in the late 2030s, they won't have to take many steps to go to "class." School subjects will be right at their fingertips via a personal device or in their field of vision in the form of a heads-up display from an ocular implant. A night's worth of learning material will have stacked up for them to ponder, along with assignments from a teacher, notes from fellow students on cooperative projects and maybe even an interactive history lesson.
Education will be 24/7. And technology won't just facilitate remote learning. When kids do go to a school building, maybe once or twice a week, giant 3-D screens will allow them to interact with students and teachers worldwide.
Sound far-fetched? Consider how far we've come in 25 years.
In the mid-1980s, the most "plugged-in" classroom had a small Apple IIe computer in the corner, a TV with a VCR and maybe a player for 12-inch laserdiscs with "interactive" programs. Today, schools that have high-tech equipment boast truly interactive Smart Boards, compact laptops, multimedia projectors and wireless Internet access.
So, sure, it's feasible. The technological seeds for our futuristic scenario have been planted in the form of simpler devices that we already use. The obstacles keeping them from taking root in tomorrow's classrooms include inadequate school funding and a slow-to-change education system that some say needs to be reformed.
"The biggest thing holding back the future of the classroom is the future of the classroom," said Arthur Harkins, a professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in technology and education. "It's an obsolete question."
For example, he said, students could learn around the clock if schools simply embraced the handheld devices that kids already have. Instead, most schools today confiscate or ban those devices because they are distractions or could be used for cheating.
"Technology is becoming more portable, personalized and inexpensive," Harkins said. "Everything we know about schools is pretty much the opposite direction."
Loss of human contact
But even if technology allows education to become less classroom-centered, school buildings will still be needed, Harkins said. St. Paul futurist Joel Barker agrees.
"The socialization of human beings requires them to be in physical contact for at least X number of hours per week," Barker said.
Wendy Templin knows that firsthand. The principal of Blackduck Schools in Blackduck, Minn., which won the 2009 Classroom of the Future Technology Grant from Minneapolis-based Tierney Brothers, says her district has seen some drawbacks with remote learning.
"Our online students have found the classes to be sterile and dry," she said. "They have expressed the loss of human contact with their teachers and peers as a negative aspect of this type of course. Social interaction and relationship-building is lost as pure technology-based courses isolate you from others. Courses in music, art, agriculture, wood shop, culinary, etc. cannot be taught by a computer course."
But a growing reliance on personal technology will force some changes, Harkins and Barker said:
• Schools will be much smaller and highly local.
• Activities will be not only learning-based but innovation- and creativity-based, too.
• Interscholastic athletics will be replaced by community-based sports.
• There will be lots of far-ranging physical travel for academic purposes.
• Community volunteerism -- picking up neighborhoods, painting houses for seniors, running errands for the disabled -- will become a key component of education.
Jamie Bullock, a business teacher at Forest Lake High School who won the 2006 Classroom of the Future grant, sees schools becoming less necessary as students progress through grade levels. Elementary-level kids, for example, might need a traditional classroom setting with a teacher present most days, she said, but high school students could rely more on handheld devices and Web-based channels to facilitate remote learning.
"Accountability will be the key factor in a student's success," Bullock said.
The ABCs vs. the EFGs
Barker pointed out that with more tech-savvy learning, the curriculum will have to change, too. He and his wife funded a five-year experiment in Chattanooga, Tenn., to create a 21st-century curriculum founded not just on learning the ABCs, but also the "EFGs": Eco ed ("How do we interact with the planet?"), Futures ed ("How do I shape my future?"), and Global ed ("What is my relationship with other human beings?").
Each student had to learn a 500-word vocabulary in six languages and, in sixth grade, choose one in which to be fluent, including cultural knowledge. Physical fitness focused on lifelong sports such as tennis and golf, not team activities. Grade levels were kindergarten "through competence" -- that is, when students accomplished all of the program's lofty goals, they graduated.
In lock step with those changes could be technology that seems mind-blowing now. Harkins said remote learning could include a heads-up display, maybe from an iris implant, a thin-film pair of glasses or maybe an artificial lens that goes over the eye. Video and other forms of information could appear in the student's vision field just by pushing a button or thinking about it.
"When the first country begins to do this, when the first country begins to involve kids in the creation of new technologies, that country is going to blow the rest of the world away in terms of their human capital development and application," Harkins said.
Partnering with kids
Today, that country is South Korea, which is widely regarded as the world's most plugged-in society. It's "closely followed by a couple of other places, but not by us," he said.
"We're so far behind from where we should be right now that it almost makes one break into laughter -- somewhat hysterical laughter, I'm afraid," Harkins added. "We're still locked into creating kids for the 1950s, '60s and '70s. We're not projecting and creating kids for the 2020s, 2030s and 2040s. ... The idea of partnering between adults and kids to create the present and the future and reassess the past in the process is a huge idea just waiting for American public education to pick up on."
Perhaps one needs to look no further than the kids of today to have hope for the future of technology and the school kids of tomorrow.
When Bullock first learned she was getting a Smart Board in her classroom a few years ago, she excitedly told friends and family that she would soon be trained to use the interactive, multimedia, Web-connected white board.
Her 8-year-old godson pleaded in reply, "Oh, can I show you how to use it?"