Head for the Edge, February 1998
I hate to admit it, but we have some teachers here in Minnesota who’ve become cynical about educational change. No, really, they have. In fairness, the cynicism may be justifiable. Trends, philosophies, and programs seem to come about with a natural rhythm every two or three years. In many districts, especially those that are “economically challenged,” new methodology is usually heavily promoted, poorly supported, and quickly abandoned.
It is extremely discouraging to work diligently and faithfully toward change only to have any support it pulled away by a new administrator, a school board flip-flop, or shifting political wind, often long before any expected desirable impact can occur. In many a seasoned teacher an internal dialog starts the minute the next “best-thing-since-sliced–bread” change is proposed:
“Let’s see. I invested heavily in my own time and took some real professional risks the last time a change was brought into the district. I didn’t get any reward or recognition for doing so. There wasn’t much training or encouragement. Nobody cares anymore if I know the elements of quality, use cooperative groups, or buy into outcomes. This round I think I’ll just wait’em out. This too shall pass.”Sound familiar? You mean it’s not just Minnesota that has cynical teachers?
Despite past efforts at transforming the school or classroom, I believe most teachers can be safely assured that technology won’t be a passing fad. It is one area of educational training worth investing in because it will be around for quite some time. Why? Because technology will not be going away any time soon in the rest of society. We like what it can do for us too much.
One of the most attractive things technology has been doing lately is what the pundits call “mass customization.” For most of this century mass production has allowed the majority of us to own things and purchase services economically. Our mass-produced hamburgers, automobiles, and blue jeans are relatively cheap. But the trade-off has been a lack of choice. Henry Ford summarized the idea nicely saying, “You can have any color car you want so long as it is black.” The hand-tailored, the custom-made, and the personalized were primarily for the wealthy. So too with “customized” education. Private schools, tutors, and specialized curriculum were not for most of us - or our children.
But technology is changing this. My last computer was “custom-made” for me after I placed the order for it. The Levi’s store will take my wife’s measurements and send them to a computer which will “tailor-make” her blue jeans. I can order the exact car I want over the Internet. My electronic “personalized” reader’s advisor at the amazon.com on-line bookstore sends me e-mail when new books by my favorite authors are published, and through PointCast I get only the news about areas that interest me. Mass customization means using technology to affordably offer specialized services and products.
So what does this have to do with school? Our district recently completed its latest strategic plan. One of the strongest recommendations that came from that planning group of parents, teachers, administrators, and community members was that all students would have an individualized learning plan – in effect, a customized education.
How can technology be used to provide a “tailor-made” experience for every student? We are starting to see some early incarnations such as:
- Integrated learning systems already assess, monitor, and give practice in basic skill and content areas to many students. As today’s primitive, expensive, and ineffectual products mature, they will begin to take advantage of increased memory, processing speed, and improved artificial intelligences, and quite possibly become Everychild’s personal tutor.
- Database-managed learning plans may make creating a unique, cooperatively planned course of study for all children possible. Electronically maintained and analyzed data about a child’s interests, abilities and learning styles can be combined with parental requests and beliefs, and can then be used to suggest content and teaching approaches. Every child will become a special needs child because, of course, every child is.
- Distance learning opportunities, whether delivered on the Internet or through interactive television, will open doors for all students to the finest minds and resources in the world. No longer will students be restricted to learning opportunities that are geographically proximate. Right now I can study with Internet pioneer Adam Engst or graphic designer Robin Williams through DigitalThink <http://www.digitalthink.com/>, a collection of commercial on-line courses. (And just think of the possibilities for teachers with specialized areas of expertise. Now their knowledge and insights can be shared with students throughout the world.)