Today’s classrooms are being transformed into dynamic, media-rich learning spaces that provide true collaborative experiences by connecting students to the wider world.
IF YOU LOOK AT CLASSROOMS OF THE 19th and early 20th centuries, you see square rooms with desks facing the front so all eyes can be trained on the teacher. Then came the 1970s, and that tumultuous decade brought experimental iterations of a modern school with exploratory centers and lofts built into classrooms, as well as carpets, pillows and tables instead of regimented lines of desks.
The 1980s ushered in the first computers, typically set up in a small lab or library, separated from the classroom. Computer-enhanced learning happened where the technology sat; analog learning happened everywhere else.
As technology becomes even more ubiquitous and diverse, it’s transforming classrooms into flexible, media-rich learning spaces. A 21st-century classroom, or learning space, allows for traditional models of learning—sometimes called “sage on the stage”—as well as enabling new models for teaching—sometimes referred to as “guides on the sides.”
In a redefinition of the multipurpose room, classrooms designed in this century lend themselves to true collaborative experiences. Add wireless technology to the environment, and classrooms become dynamic, living networks connecting students to the wider world.
The modernized, digitized classroom encourages greater collaboration and exploration—both among students alone and among students and their teachers. A class on natural sciences, for example, could take place on the playground where students could observe live bugs as easily as they could download them on the Internet.
Visions of Tomorrow
To get a glimpse of what a 21st-century classroom might look like—and what students might do in a technology-infused learning environment—I asked some educational technology experts to tell me their vision of tomorrow’s classrooms.
Mark Gura, a member of the Regional Educational Technology Center staff at Fordham University in New York and a former director of instructional technology for New York City, offers an interesting perspective on how learning might take place in a technology-rich classroom. He describes the future classroom as a digital campfire.
“At a real campfire, the participants gather round the fire, a source of inspiration,” Gura explains. “That’s what we want the 21st-century class to be. Substitute tech devices for the woodburning fire, and imagine a class where the teacher passes a Tablet PC to students who wish to take their turn guiding the group discussion.”
In such a setting, Gura’s students would input ideas or record the group’s ideas as they spontaneously emerged. Students would pass the Tablet PC from hand to hand. The group’s work would be added to the classroom network and, using a liquid crystal display projector, it could be thrown up on the wall as a large, enveloping image.
The digital campfire creates a group experience. It does not cause people to learn in isolation, as critics of classroom technology argue. This type of learning blends the best of what education can provide: The need for guided intellect and the preparation to apply what one knows to a world of work that’s driven by technology and collaboration.
Anita Givens, director of educational technology for the Texas Education Agency in Austin, also envisions a collaborative learning environment. “I see a room where students are working individually and in groups with a wide variety of technology tools, as well as traditional educational resources,” says Givens. “The teacher is engaged with students and moves from group to group, listening, offering suggestions and interacting with their learning.”
Student activities focus on problem-solving and higher-order thinking skills. These activities invite students to access and evaluate different types of information, construct and test solutions in a comprehensive virtual environment, and make modifications as indicated by the interim results.
New Learning Environments
For a number of years, school districts and states have been encouraging integration of technology into the classroom, but many teachers don’t have a real sense of what that might look like. Nevertheless, the ideas expressed by Gura and Givens are now taking shape in modern classrooms throughout the country.
For example, this fall, the Georgia Department of Education decided to transform three of its 13 Ed Tech Centers into 21st-century learning centers. The Ed Tech Centers bring teachers together in a classroom to experiment with new equipment and to design their own classroom.
The focus in the learning centers is on helping teachers teach differently, which includes—but is not limited to—the use of technology.
“Pedagogy has been the jumping off point for our project,” says Kim Quinn, director of instructional technology for Georgia’s Department of Education. “Before you start talking about the hardware and software, you have to consider content, and you have to consider the teacher, who is the main component of the classroom.”
In 1999, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the University of Missouri System launched a program called Enhancing Missouri’s Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies. The eMINTS project created 850 specialized classrooms in grades three through eight, engaging more than 20,000 children and teachers.
An eMINTS classroom includes a teacher’s notebook PC and workstation computer, an interactive whiteboard and projector, a digital camera and scanner, printers, software and one Internet-connected computer for every two students.
A teacher survey that was part of the eMINTS program showed that by the spring of 2001, eMINTS teachers were doing more with computers, felt more skilled using them and utilized computers more frequently in their work. Teachers also felt that they were more effective educators, as indicated by the overall increase in the average score on the Missouri School Improvement Program’s instructional efficacy scale.
Research shows that students in eMINTS classrooms performed better on statewide tests than students in non-eMINTS classrooms. According to eMINTS Director Monica Beglau, an analysis of Missouri Assessment Program scores for students in the spring of 2001 showed that, on average, students in eMINTS classes scored higher in every subject area than students who were not in eMINTS classrooms.
In addition, in every subject area, the average eMINTS student scored higher than the statewide student average, which included all students—both eMINTs and non-eMINTS.
It’s very clear that 21st-century classrooms will pull together everything—effective teaching with the transparent use of technology—to create learning environments in which students can master the skills they will need to create a prosperous 21st-century world.
Marina Leight is the director of the Center for Digital Education in Folsom, Calif. The center works to support the deployment of digital solutions in schools and colleges and to improve the educational experience for students of all ages.
eMINTS Makes a Difference
Data from 39 Missouri schools, each with at least one eMINTS (Enhancing Missouri’s Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies) third- and/or fourth-grade classroom, show that students in eMINTS technology-enriched classrooms improved their performance on the standardized Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) tests.
Communication Arts MAP test results:
Proficiency Rating: Advanced
Non-eMINTS Students (659 students): 0.8%
eMINTS Students (671 students): 1.8%
Proficiency Rating: Proficient
Non-eMINTS Students (659 students): 32.0%
eMINTS Students (671 students): 35.2%
Proficiency Rating: Nearing proficient
Non-eMINTS Students (659 students): 37.8%
eMINTS Students (671 students): 40.5%
Proficiency Rating: Progressing
Non-eMINTS Students (659 students): 22.3%
eMINTS Students (671 students): 18.0%
Proficiency Rating: Level 1
Non-eMINTS Students (659 students): 7.1%
eMINTS Students (671 students): 4.5%
Results were statistically significant for communication arts and mathematics, but not for science. Results were similar when comparing eMINTS students to all students statewide (both eMINTS and non-eMINTS).
Source: Analysis of 2003 MAP Results for eMINTS Students, May 20, 2004