Jul 05 2013

ISTE 2013: Do Students Need Schools to Learn?

A look at how digital and mobile technology are forcing educators to reexamine brick-and-mortar schools.

As our society moves toward always-on connectivity, combined with the continued proliferation of mobile devices, new questions emerge about the best way to do school. Does the place of learning really matter? And if it does, are schools prepared to defend the need for brick-and-mortar institutions in today's digital economy?

A conversation with Cameron Evans, chief technology officer for Microsoft Education, turned from bring your own device (BYOD) to the controversial topic of school choice faster than you can post a tweet.

"Public education has to be very careful with bring your own device as a strategy," warns Evans.

"Whether it's BYOD or a one-to-one initiative where schools are providing the equity access themselves, the biggest focus has to be on, 'Does the place of learning matter?'" Evans says. "Not, 'Do the devices, technology and infrastructure matter,' but 'Do I physically need to be here? And if I physically need to be here in order for learning to occur, for my curiosity to grow, for my creativity to flourish, what is it about this place that is better than me going to school online? Or at home? Or to a charter school?'"

Going Beyond BYOD

Evans believes that competition in education will go beyond BYOD or one-to-one. It will be centered on this question: Does the fact that this building exists mean that I have to be here to get a world class, competitive education?

"If we can't make place important in this new digital economy, then students will use these bring your own devices to go anywhere they can to get the knowledge that already exists," Evans says.

Hairs on the back of the necks of district officials, principals and teachers may be raised at this point; the discussion of BYOD gets personal very quickly. It's one thing to be a one-to-one or BYOD school, but the question remains: Is your organization’s use of these tools better than alternative forms of learning?

"Everything that is controversial about education comes to the fore in this context. It's quietly being pushed by this whole notion of BYOD," Evans says.

What Is the True Value of Schools?

In this digital age, schools need to prove their worth to families. "Who cares if you offer one-to-one or allow my child to bring her mobile phone or tablet to class," one parent may inquire. "My child has those devices already! What can you offer my child that she can't already get on the Internet?"

To this, Evans says, "Ultimately, what public education has in particular, beyond other types and forms of education, is people. And the value of those people needs to be expressed in richer, more meaningful ways. You have to now make place and relationship something that not only engages me physically while I'm here, but also creates value after I leave and continues to echo through my lifelong, life-wide, life-deep learning aspects.

"You can't just air-drop this stuff into schools and expect change," Evans says, chuckling as he admits to stealing the quote from his colleague, Anthony Salcito, Microsoft's global vice president for education. "What I'm talking about is holistic, systemic reform, and that's going to be prompted by BYOD, more so than people even imagine.”

I have no doubt that one day, in the not-too-distant future, mobile devices and always-on connectivity will be as commonplace in schools as a lead pencil is today. The best teachers will continue to leverage whatever tools they have at their disposal to help students learn, whether that's a pencil or mobile device. As schools continue to add technology to the mix, including BYOD or one-to-one initiatives, my hope is that these new tools will engage learners, inspire them to be lifelong learners, and help them unlock their potential and realize their dreams.

Therefore, investing in people is the key. Successful schools will invest in their teachers by helping them learn to leverage these tools. This will help make place matter in this digital economy, because that's where all the best teachers are!

Check out videos and articles from the 2013 ISTE conference.