Learn: Transforming the learning experience, through technology

The K-12 Classroom Experience in the Age of Personalized Learning

In the classrooms of the future, new technology, as well as principles of flexibility and personalization, will shape the K-12 experience.

Disruptive innovations that enable new, personalized models of education could radically transform the K-12 experience as we know it. But intrinsically, disruptive innovations entail uncertainty, experimentation, and the possibility of failure. It’s no wonder the education industry—in which the “products” at stake are entire generations of young minds—has been hesitant to embrace the disruptive technologies reshaping the rest of the world.

For many, terms like “edtech” and “online learning” evoke a child mindlessly swiping through digital flash cards on a tablet. But forward-thinking industry experts and educators envision a much more nuanced role for technology in the classrooms of the future, in which blended learning—the combination of online learning and brick-and-mortar schools—unlocks a level of personalized, competency-based education that has long been unattainable.

Julia Freeland Fisher, director of education at the Clayton Christensen Institute, a think tank that researches disruptive innovation, has watched the term “personalized learning” explode over the past 12 to 18 months. Her team expects that “blended learning” will soon just be called “learning,” opening the door for more flexible, individualized approaches.

As K-12 education undergoes these shifts, how will the classroom experience change to reflect them? What will the classrooms of the future be like, and can they deliver on these lofty ideals?

Classrooms will look like start-up headquarters

Today most classrooms are compartmentalized by grade level and subject, with rows of desks facing a teacher. They’ll be replaced by flexible, open spaces where you’d be hard-pressed to find a door. As students pursue more personalized objectives, they will move freely around interconnected work spaces optimized for different learning styles rather than divided by subject.

With its interdisciplinary, mixed-age, personalized approach, Portfolio School, a New York City micro school in its second year, offers a glimpse into this future. Portfolio’s bright open-plan space is made up of whiteboard walls covered in pupils’ scribbles like “What type of buildings is Elon Musk making?” Inside, children ages 5 to 10 flow seamlessly between the couches of the quiet reading area and the maker space, with its 3-D printers and laser cutters.

The school’s design reflects and enhances the openness and flexibility that its cofounders, Doug Schachtel and Babur Habib, believe should define K-12 education. “When you lose that restriction of saying that every kid who happens to be born between these two dates has to be learning the same exact thing, just because they happen to be the same age,” Schachtel said, “a lot of things are possible.”

Classrooms will collect data about students—and teachers

In a world where our every click, swipe, and step is tracked and analyzed, it may come as a surprise that the typical school does not do much data analysis. “Whereas a lot of industries are awash in data, education is just getting there,” Fisher explained. Because data from disparate education technologies doesn’t always integrate, education lacks the sophisticated analytics of other industries. But increased integration of technology will allow for more data tracking, which could help educators tailor their instruction to individual students’ needs. Well-analyzed data could help teachers identify struggling pupils and catch theirconfusion and frustration long before a graded evaluation.

Some think that tracking in classrooms could do even more to help educators hone their craft. Take AltSchool, a tech company developing a suite of digital tools for teachers and piloting them in a network of tech-enabled lab schools. To help teachers review their performance, AltSchool uses AltVideo, a system of video and audio recording devices built into their lab classrooms. Maggie Quale, AltSchool’s director of public relations, was quick to explain that there is no room full of monitors and analysts taking notes. However, she said, “It's impossible for [teachers] to be able to reflect on and improve their own teaching if they’re having to stop the lesson midstream and go write a note down.” With AltVideo, educators can open an app and bookmark a recorded clip to review later.

Yes, there will still be teachers

Some worry that the rise of online learning will threaten the role of teachers. But proponents insist that online learning will enhance their role by freeing them of rote tasks like grading and paperwork, leaving them with more time and bandwidth for students. Fisher and her team believe that tech innovations will allow educators to shift mundane tasks to a computer and thereby specialize more than they presently can. “In a traditional school, your role as a teacher is very much a jack-of-all-trades,” Fisher said. “In these new, more flexible designs of school, the possibility to be a teacher who works with a particular group of students or specializes in curriculum design or mentorship—all of that becomes potentially more feasible.”

This emphasis on improving rather than eliminating the role of educators is key to AltSchool’s philosophy. “Our goal with these tools is to free up as much teacher time as possible so they’re actually in front of their class, instructing and teaching and creating lesson plans that are challenging,” Quale said. Rather than providing a one-size-fits-all lesson for 30 students, teachers can act more as educational guides and curators, designing optimal learning experiences and developing relationships with pupils.

The world will enter the classroom

Though much of the discourse around K-12 education focuses on content, experts think that the next big wave of disruption will be less about what students know than about who they know. Future developments will connect learners with mentors and industry experts. “We're really tracking the rise of online mentorship models, of out-of-school learning opportunities, and of tools that actually bring experts into a classroom over video and the like,” Fisher said. These advances could help address accessibility issues, as pupils would be able to connect with experts and opportunities, regardless of location or circumstance.

Portfolio School is at the forefront of this trend; its enterprising young students have reached out to NASA engineers to discuss a unit on Mars, and New York University music education grad students have guided them in producing a soundtrack for their moviemaking project. Schachtel and Habib think that interacting with experts will only become more important in the future, as people must continuously master new technologies and skills throughout their careers. “They're going to have to know how to seek out the right places to educate themselves,” Schachtel said. “They might have to find mentors, and we want them to start getting comfortable with that idea as soon as possible.”

All of this will have to prove that it is actually working

Industry experts are optimistic that these shifts can come together to create a bright future in which high-quality, personalized, competency-based learning is the mainstream standard. Though many of these developments are currently confined to small, elite schools, Quale said that AltSchool’s goal “is to make the best education the one that most children can experience, instead of the least and most privileged.”

But assessment will come to play a vital role if this is to become a reality. “We desperately need R&D and assessment for all of this to come together,” Fisher said. Assessment will become a critical point of competition between content providers. They must be able to demonstrate that their products actually enhance learning—and they need common, standardized tools to make such evaluations. Without unified assessment tools that can be applied to content from a variety of providers, these trends and new learning models are unlikely to reach the mainstream.

Fisher and her team believe it can happen. “It’s a matter of time and a matter of smart policy.”

Classrooms will look like start-up headquarters

Today most classrooms are compartmentalized by grade level and subject, with rows of desks facing a teacher. They’ll be replaced by flexible, open spaces where you’d be hard-pressed to find a door. As students pursue more personalized objectives, they will move freely around interconnected work spaces optimized for different learning styles rather than divided by subject.

With its interdisciplinary, mixed-age, personalized approach, Portfolio School, a New York City micro school in its second year, offers a glimpse into this future. Portfolio’s bright open-plan space is made up of whiteboard walls covered in pupils’ scribbles like “What type of buildings is Elon Musk making?” Inside, children ages 5 to 10 flow seamlessly between the couches of the quiet reading area and the maker space, with its 3-D printers and laser cutters.

The school’s design reflects and enhances the openness and flexibility that its cofounders, Doug Schachtel and Babur Habib, believe should define K-12 education. “When you lose that restriction of saying that every kid who happens to be born between these two dates has to be learning the same exact thing, just because they happen to be the same age,” Schachtel said, “a lot of things are possible.”

Classrooms will collect data about students—and teachers

In a world where our every click, swipe, and step is tracked and analyzed, it may come as a surprise that the typical school does not do much data analysis. “Whereas a lot of industries are awash in data, education is just getting there,” Fisher explained. Because data from disparate education technologies doesn’t always integrate, education lacks the sophisticated analytics of other industries. But increased integration of technology will allow for more data tracking, which could help educators tailor their instruction to individual students’ needs. Well-analyzed data could help teachers identify struggling pupils and catch theirconfusion and frustration long before a graded evaluation.

Some think that tracking in classrooms could do even more to help educators hone their craft. Take AltSchool, a tech company developing a suite of digital tools for teachers and piloting them in a network of tech-enabled lab schools. To help teachers review their performance, AltSchool uses AltVideo, a system of video and audio recording devices built into their lab classrooms. Maggie Quale, AltSchool’s director of public relations, was quick to explain that there is no room full of monitors and analysts taking notes. However, she said, “It's impossible for [teachers] to be able to reflect on and improve their own teaching if they’re having to stop the lesson midstream and go write a note down.” With AltVideo, educators can open an app and bookmark a recorded clip to review later.

Yes, there will still be teachers

Some worry that the rise of online learning will threaten the role of teachers. But proponents insist that online learning will enhance their role by freeing them of rote tasks like grading and paperwork, leaving them with more time and bandwidth for students. Fisher and her team believe that tech innovations will allow educators to shift mundane tasks to a computer and thereby specialize more than they presently can. “In a traditional school, your role as a teacher is very much a jack-of-all-trades,” Fisher said. “In these new, more flexible designs of school, the possibility to be a teacher who works with a particular group of students or specializes in curriculum design or mentorship—all of that becomes potentially more feasible.”

This emphasis on improving rather than eliminating the role of educators is key to AltSchool’s philosophy. “Our goal with these tools is to free up as much teacher time as possible so they’re actually in front of their class, instructing and teaching and creating lesson plans that are challenging,” Quale said. Rather than providing a one-size-fits-all lesson for 30 students, teachers can act more as educational guides and curators, designing optimal learning experiences and developing relationships with pupils.

The world will enter the classroom

Though much of the discourse around K-12 education focuses on content, experts think that the next big wave of disruption will be less about what students know than about who they know. Future developments will connect learners with mentors and industry experts. “We're really tracking the rise of online mentorship models, of out-of-school learning opportunities, and of tools that actually bring experts into a classroom over video and the like,” Fisher said. These advances could help address accessibility issues, as pupils would be able to connect with experts and opportunities, regardless of location or circumstance.

Portfolio School is at the forefront of this trend; its enterprising young students have reached out to NASA engineers to discuss a unit on Mars, and New York University music education grad students have guided them in producing a soundtrack for their moviemaking project. Schachtel and Habib think that interacting with experts will only become more important in the future, as people must continuously master new technologies and skills throughout their careers. “They're going to have to know how to seek out the right places to educate themselves,” Schachtel said. “They might have to find mentors, and we want them to start getting comfortable with that idea as soon as possible.”

All of this will have to prove that it is actually working

Industry experts are optimistic that these shifts can come together to create a bright future in which high-quality, personalized, competency-based learning is the mainstream standard. Though many of these developments are currently confined to small, elite schools, Quale said that AltSchool’s goal “is to make the best education the one that most children can experience, instead of the least and most privileged.”

But assessment will come to play a vital role if this is to become a reality. “We desperately need R&D and assessment for all of this to come together,” Fisher said. Assessment will become a critical point of competition between content providers. They must be able to demonstrate that their products actually enhance learning—and they need common, standardized tools to make such evaluations. Without unified assessment tools that can be applied to content from a variety of providers, these trends and new learning models are unlikely to reach the mainstream.

Fisher and her team believe it can happen. “It’s a matter of time and a matter of smart policy.”