To borrow from Dickens, the past year has been the best of times and the worst of times for educational technology. It is amazing that schools have been able to continue to teach even when closed to in-person instruction, and many families have realized that there is a panoply of online resources for their children that can provide interesting and engaging lessons tailored directly to them.
At the same time, kids (and their parents) are burned out from staring into screens. There is a human connection at the heart of education, and it took months of remote learning for many people to realize that.
As schools head back to normality, an important question arises: How can we take the best of educational technology and use it to improve in-person schooling? I’d like to offer three potential models.
The Prenda Model
Prenda microschools leverage technology to quickly, efficiently, and effectively deliver academic content. This frees up more time for collaborative, project-based work.
A typical day in a Prenda school is divided into three parts: Conquer, Collaborate, and Create. During the Conquer period, students work on Chromebooks through self-paced educational software that delivers core math, reading, and language arts content. For many schools, this lasts around 90 minutes to two hours. For the rest of the day, students are either in their Create module, doing art projects, or their Collaborate module, working on projects related to social studies, science, and other subjects.
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This strikes me as a nice balance between personalized learning and collaborative, project-based work. Rather than solely relying on one modality or the other, Prenda schools do a bit of both, getting the best of computer-based instruction (self-pacing, meeting students where they are, allowing for different students in the same class to be learning at different levels, etc.) and using its efficiency to create space for exciting, fulfilling, engaging, and substantive collaborative work.
The Hybrid Homeschool Model
If the split-day model of Prenda doesn’t work, another potential model would have entire days devoted to one learning modality or another. There are many hybrid homeschools across the country that have students attend in-person classes for two or three days a week and work from home two or three days a week. Now, many of these schools are not having students work through personalized learning programs while at home—they are doing traditional homework—but that doesn’t mean that we can’t take something away from their schedule.
A model like this could have students work 2-3 days per week with personalized learning software and then spend the other 2-3 days in school discussing, doing projects, playing sports, putting on plays, and doing all of the other things that must be done in person. Based on our polling at EdChoice, there appears to be a large appetite for such a school model. There are also serious opportunities for schools to use facilities, faculty, and staff more efficiently. This could drive down the cost of education while at the same time providing a richer, more effective school experience.
The Lumen Verum Model
Last summer, I taught an enrichment class about the American K-12 education system to a group of college students. We had to do the mostly discussion-based class remotely, which was not ideal, but it did allow me to spring a bit of a surprise on them. As a kind of community-building activity, I encouraged them to watch the movie Miss Virginia at the same time one evening and then used it as a jumping off point for the next day’s discussion of school choice. What they didn’t know was that as the discussion started, I admitted Virginia Walden-Ford, Miss Virginia herself, into the video chat. She held court and answered questions for an hour. It killed.
That is why I was so interested to see a new Catholic school in Boston using guest lecturers and instructors via video conference. While class-by-videoconference has lots of ways in which it is inferior, the ability to pipe in genuine experts and fascinating guest speakers is not one of them. Lumen Verum, the school in Boston, is going to limit daily screen time and have a rich set of in-person experiences for students, but the fact that they will be able to bring passionate, knowledgeable international experts to speak on topics will offer students a unique experience.
As my old friend Rick Hess likes to say, technology is a tool. Its job is not to replace educators or carry the entire burden of educating children. Instead, it is something that educators can use to extend their reach, to help students access things that they otherwise might not be able to in the traditional classroom, to customize and personalize the offerings available to students, and to get through things faster than traditional pedagogical methods. Great educators and great schools will use these tools and the time that they free up to make education more human, not less. They have the opportunity to create more time for collaboration and group projects, for the arts and for sports, and for in-depth discussions with knowledgeable people.
It feels like a spring of hope is upon us in K-12 education. Let’s avoid a winter of despair by appreciating lessons we’ve learned this past year and using technology humanely to improve schooling.