21st Century Schools | Feature

Affording the Classroom of the Future

The new technology being infused into today's classrooms doesn't come cheap; nor is it always easy to install, repair, maintain, and upgrade. Physical facilities take time and money to upgrade and replace, and teachers must be trained on how to use any new equipment and applications that are introduced into the classroom. For the 21st Century classroom to operate at an optimal level all three legs of the stool must be addressed--and that costs money.

New technology equipment and tools, state of the art building materials and methods, and experimental teaching practices are all impacting today's K-12 classroom. Districts nationwide are struggling to patch together learning environments that they think represent the future of learning at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels. As they adopt campus-wide IT infrastructures, invest in classroom technology, and test out alternatives to traditional learning spaces, the final results of all this innovation remains to be seen.

To help decipher that code and give principals, administrators, IT directors, and teachers an insider look into what might be coming a few years down the road, THE Journal asked a half a dozen educational experts for their take on three different key concerns: what the classrooms will look like, who will pay for them, and whether we'll ever see them during our lifetimes.

Envisioning the Classroom of the Future: What Does It Look Like?
Susan Smith has been designing educational facilities for 18 years. During that time this vice president of Dallas-based architectural design firm Corgan Associates has seen significant changes in the way K-12 facilities are constructed and utilized. At a high, campus-wide level, Smith said energy conservation--made possible through more environmentally inconsequential construction materials and methods--is top of mind right now for schools. Some districts, for example, want net zero campuses that rely on alternative sources like solar and wind technology to generate as much energy as the schools use.

Smith said she expects to see more net zero campuses being built in the future and said the green philosophy will make its way into the classroom itself. Simple moves like minimizing the number of electrical outlets in a room, for example, help encourage the use of charging stations. Lighting sensors that adapt to the amount of light that's coming in through windows and geothermal technology that heats water for bathrooms and the cafeteria will also gain in popularity, Smith predicted.

The classroom of the future will also be more flexible than its predecessors. "We are seeing a movement towards more project-based learning and that requires much more adaptable and flexible physical space than we're used to seeing in K-12," said Smith. Expect to see more spaces that can quickly be rearranged to accommodate individual study, small group learning, and even collaboration across different classes and subjects.

A space meant to accommodate 30 students, for example, would be built with moveable walls that could be quickly opened to allow multiple instructors to teach to 60 or more students in a large group.

"The focus will be on interchangeability," said Smith, "and that requires a break down of the traditional classroom walls to make room for more innovative learning setups."

"Instead of students sitting in five or six straight rows of desks," said Tim Uhl, principal at Holy Rosary School in Tacoma, WA, "they'll be sitting in pods and then moving back into rows when it's time to test." Achieving that level of flexibility will require most K-12 schools to buy table-type or other desk styles to replace their current stock, said Uhl.

Uhl said he also sees the whiteboard gaining more visibility in the classroom of the future. The placement of that equipment in the classroom will also be important, said Uhl, whose school is in the process of a campus-wide whiteboard installation. "We're centering them at the point of most visibility on the longest classroom wall," said Uhl, "as opposed to on the narrow end of the room where most instructors have traditional taught from."

Teaching aids like traditional marker boards and interactive white boards will continue to have a place in the classroom, said Smith, but these products will probably be positioned differently than they are in today's learning spaces. "We're hearing from schools that want to cover entire walls with marker boards instead of using them as a small focal point at the front of the class," she said. Other key pieces of technology that will be prominent in tomorrow's classrooms will include tablet and laptop computers, interactive whiteboards and projectors, and wall-mounted, flat-panel monitors.

Uhl said classrooms of the future will be populated with more iPad-type devices and fewer textbooks. "We're not quite there yet in terms of using tablets in lieu of books, but things are definitely moving in that direction," said Uhl. Tomorrow's classrooms may also find teachers playing a less prominent "physical" role in their own rooms. Smaller, streamlined, and tech-enabled furniture and tools, for example, will likely replace large bookshelves, bulky desks, and front-and-center podiums.

"If the teacher's footprint is larger than the students' footprint in the classroom," said Uhl, "it sends the wrong message and it doesn't promote a cooperative learning environment."

Paying for the Classroom of the Future
The new technology being infused into today's classrooms doesn't come cheap; nor is it always easy to install, repair, maintain, and upgrade. Physical facilities take time and money to upgrade and replace, and teachers must be trained on how to use any new equipment and applications that are introduced into the classroom. For the 21st Century classroom to operate at an optimal level all three legs of the stool must be addressed--and that costs money.

As the nation's K-12 schools consider the equipment and space requirements of tomorrow's classrooms, many of these institutions are also looking at how to pay for the new learning spaces.

Uhl said he's enthused by the thought of running a 21st century school with learning spaces that are loaded with instructional technologies and designed in a way that engages students and promotes collaboration. Turning that thought into reality could be challenging for Holy Rosary School, which is working with a 120-year-old facility and limited financial resources.

"We don't have wealthy parents or financial support from the community," said Uhl. "A lot of our students don't pay full tuition rates, so we're pretty strapped financially when it comes to purchasing new IT or upgrading existing equipment."

Holy Rosary School is one of many nationwide that has had to get creative on its path to the 21st Century classroom. In many rooms, for example, whiteboards were installed over existing chalkboards. And upon rolling out a 1:1 laptop program for 7th and 8th grade students this year, teachers quickly realized that existing desks no longer worked in the learning environment.

"We're finding that the desks are impractical for laptop use and looking for other options," said Uhl. To afford new desks and IT equipment like smart boards--which are currently being installed in some of the school's classrooms--Uhl said the institution often turns to foundations for help. "This is a 120-year-old school with a lot of history behind it," he said. "We're essentially a 'valuable charity' that foundations want to support."

K-12 institutions like Holy Rosary School could face significant challenges in their quest to create classrooms of the future on limited budgets. "Budgets are tight, classes are getting larger, and teachers are having to find ways to do more with less," said Anne Yount, founder of the Boston Tutoring Center, which works with K-12 students from public and private schools in the Boston area. "Technology can help bridge that gap in the classroom, but whether it's accessible or not often comes down to funding."

Yount, who said she envisions a time in the near future when classrooms are more collaborative and centered on project-based and differentiated learning, said the new models could turn current learning spaces "on their heads" if the funding sources exist to support the changes. "Unfortunately, there's an unevenness of financial resources in the educational sector," said Yount. "It ranges from districts where 24 laptops are being shared by more than 1,000 students to those where each student is equipped with an iPad--and everything in between."

Bridging that digital divide will require creative thinking on the part of the districts, schools, teachers, and even parents who are willing to donate money, time, and equipment to the cause. "Schools will have to get creative about raising funds," said Yount. Asking parents to write grants, creating separate "technology fees," and supporting "sin tax" initiatives (on alcohol and cigarettes, for example), can all help add to the coffers. "If they don't take these and other steps to shore up funding, the digital classroom will be extremely difficult to implement."

Kim Klindt, a fourth grade teacher and technology facilitator at Guy Emanuele Jr. Elementary School in Union City, CA, said schools with limited funding should look less at the equipment itself and more at the professional development piece of the puzzle.

"What good are all of these smart boards and laptops if no one is using them to teach class?" said Klindt, who has seen numerous pieces of equipment languish due to disinterest on the part of the teacher. "Your district doesn't have to be rich to create the best possible learning environment. You can do it if you have a few computers and teachers who know how to integrate and use the technology."

Expect to see school districts patching together funding sources like grants, technology fees, foundational donations, parental contributions, and regular operating budgets, together in an effort to afford the high-tech classroom of the future.

As they work to come up with money for equipment and classroom upgrades and for professional development, many principals, IT directors, and teachers also want to know exactly what their deadline is. Will we see a definitive starting and ending point to all of this innovation--or will the classroom continue to morph over the next few decades?

Supporting the Classroom of the Future
The picture of the K-12 classroom of the future is slowly coming into focus. The model is taking shape faster at some schools than it is at others, but the general premise is the same across most institutions: At its core there will be technology equipment and applications, a workable classroom layout, trained educators, and eager pupils. When combined, these elements will work together to create the 21st century learning environment.

A few critical questions remain. Is the model feasible? Will schools adopt it? Will teachers use it? And--perhaps more importantly--will it help students learn the 21st century skills that they'll need to compete in the job market?

Physical v. Virtual
When Jane Bailey envisions the classroom of the future, she doesn't see walls, floors, doors, and desks. This dean of the school of education at Post University in Waterbury, CT, said she sees virtual spaces where students and teachers collaborate online using their mobile devices, laptops, and tablet computers. "Look around," said Bailey. "Learning is in the palm of our hands and isn't bound to a limited physical space anymore."

With many K-12 schools already offering online learning as a part of the educational experience, Bailey said, it will only be a matter of time before most or all of the learning environment goes virtual. The key, she said, will be figuring out how to bring learners and educators together in virtual environments in a productive and collaborative manner. "The teacher's role will be more facilitative, and there will be few if any 'stand and deliver' lectures," Bailey predicted. "We haven't gotten there yet, but it's definitely coming."

For that movement, to gain traction, Bailey said, both teachers and administrators will have to start allowing iPads, mobile devices, and other technology tools into the classroom. Both groups will also need to move away from physical textbooks and other traditional teaching methods and make room for more modern, state-of-the-art learning tools. The third piece of the puzzle is ongoing professional development and training that pushes teachers to integrate the tech into their daily lessons.

That professional development could make or break the vision that's currently taking shape around K-12 learning. "Computers have been in schools for 30 years, but there has been little fundamental change. Computer labs still sit empty on most days and in most schools," said Jennifer Little, a long-time special education teacher and principal at online educational resource Parents Teach Kids.

"Old habits, especially in old systems that are based on tradition, die very long, painful, and unchanging deaths," said Little, "only to be replaced with mirror images of themselves that are entrenched in yet more dogma, rules, regulations, and experienced personnel longing for 'the good old days.'"

Shifting Perspectives
Emanuele Elementary's Klindt also said she also thinks that professional development will play a key role in the formation and use of the 21st Century classroom. For that space--be it physical, virtual, or a hybrid of the two--to have the most impact questions like: "How are the students assessed regarding mastery?" "How comfortable are the teachers using technology?" and "How much buy-in and passion do teachers show for technology?" must be answered.

"The new classroom model will require both paradigm and culture shifts that start with the individual teachers and radiate out to the students," Klindt explained. "Professional training has to be a part of the mix or the technology infrastructure will be a moot point."

As for the physical classroom itself and how well it will accommodate new technology and learning styles, Corgan's Smith said adapting existing spaces will be feasible and inexpensive in most cases. That's good news for the nation's school districts--many of which are dealing with significant budget cuts right now.

"It's not about adding space or investing money. It's about reallocating existing space such as computer labs, libraries, and classrooms to make them more meaningful for the 21st century learning environment," said Smith, who pointed to the traditional K-12 library as a good starting point for any school looking to upgrade without too big of an investment. "For a while we were building bigger and bigger libraries that can easily be reduced now and their space reallocated to more collaborative environments."

Budget constraints and professional development challenges aside, all of the educators and professionals interviewed said they expect major changes to continue to take place within the educational environment over the next few years. Technology will play a key role in those adaptations, with mobile devices, online platforms, and collaborative learning tools playing a key role in tomorrow's learning space.