The future of connected education FEATURE
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How will we prepare students for an increasingly digital world?

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education established a national plan “for how technology could provide students with access to engaging digital resources, opportunities to collaborate with peers and experts, and powerful tools to solve real problems as an integral part of the learning experience.” They called it ConnectED and an increase in tablets and Chromebooks began making their way into classrooms.

A year later, higher education collectively embraced Massively Online Open Courses (or MOOCs) as a way to increase enrollment and hopefully reduce rising and increasingly prohibitive tuition costs. But for most classrooms around the country, desks, paper, and pencils still reign supreme. And universities remain rife with PowerPoint lectures and debt-laden tuition.

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How, then, should we grade these educational industries? Shirley Malcom of the American Association for the Advancement of Science says it depends on the student, although she seems to favor at least a passing score. “It’s really hard to generalize here,” she says when asked if classrooms haven’t changed significantly since the advent of the Internet. “This is likely true for some but false for others,” she answers while pointing to the successes of flipped classrooms and aforementioned MOOCs.

Where would she like to go from here? If given a magic wand, Malcom says she’d reconstruct the classroom to support more teamwork and smaller group learning. Connected education—analog style, if you will. “Of course I support increased access to and use of technology,” she says. “But I recognize that this is a tool, not the end game.”

And as a key advocate for the advancement of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, Malcom believes it’s only right to prepare students for an increasingly digital world. Not at the reduction of humanities, mind you. But a focus on those increasingly critical fields.

See also: STEAM carnival: Inspiring young minds

Minerva Schools in San Francisco is an extreme example of this. No lectures, no labs, no football teams, and no buildings. Everything is done remotely online. Professors have a time limit for talking, and proprietary software tracks which students have spoken in class or not, making participation compulsory.

As for the curriculum, “Teachers will do less teaching and more inspiring,” predicts educator Andrew Mitson in an interview with Synap. “The web will take over straightforward content delivery. Traditional academic subjects will be sidelined for more practical and applicable skills.”

In addition to remote classrooms and more give-and-take between teacher and student discussions, Fast Company reports an unbundling of degrees. "Today, diplomas granted by years in school are the dominant certification of ‘learning.’ Yet, in almost all cases, these diplomas certify nothing other than the fact that the person in question spent x years in school.”

On the other hand, competency-based certifications test specific skills and then bundle those skills into professional groupings for both employers and job seekers.

Take “data scientist,” for example—the most sought-after job in America, according to GlassDoor. As the world record is increasingly digitized, we’ll need an increasing number of researchers to improve computational behavior and understanding. We’ll need even more software developers, especially on mobile. And we’ll need more logisticians, ethical hackers, actuaries Forbes predicts

What will need to get there and fill all of those jobs and still unseen ones? When dreaming up the future of connected education, we might have over focused on student education and not enough on teacher education, Malcom concludes. “If the above magic wand were really powerful, I’d put a wonderful, smart, and caring teacher in every classroom.”

Tools that enable that, then, might be where the best return on investment exists. 

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About Blake Snow @blakesnow

Blake Snow writes epic stories for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies.