Schools have, generally, looked the same for the last 60 years or more. There might be more technology in the classrooms now but the premise is the same – rows of desks, teacher standing at the front. But what should the school of the future look like to improve the learning environment for our children?
Dave Townsend, a former business and law teacher, developed a virtual classroom while he was teaching. Students could log in and view his classroom, meaning that illness and other problems wouldn’t prevent them from learning.
“One of my students developed an immune deficiency problem and couldn’t come to school for six months,” he says, explaining how it sparked an idea of how he could ensure they still got an education despite the illness. “Using a piece of softwarte that a colleague had found for free, I would log on and get him to log in at home. We’d have registration time all together because he couldn’t even see his friends – they couldn’t go to his house in case he got ill. This was the first step in developing the virtual classroom.
“An IT teacher might have said, ‘No, you won’t be able to do that.’ But I said, ‘Can we do this? Why not? There must be a way.’”
And so Townsend found one. He set up a camera in his classroom so that anyone logging into the virtual room would be able to see the other students in the class and the whiteboard where he was teaching and could hear the lesson. Students were then able to participate from home, either with a webcam themselves or just by typing in responses. And it worked, he says.
“There was one day that one of my students was due to give a presentation to the class, but she wasn’t in school. I put the virtual classroom on just in case and there she was. She delivered the presentation from home and we could hear her and see her slides. It was a sign of what school could be in the future.”
Townsend’s virtual classroom not only meant the end of sick days for his students, but also the end of snow days. “We’d do the lessons from the comfort of our own homes, with 15 or so students logged in.”
We should be taking the opportunity to do something different
But that was nearly 15 years ago. With how technology has changed, what will schools look like in the future?
Townsend predicts a school where students aren’t always on site. Based on the success of The School of the Air in Alice Springs, Australia, where students live too remotely to be able to access a school building and instead receive their lesson material either via post, radio or internet where a connection is available, he thinks that students could achieve better results by only attending a school building part time.
“Build schools half the size that they are now, for the same number of pupils but half the size,” he suggests. “Build it to a high standard – think something like a Google Campus. Have students come into the school three days a week and then the other two they can work from home. They’ll be registered online and seen to be doing the work set. They’ll be able to access a teacher when they need one but you won’t need such a big building because you’ll be dealing with fewer students on site at one time.
“Would it work with 13-year-olds? Probably not. But why not try it with the gifted and talented learners? Students work well in their own environments, on their own or in groups.”
The schools that many children attend today, even ones that have been rebuilt, look the same as they did when Baby Boomers were in school, Townsend notes. “We should be taking the opportunity to do something different,” he says. “I don’t know exactly what the best solution is but something’s got to change.”