Tuesday, December 28, 2010

2010 in Review

As the year comes to a close I thought it might be interesting to look back and see what progress there has been in creating better schools for students.  This is no easy task since there is no definitive way to measure such a thing, but there is some anecdotal evidence we might consider.

First of all, the economy has been murder.  Many states are allocating capital funds for operations leaving school construction out in the cold.  Where construction is funded locally, there have been far fewer bond and capital levy elections than in the recent past, and where there has been elections many measures have failed.  the third leg of this crooked stool is the decline in property values.  In California, as in many states, property values have plummetted with the result being that school districts can't legally sell the bonds their voters approved!  This is because the lower property values have caused districts to exceed their statutory debt limits and until values go up, or bonds are paid off, they can't legally sell more bonds.

On the operations side administrators and teachers have been laid off so class sizes are getting larger. Fewer classes and electives are being offered.  Schools are not being maintained, and tech upgrades have been postponed. 

Even with all of this there actually is some news that helps to ameliorate these trends.  The Feds have pumped billions into schools through Race to the Top, assuming your state was one of the ones selected for the program.  The Feds have also made loans available and provided money to "fix-up" schools - more on this later. 

Some states have passed bonds even if these are not in the quantity that existed in the past.  See: http://www.schoolconstructionnews.com/articles/2010/03/19/voters-pass-466-billion-in-school-improvement-plans  (Note that most of the money described in this article is emergency supplemental operating funds not capital dollars)

What I wonder though is why more schools, districts, and states haven't used these terrible conditions to rethink the way they go about the business of building and operating schoolsFederal money helps, but spending money to fix-up "bad schools" does not seem like the best of investments.  It certainly makes sense to spend the money on "warm, safe, and dry" but spending money that avoids change only perpetuates archaic practices.  Similarly, overcrowding of schools could be an opportunity to change the way you teach.  Why not enlist students in class to help teach those who need more help?  Both the students helping and those being helped would benefit. You might need to rearrange the classroom to do this but that's a good thing.  What about using online learning more robustly?  It is growing by leaps and bounds and has real potential to enhance in class teaching in a blended learning environment.  Some districts and schools are trying these approaches and succeeding, but its a big job. 

2010 was a tough year but there are hopeful signs.  The Christmas shopping season was positive,  the commercial sector is showing some life, and the stock markets are up.  Looking ahead to 2011, all of us who care about the environments in which our children learn need to continue our advocacy and spread the word that the environment you learn in is important.

Happy New Year.

Friday, December 10, 2010

But isn't it more expensive?

Today, in a podcast on American Radio Works, I was interviewed about our winning entry in Slate Online Magazines competition to reimagine the American classroom. http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/podcast.html  I wrote about this a few weeks ago on this Blog and since that time the discussions have been pretty interesting.

The one comment that sticks with me is: "But isn't it more expensive"?  I am currently in the process of pricing the design to compare it to a "standard classroom" to really answer this question, and will post my findings here once that process is complete.  What strikes me though is the implication that we can't possibly consider spending anything greater than the least amount possible on our kids.  I don't think the 5th Grade Exploration Studio will prove to cost very much more than a standard classroom but what if it did?

Times are rough right now but people still want what's best for their children.  They will buy them the best clothes, toys, and games they can afford.  they will get them the best medical care and do all that they can for their safety and welfare.  That's why it puzzles me that people seem to balk at the cost of giving their children a good school environment.

The 5th Grade Exploration Studio is a design that is flexible enough to allow learners to learn in different ways and for teachers to try many different approaches.  The teacher in the podcast, Trish Fineran, thought it was a better approach to classroom design.  If this were to be slightly more costly  (and I am not at all sure that it will be) would we throw it out because of a small incremental cost?  To me this is like making the choice to buy something that doesn't meet your needs because its cheaper. 

As the old adage goes: "you get what you pay for."

Friday, December 3, 2010

What can a Virtual Museum tell us about virtual schools?

I discovered the Adobe Virtual Museum the other day and after tooling around in it for awhile began to think about what it might tell us about schools.  If you haven't tried the link be patient, the download times are long but it is quite interesting.  I especially recommend watching the video on the creation of the building.

The Adobe Virtual Museum only exists in cyberspace and is dedicated to showing digital art.  What is fascinating is that the creators felt the need to create a digital building to house the digital art.  What this tells me is that"place" is important.  Humans want to have some sort of corporeal connection to places where transactions occur.  The museum creators seemed to think this was true of museums and I would be willing to bet its true for most people undertaking most activities.

But wait!  When you visit the exhibits in the virtual museum they are disconnected from the digital building that houses them.  They could exist and be accessed without the building.  I don't know if this is a flaw in the concept or if, because the museum is new, they haven't connected the art to the virtual space as they say was their intent in the video.

Will simulations of this sort be more and more ubiquitous in the future?  Will people be satisfied with viewing art and architecture virtually.  Can we create virtual spaces that satisfy the need for place in human transactions?

These are all interesting questions when you think about how schools might deal with these phenomenon.  Students who grow up using technology to communicate seamlessly and who are very comfortable in the virtual worlds of video games and movies may become equally comfortable in socializing in virtual space especially as technology continues to improve.  When and if this comes to pass students will have fewer reason to go to a physical location for learning.  If they can learn at their own pace, studying what interests them, get expert real time help, and connect with their friends virtually, while still having all the comforts of home (or the local coffee shop) why go to a brick and mortar school? 

The question really comes down to: What degree can virtual reality replace reality for students?  Perhaps only time will tell.  Check out the museum at:  Adobe Virtual Museum