Classroom of the Future may be Digital, Says Education Secretary

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Arne Duncan“The digital divide is real, and it’s an urgent challenge,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday at the Re-Imagining Education: Empowering Learners in a Connected World summit in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Department of Education and The MacArthur Foundation.


Duncan said the nation’s challenge wasn’t improving retention rates. Instead, administrators must find ways to keep young people interested in school.

“It’s how do you get students much more engaged in learning,” Duncan said. Oftentimes, he said, students drop out of high school not because their classes are too difficult, but because they are not challenged by the coursework. “They don’t see how it’s relevant to the real world,” Duncan added. He said he was especially concerned about young people from disadvantaged communities, whom he believes are unaware that dropping out of school can lead to lifelong “poverty and social failure.”

He encouraged high schools to employ more job shadowing programs, and to provide more internship opportunities. “When that happens,” he said, “young people do not drop out.”

Duncan also said he was a proponent of high school programs similar to the Pathways in Technology Early Career High (P-TECH) School in New York that merge high school and college coursework. Students graduate with an associate degree in computer science along with their high school diploma.

“Those kinds of opportunities have to become the norm,” Duncan said.

The nation’s global competitiveness hinges on improving public education, he said. The proliferation of online learning mechanisms, however, could forever alter how schools across the U.S. operate. He described a hypothetical “classroom of the future” in which in-class educators are supported by world-class professors and teachers via electronics. Using this technology, he said, teachers could instruct classes of “100,000 students” while the learning process for children becomes a 24-hour-a-day reality.

“Radical, radical changes are happening now,” he said. The proliferation of online education will not only have considerable impact on the state of higher education, but the same technologies could improve student outcomes at the high school level. Through a “blended learning” model, he envisions “great teachers” and “great technology” coming together to help students and educators.

“Technology will never replace teachers,” Duncan said. “[For them,] this, I think, could be extraordinarily motivating.”

While he believes a greater emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is required for America’s educational system, Duncan said he does not want to see other areas neglected as a result.

“I think STEM is important,but not at the expense of everything else,” he said.

Preventing student from dropping out, he said, means schools have to keep funding arts and other cultural enrichment programs. However, he also believes the U.S. has a “huge deficit as a nation” when it comes to students’ STEM outcomes, and he encourages educators and school systems to do as much as possible to get students interested in more technical fields. Elementary school could be an excellent starting point, he said, since the fourth and fifth grade is when many students who may drop out of high school begin “tuning out” of school work.

The nation is currently in the grips of a “war” with education viewed as a necessity on one side and merely an expense on the other.

“I think education is the best investment we can make,” he argued. “When those opportunities don’t exist, we’re cutting off our noses to spite our face.”

When they are out of high school, today’s youth will not be competing for jobs only in their hometowns, he said. Improving high school outcomes is about something much more than education. In fact, he said, it’s a fight for the country’s future vitality. Citing international metrics, which sometimes rank U.S. students 25th to 30th in overall math scores, he believes that the public education system has “to get better faster than ever before.”

He praised Common Core, stating that “dummied down” standards have had very negative consequences for both students and educators. “Having higher standards, internationally,” he said, “is a huge step in the right direction.”

“The hard part,” he continued, “is how do you implement those standards?”

Photo by Olivier Douliery | MCT