The Classroom of the Future
By Heidi Kriz, Mon Jan 15 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Technology has the chance to transform education, and not just by replacing notebooks with PDAs. Mobile technology will challenge some of the basic tenets of education by making collaborative learning easier than ever before.


Remember those endearing science experiments we all had to perform in the not-so-distant past? The ones involving the dissection of frogs, the mixing of stinky chemicals, the occasional explosive mishaps that filled the classroom with noxious clouds?

The only soothing thing about them was that everybody was had to do them. Our parents before us, the senior basketball forward, the head cheerleader. And we could look forward to our children being subjected to the same hands-on hardships.

Not necessarily so these days. With the advent of wireless in the classroom, technology is transforming some of the very tenets of learning. Some folks think this is a good thing, bringing advantages to an often disadvantaged group of students, especially with younger, public school classes. Some believe it will depersonalize the education process, and make it too remote. Others believe it can be good or bad, it's simply what you make of it.

One thing we know, wireless has been admitted into the classroom and soon it will be popping up everywhere. Our best bet is to deal with it, and make sense of it.

The Challenges of Education

In some ways, the business and concerns of education seems to be getting challenging. We hear about eighth graders developing crippling back problems from their beast-of-burden, book-filled backpacks. Or suicidal students jumping out of sky-high classrooms in Japan. Or the burnout medical-school residents, reeling from 80-hour workweeks, swapping clamps for cotton swabs.

It all seems to be about cutthroat competition. More people vying for fewer vacancies, in college, jobs and the global marketplace.

But some people in the tech industry think that technology will change this. It will enable us to maintain our high standards, but eliminate a lot of the inhumane stresses and handicaps. And that's what they're basing their R&D on now.

"Right now, we have the technology to compensate for a lot of the current inequities that plague classrooms," says Mike Lorion, the vice-president of global education marketing for Palm, the manufacturer of the world's most popular handheld PDA.

"The current ratio of computers to students in classroom is supposedly 6-to-1 - though I think that's a really optimistic number," says Lorion.

"With a Palm PDA, we can get the ratio to 1-to-1, at a fraction of the cost," of desktop computers, he says.

Lorion predicts a time when data will float in the air like a cloud around the students, and they will be able to pluck the information from the air selectively with their PDAs using Bluetooth technology.

But that's a ways off, says Lorion, the timeframe depending on bandwidth and technology.

Palms are already being used at places like Northeaster Middle School in Wisconsin, where students use Palm IIIe devices to tap into their computerized school network.

The school was founded in 1995 with the primary goal of offering its students a technologically cutting edge education, says principal Tom Fiedler.

After reading an article in and education magazine on how handheld computers can enhance classroom learning, Fiedler decided to distribute Palm IIIe devices to select students.

The school already had a state-of-the-art computer lab, e-mail accounts for students and teachers, and electronic assignment folders for their assignments and curricula. But administrators needed a way to pull it all together with affordable devices, that would help organize their work and strengthen their students and teachers' and parents' ability to communicate with each other.

For nine weeks, a cross-section of kids were given a Palm IIIe PDA, which they used to organize their work and notes, retrieve assignments from home and exchange data between the devices through the infrared ports.

Fiedler says the experiment was a huge success.

"At the end of the school year, we polled the students...they found their Palms to...have facilitated communications and organization, both essential to good education," says Fiedler.

Taking the Next Step

Other companies are taking the use of PDAs further, by developing software that extends the devices beyond their everyday use.

"We have developed a product called Imagiprobes, that turns the Palm into a measuring device with little sensors," says Wayne Grant, CEO of Silicon Valley-based Imagiworks.

"They can measure things for the purpose of general science like light temperature and voltage, and then things in the environment like the temperature of water, the pH level or oxygen level," says Grant.

Grant says there is also software now that turns a PDA into a graphic calculator, called "Imagimaths."

Lorion points out that there are also services designed for the Palm that give students special access to research databases like Britannica.com, or the Merriam-Webster dictionary on-line.

And there is other software and services, like Ucompass.com and ehomeroom.com, that tie-in the schedules of classrooms, homework, bus schedules all into one network, so parents, teachers and students all have access to the same information, Lorion says.

The combination of those current resources and future technologies like Bluetooth, could serve to really shake things up in the classroom.

"It's all just a matter of how much the technology is applied to the curriculum," says Palm's Lorion.

Group learning is one place where wireless technology certainly makes sense. Students can be connected inside a school over a wireless LAN, and using the Internet can engage in collaborative projects and learning with other students around the globe. Companies such as NetSchools specialize in setting up wireless school networks and providing every student and teacher with a laptop and access to a network like its proprietary Orion system, which educators use to integrate the Internet into their curricula.

But wireless technology provides an even simpler solution -- ubiquity. Especially at the college and university level, where computer lab space is at a premium, a problem heightened at times like mid-terms and finals, wireless Internet access can take much of the burden off of universities from running huge workstation farms.

Places like Iona College in New York are installing the networks as the demand for Internet access increases while physical resources decrease. By simply arming students with wireless network interface cards, universities will be able to avoid the burden of building and maintaining large labs. And as bandwidth and transmission speeds increase, much of this traffic will certainly be shifted to the public wireless infrastructure.

The Old College Try

The application of technology to school's curricula is exactly what concerns the faculty and students of the University of Texas' "Technology, Literacy and Culture" program.

Founded two years ago, the program is an interdisciplinary concentration that explores the issues concerning the impact of information technology on human societies.

UT anthropology Professor Sam Wilson, one of the program's members, said the program was inspired in part by professors in different departments comparing notes about their observations on the use of technology in the classroom, and outside it.

"We thought it was really ridiculous that the liberal arts department and the social sciences weren't coming together with their thoughts on the subject," said Wilson.

"One of the things we wanted to explore was the hype around technology. Of course software and hardware companies are telling you it's all really great for society, but is it?"

One of the issues Wilson and his colleagues try and determine are which kind of interactions between technology and people promotes healthy individuals. One of the conclusions he's come to is that younger children, especially kindergartners through high schoolers, might suffer if they're more encouraged in computer and technology literacy than in developing their social skills.

But when it comes to older people, it can be more about collaboration between the curriculum, the faculty and the students.

"I think that media like wireless and other technologies will extend the agenda - and help keep the students attention, with enhancements like music through MP3 players, when appropropriate, streaming video, et cetera" says Wilson.

"It's important for us to embrace technology, but be critical of its uses as well," he adds.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Sometimes the best social critics come from ground zero of the movement. For example, people who aren't familiar with his work can be shocked to discover the new book by John Seely Brown, director of Xerox's famed Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC, which argues that not all new technology is necessarily good.

"Good architects are trained to craft buildings that are context-sensitive to the landscape," says Brown. "Technology should be built that way, and computer scientists should be trained like architects."

Not coincidentally, Brown and the coauthor of The Social Life of Information, Paul Duguid, are both married to architects.

When it comes to technology and education, Brown is most concerned with the fashionable notion that technology will eventually eliminate the need for traditional institutions, like the university.

But ImagiWorks CEO Grant thinks it's time for a change in some of the ways we approach models for education. "Maybe our past notions of the true best ways of learning, that they must be individualistic, not collaborative, are wrong."

UT's Professor Wilson also sees wireless technology as a boon. "Overall, I think the new wireless technologies will have a positve net weight, especially for older students."