by Dr. Rob Reilly
I Retired From 'Teaching' Back in 2009 and Now I'm Back! -
Reporting from the future (Part 2)
Click here to read Part 1 of this article
So I've left my comfortable retirement home in Florida to become the Director of Technology for the Alexandria Public School System. A former student is now my boss and I'm starting to experience technology shock. My airplane trip to Alexandria (actually to Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC) was quite an experience and my experience was just the beginning.
Well, Jeanette Sorenson met me at the airport and she took me to my new home in Alexandria, Virginia. But let me tell you about this before we go any further. Jeanette's car is equipped with AutoPilot-GPS. We don't have that down in Florida. I remember reading about it several years ago, but I did not pay much attention it at the time. It uses GPS (global positioning satellite) technology to determine the best route from one place to another, and it has AutoPilot, which is technology that allows the computer to drive the car without human intervention. Oh yeah, AutoPilot has a collision avoidance device, which made me feel less uncomfortable about driving around in a car with no (human) driver. Jeanette just activated the AutoPilot-GPS system, it asked her a series of questions and then away we went.
As we drove along I noticed that there weren't any traffic lights or stop signs along the way. I asked Jeanette about that and she indicated that all cars that operate in the greater Washington area must have an approved collision avoidance device, which among other things has a built-in "traffic light" system. That system senses intersections and tells the cars approaching that intersection whether they have a red light or a green light. "What about cars that don't have a collision avoidance device?" I asked. Jeanette said that those cars were excluded. "How can you enforce that?" I asked. She said that the traffic scan monitor computer would recognize non-compliant cars and beam an override signal to the engine of such cars that would disable their engine until the police arrived. "So it turns off the car's engine AND 'it' calls the police?" Jeanette nodded!
I had quite a few more questions about the traffic scan monitor computer, but I just filed those away with the questions about the baggage check/claim mechanism at the airport! This state-of-the-art technology stuff still fascinated me! I couldn't wait for my tour of the school system!!
But first Jeanette took me to the central office to meet my co-workers. Jeanette said that there were 72 people working at the central office, and we'd meet most of them today. After that we'd start sightseeing at the high schools, then go to the middle schools, then onto the elementary schools, followed by a tour of the post-natal schools. Huh, "post natal" schools--that should be interesting!
When we arrived at the 'central office' it looked to be far too small a building to house 72 people. As it turned out, it was too small for 72 people. There were only 12 people who were actually, physically, really, truly in the office. The other 60 people were, in fact, "working at the office" but were physically somewhere else. Jeanette said that the 60 on-site workers were involved in supporting the teachers' lesson plans, grading, and record keeping. My impression was that the teachers did not do as many mundane tasks as they once did. They were cast more as curriculum leaders than record-keepers.
I talked with Jeanette about telecommuting. She indicated that the federal government provided big financial incentives for businesses to have telecommuters. In a half-serious vein I asked Jeanette how many telecommuting students she had. Much to my surprise she said that the school district had 19% of the telecommute-eligible students (at least 16 years old and not on an EdPlan) enrolled as telecommuters. I asked about the technology setup for those students--I wondered how the telecommuting students received their education. Jeanette said that we'd be talking with the teacher-facilitator who handled the telecommuters. But essentially these students were just like the other students, they had agendas that were created for them, just like the other students, and they needed to 'attend' class just as the other students did, except they did not come to campus.
Eventually we got back to a tour of the central office. As I looked around the office I could see all the latest techno gizmos for business. There were Xerox machines that did scanning, served as Fax machines, and were on the local area network so that staff members could print-out material from their classrooms. Of course, everyone had his or her own personal VP (videophone), but there were still a few cordless telephones just in case a person's VP malfunctioned.
Wow…telecommuting students, telecommuting office staffers, and there were lots of techno gizmos at the central office. I could only imagine what technology the schools would have in place to facilitate the curriculum.
Each of the central office staff people had a high-end Palm Pilot. Each morning they would come to work and activate the beam feature of their Palm Pilot and receive the various memos, voice messages and email that was waiting for them. They would also beam data they had been working on to the central file server. I thought that was terrific; no more piles of network cable that the techie had to untangle. The workers were no longer tethered to a fixed work place---they could take their computer anywhere and work on whatever they need to work on. I could only imagine what the teachers and students were doing with this technology. I could only imagine how the curriculum had been changed by technology since I retired 10 years ago.
Suffice to say that the central office had all the latest voice-activated computers---no more keyboard input of data. All the data is entered by voice or it's scanned in from the student's or employee's retinal scan. I have a vague understanding of this retinal scan gizmo. There is a computer than scans the person's eye and sees their retina, takes a "picture" of it and then talks to a number of state and federal computers to get certain bites of information about the individual in question. Wow. I wondered how the ACLU dealt with this. I was a card-carrying member quite a few years ago, but I let my membership lapse. Now that I'm employed again, I guess I should join up again if for no other reason than my curiosity to know how so much personal data was so freely available. "Join the ACLU" went into my Palm Pilot's list of things to do!
To make a long visit short, I met most of the central office staff members who were physically in the building. And I used the George Jetson era videoconference screen to have a virtual face-to-face meeting with various other key staff members.
Well, the tour of the central office was done for the moment. Jeanette and I headed for one of the high schools. It was about 5 miles away. During our ride I asked Jeanette why she had reached out to me for this job.
"We interviewed quite a few people and none of them had the background or philosophical bent that you do," she said. She added that we still have some vintage systems that she knew I was familiar with. But for the most part she thought that I had an ideal mix of teacher and techie. She said that mix was hard to find!
Our first stop was a high school that was home to 1,200 students from grades 10-12. We went into the main office and met all the staff and administrators. They had the same technology as the central office staff had. It was interesting to learn that all the information that was once hand-carried to the office was now sent over the local area network (LAN). The teachers would take attendance each period by having the students use the retinal scan devices that were located at each of the student's desk.
Enough of the administrative tours, I wanted to see what technology was offered in the curriculum, I wanted to see how education occurred in the classroom. I wanted to see what the classrooms were like. Just then Jeanette received a VP (videophone) call . She excused herself as it was a private call. So I took this opportunity to wander around the halls.
The first classroom I came across looked just like a typical classroom from 10-20 years ago. There was an older teacher in that room giving a lesson on a white board. I did not see any modern day technology in the classroom. The computers had keyboards, a mouse, and they had wires running under the desk; there was LAN cable everywhere; just like the old days. The students were taking notes on their Palm Pilots (and I did notice that a few students were beaming notes to each other--well, kids still pass notes, and it's just a more high-tech operation). I thought that it was strange that the teacher seemed not to be using any of the common place technology. The teacher was not beaming or projecting support material to the students, The teacher seemed to be using teaching techniques from way-back-when; standing in front of the class to a give a lecture. Oh well, I wandered along the hall a bit further.
As I peeked into the classrooms I passed, I was taken aback by the fact that they seemed to be just like the first classroom I peered into. Both were just like the classrooms I had left 10 years ago---lots of computers connected by wires, a teacher in front of the room giving a lecture, some modicum of Web-supported material to enhance the lesson. This was fascinating. Just then my VP rang. t was Jeanette. I told here where I was and in a few moments she and I were back together. I was not sure whether I should make a comment about the classroom I had just peered into, but I asked Jeanette about what I just saw and she said, "Yes, some subjects are still delivered in sage on the stage format." She explained that this was a nice break in the daily routine for the children.
Our next stop was the library and it was terrific. No wires were connecting the computers, and lots of access to remote curriculum-rich sites. And the library was full with students who were exploring, researching, inquiring---lots of inquiring minds.
In another part of the building there were lots of holography rooms in which there were classes taking total sensory virtual tours. Jeanette and I went into one of the rooms. There was a class in there and they were exploring the Pyramids in Egypt. I had never actually been in one of these before. It was terrific, it was just like actually being there; well our bits were there…our atoms just were not. There was an Egyptian tour guide (a real person I think, I could not tell if was or not, it could have been a simulation just like the Virginia real estate agent I met several months ago). This was fascinating also. The students were actually experiencing history and geography.
The next holography room had a class in it. They were touring a Union campground just after the Battle of Gettysburg. The students were talking with soldiers about their experiences during the battle and during the Civil War. I knew that these soldiers were not real people! But it was an accurate depiction. Jeanette indicated that the publishing companies did not publish much paper-based curricular material anymore. They primarily published computer-based curricular material. She indicated that the major shift in the field of education came not from the various Education Reform laws but came when the publishers decided to de-emphasize paper-based curricular material and emphasize computer-based curricular material.
We left the holography room area and continued to other classrooms. Jeanette indicated that we were now going to see some distance learning classrooms. It was strange to see a classroom full of children with unusual looking helmets on. Come to find out, these helmets were a modern, more matured version of the virtual reality helmets that were just being developed in the late 20th Century.
Jeanette said that there were many classrooms like this one at all levels. At present this was the main method of enriching/supporting the curricular experiences in the various classrooms. She went on to say that the on-site teacher was still the main event as far as curriculum delivery was concerned. I asked what that meant. Jeanette explained that each teacher had a home cluster of students. The home cluster teacher (in my day it was the homeroom teacher) was responsible for setting an agenda for the students. These agendas were mostly standard for each student but there were differences. For example, as students went through the K-12 process their strengths and weaknesses would be identified and accounted for in their curricular agendas. Anyway, students would receive their weekly agenda when they arrived in class---it was beamed to their Palm Pilot by their home cluster teacher. Then the students would go to the various rooms at various times to receive/experience the items in their agenda.
I wondered if the school was still locked into 30-40 minute teaching time segments. Jeanette said that they were not but human lectures were. Jeanette explained that, for example, an agenda item could require 45 minutes, but if the student wanted to he or she could stop the lesson after 22 minutes and resume it later in the day/week. This, of course, was only applicable to activities that were virtual (computer based) such as the holography room and certain distance learning material.
I asked Jeanette a question I thought I already knew the answer to: "How do you keep records of what the students do, how do they turn in their work?" Jeanette said: "The retinal scan or the body scan records who is in what room and what they are doing, then that information is beamed to the teacher, then onto the central office where some of the telecommuting office staff process it and record the students' work. Then that report is sent to the teacher." As we finished our tour of the high school, we came across the gym. Well, let me tell you that gym class was basically the same. They used real basketballs, real gymnastic equipment, and the students really sweated.
All in all, the high school students had a 50-50 mix of contact with human teachers vs. computer-based activity.
To make a long story a bit shorter, the middle schools and elementary schools were much like the high schools. But there was more emphasis on human teacher-to-student contact---about 60% human contact and 40% computer-based curriculum. In the elementary schools there was about a 75-25 split. We toured the middle schools and some of the elementary schools and they were similar to the high schools---holography rooms, virtual helmets, Palm Pilots, and such. We also went to the postnatal schools but they had very little technology for the children. They were 100% human contact. Jeanette indicated that this was not much more than a glorified baby-sitting service---a job that had fallen to the school systems. The technology that was there was for the staff members. The staff members used it to build their expertise and, of course, to do administrative things.
I asked Jeanette about professional development for teachers. She explained that it was primarily delivered in the holography rooms, the virtual headsets, and through real-time videoconferences. She went on to say that people still went to conferences, but that was rare---mostly the conferences came to us. I wondered about the lack of human contact. I guess they were just much more accustomed to virtual reality than were people in my day. But computer-based lessons, holography and virtual reality seemed to be a boon for education as it greatly facilitated the delivery of knowledge to students. But I wondered how that would affect them when they became adults, when they became adult decision-makers, when they became leaders of business! Maybe it was what was need. Maybe it was what was needed in my day and we just did not realize it.
Well anyway, I had a good sense of what a school system was. It was clearly more than a delivery system for facts, it had become a place to acquire information and test it, challenge it, to operationalize it and see how it worked. The education system was giving students wisdom, not just bare fact, not just unapplied pieces of information.
I was glad to be here. I was looking forward to this. It was a change for the better. The role of the teacher as I knew-it back in 2003 has evolved to become a facilitator of experiences to support the "lessons" that the teacher has prepared. The teacher's lot in life has changed but it's still the same amount of effort. A teacher nowadays is more of an orchestrater than a sage-on-the-stage.
Well, Jeanette brought me back to the central office and I went to my office and I began making contact with my new staff and several key teachers. My new experience in education had just begun.
In this school of the future, the teachers, with my help and the help of my 20-member staff, search out relevant curricular materials to support or enhance their lesson plans. While there are virtually (excuse the pun) no more papers to take home and correct (that's all automated), that work segment has been replaced by the need to meet with my staff to plan the weekly or yearly lessons. But that seems to work well. Teachers were always good managers, good organizers, nowadays they just have different things to manage and organize. One noticeable change is that the teachers interact with each other much more than they did years ago. As a result the morale level seems higher. It seems that this attitude is vicariously passed along to the students and they responded appropriately.
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