For this year’s back-to-school column, let’s go “where no one has gone before” and return to the original Star Trek television show, which premiered an astounding 48 years ago, this month. There, amidst all the 23rd-century wonder, we come across a classroom on the starship Enterprise. We see kids using tablets to learn. Amazing how Gene Roddenberry got that right, but in a 20th-century-style classroom? Two hundred plus years from now and kids are still seated in neat rows of desks in classrooms? That got me to thinking, technology may be changing learning, but is it changing schooling?

Is today any different?

Last spring, I attended a presentation about K-12 learning technology given to parents in my school district by Jamie Casap, Google’s education evangelist. It was a great talk, full of examples of how technology can work to advance learning, laced with a few refreshing cautions about going too far or embracing it too much. Jamie talked a lot about computers, tablets, mobile apps, and the web, and the potential they have for revolutionizing education. Impressive.

Towards the end of Casap’s presentation, I asked him if learning technology is so powerful, if it improves learning efficiency and enables personalized learning to meet individualized needs, why do all kids attend school for the same amount of time? Won’t some kids need less time and some need more? Why are all classes the same length? For example, should math class and history class always be 48 minutes long for everyone, every day? Won’t technology change all this? He agreed but admitted we are far from there right now. It could be a long slog.

It seems to me, as it might to you, that technology in our schools has come upon a significant barrier: the schools themselves.

Can technology change schools?

We keep waiting for that “disruptive technology” to come along and change it all. We thought it was video, then computers, and now the web. All helpful, but with hundreds of years of tradition, as well as entrenched and perhaps outdated financial, personnel, infrastructure, and political models in front of us, it’s not enough. Technology can and does improve learning, but its full value may never be reached if the context where it is used—the school—does not significantly change as well. And it’s not just K-12 education. Almost every college, university, and corporation has adopted some form of a traditional schooling model. Years in the making, this won’t be undone quickly.

Progressive voices

I hopped over to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the most progressive forces for educational reform out there. On their page, College-Ready Education, down near the bottom, I found this quote from their mission:

“Allowing students to progress to new levels of learning as soon as they demonstrate mastery of a topic rather than moving forward based on the number of hours spent in a classroom provides students with customized pathways to achievement, enabling them to be successful every step of the way.”

I looked at other progressive educational programs and concepts that foster individualized learning, like the Kahn Academy, flipped classrooms, and MOOCs. Nothing’s perfect, but slowly, the conversation about structural change is beginning, like this from the College of Engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder:

“We are seeing an accelerated philosophical shift away from “seat time” to demonstrable, competency-based learning.”

Encouraging, but are we moving forward fast enough?

The bigger challenge

When I think of how education is portrayed on Star Trek, I wonder how anyone ever learned enough to pilot starships. I have the same concern today; hopefully you do too. Schools aren’t bad; they’re just having a very difficult time evolving. After all, they’ve worked so well for so long. And if it ain’t broke…

Let’s accept that technology enhances learning and move on to bigger fish. If technology is going to help really change the game, all the players need to show up to rewrite the rules. Local school boards, parents and taxpayers, teachers and their unions, foundations, and government agencies must agree to confront our preconceptions of what learning technology—and schooling—should be, and then act. We need more pilots, demonstration projects, best practices, and a little courage. And we must fundamentally change our thinking. Time is of the essence; outdated schooling models—even with great learning technology—won’t keep us competitive or help us solve tomorrow’s problems.

We need to keep what’s good about schooling but open it up to new possibilities and structures. The promise of technology alone will not advance schooling, but if we are not careful, traditional schooling may kill the promise of technology.

By the way…

Want technology to truly empower school innovation, and not just be 21st-century window dressing? Start by making sure you can answer these five key questions posed by educator and learning technology evangelist Scott Rocco.