To say that the world of education today is complicated would be a radical understatement. Administrators, classroom teachers, and parents struggle together (and sometimes struggle against one another) through a morass of opportunities, pitfalls, and choices. Under the banner of “Twenty-first Century Learning” (a title that gets less impressive each year) schools struggle to find ways to effectively integrate digital resources into the classroom and curriculum. With the purest of intentions schools sail on a sea of murky options, STEM (STEAM, STREAM), Blended Leaning, Flipped Classroom, 1x1, and at every turn there are choices, choices, choices – each with a price tag, a time commitment, and a hoped for outcome. Standing on a precipice, the educator is pressed to “Choose wisely.”
And to some extent it is a deck that is stacked against us, for there are no correct choices and no right paths. Many digital tools have a short time of usefulness and then they are quickly tossed aside. Outcomes of new instruction models (unless they are measured on immediate, limited value, standardized testing) don’t show true effectiveness for years. In a competitive marketplace it is impossible to select a product or program without being criticized by proponents of the alternative. The only comfort in making these choices is that to do nothing in a changing environment is equally hazardous. The future is coming, and it will happen through you or to you.
The Art of Trend Analysis
One way to approach digital choices in school and classroom is to stop listening to (and making) predictions and focusing instead on trends. Predictions for the future of digital education are based on the definitive information of today and indicate a clear path. The problem with this approach is that this path is often inflexible and sometimes wrong. Trend analysis recognizes areas of focus and develops ongoing and flexible strategy to address these.
For example, an auto manufacturer may predict that there will be flying cars by 2025 and put all resources toward being at the forefront of making that prediction happen. While it may come true, other factors might come into play that take the industry in a different direction than anticipated. Perhaps the introduction of another dimension to automotive travel doesn’t increase reliability, dependability, or safety or leads to regulatory challenges.
A second manufacturer, on the other hand, might have the exact same information at hand and conclude that people respond well to greater automation in cars and spend its resources discovering and following and putting resources this trend. This manufacturer has a far greater range of actions and a far greater opportunity for success regardless of whether or not flying cars become the norm. The bottom line is: predictions often lead down blind alleys while trend analysis gives full flexibility to recognize and adapt to a changing future.
Digital Trends in Education
The same too often proves true for schools; a limited prediction blocks the opportunities offered by a larger underlying trend. One key trend that is seen in the digital world of education and in general is the move toward greater and greater mobility. From the enormous machines of the dawn of computing to desktop machines, to laptops, to tablets and phones, devices have grown smaller, more powerful, and portable. This trend has huge ramifications on all aspects of classroom instruction and immense pitfalls for lack of flexible planning. School A may decide that the FLIM FLAM MICROTABLET is a truly revolutionary device and predict that this device will be the foundation of their program for the next decade. While this prediction might prove true, it is equally possible that another device may come to surpass it, and the school is locked into a less effective option. School B may identify the trend of mobile individual computing for students and develop a strategy to consistently find the best option to meet this need. In trend approaches, plans are not tied to any one model or brand but to essential function.
One does not have to look far to find a number of similar trends in education brought about by the digital revolution. The textbook across the desk has a clear shelf life as digital product use grows. Early predictions saw no further than a digital reproduction of a paper book, pictures of pages. However, if we follow the trend of a new textbook, there are opportunities to envision products that transcend the “words and pictures” limitations of paper books to integrate sounds, videos, links, and even adaptable instruction and assessment. The same could be said about a paper-less environment (less paper, not paperless). With the growing number of classes with individual devices, the medium of paper for the transmission of data seems a wasteful and impractical choice. However, many can point to the bold predictions in the early 1990s of a true paperless future, predictions that were mocked by the ensuing glut of paper use as personal printers quadrupled consumption. The underlying trend that we will find practical alternatives to paper use allows us the flexibility to consider and do what’s best and even to envision new applications previously unseen (and certainly unpredicted) without limiting ourselves to a paper-free environment.
Similar trends can be observed (and predictions made) in every area of instruction. It is clear there will be new instruction models and new delivery systems. It is clear that student work will take new forms to meet the abilities of tools and the needs of the time. It is clear that social media will play an important role in human interaction inside and outside the classroom. As educators plan, these trends (as they are today) must be integrated into action. Predictions for our digital future may be right or wrong in their direction, but trends can always provide navigation as we sail over choppy or smooth seas toward the horizon.
Greg Dhuyvetter is the Superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Orange California. He has worked with schools and school leaders in the diocese and across the country to envision and create new realities of education. He writes regularly on topics of education reform and digital realities at his blog www.workwithhope.net.