What would my ideal school look like? Part 2

The Royalston Digital School doesn't exist. It's a fictitious school on which I occasionally jot down notes about the optimal use of technology to enhance education. This is part 2 of a 2-part series on how such a school could change the way we look at secondary education.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

This is the second post of a 2-part series on a fictitious school that just might finally shake up the way we think about secondary education in this country. Click here for Part 1.

1:1 Every student would have a computer. I see no reason why these shouldn't be Classmates, given the large ecosystem of hardware and software with which they will work. They interact with SMART boards and science probes, shoot video, and create podcasts. Their use would be expected in every class and the tablet format would mean no paper, given their note-taking utility, as well as ready access to Internet resources and electronic texts. It doesn't hurt that they're inexpensive and durable, as well.

Electronic texts Speaking of electronic texts, we're talking open source here. If they don't exist as Flexbooks or some other format that my teachers and students could easily use, then I want my teachers to be subject-matter experts who can generate open content. There, of course, is another dividend of corporate sponsorship: contribution to a growing store of high-quality educational content.

Why is it so important that the content be open? Because the teachers need to be free to use and modify the content as needed to make it appropriate for a heterogeneous group of students, making the texts just as valuable for a highly advanced 7th grader aiming for Harvard at 16 as for a struggling 16-year old, aiming to graduate by the time he's 19.

The best instructors, not highly-qualified teachers There are a lot of great teachers who meet the NCLB standard of "highly qualified." On the other hand, what if I wanted to contract with a media or web design company to provide 6 weeks of instruction on content management systems, allowing their copy editors to handle English instruction for those 6 weeks, accountants to handle math units, Linux admins to teach CMS installation and maintenance, and a SQL guru to dig into database design with a CMS as a working example? This is all utterly accessible to the average 13-year old if done correctly and guided by a good instructional leader (let's say that's me, for the sake of discussion) and would be relevant, hands-on, and interesting. It would not, however, be possible within the confines of NCLB or any public school.

What would the full-time teachers be doing, by the way, while my contractors provided instruction? How about refining their Flexbooks? Attending training? Working individually with students who aren't participating in the unit with the contractors? Writing a book? Developing brilliant lessons to engage their students? I'm sure any highly motivated teacher, regardless of their highly-qualified status, could find ways to occupy their time.

Open 24/7 I don't mean physically open. I mean accessible. I'm talking about teachers who set up online office hours several times a week including weekends. I'm talking about flexible schedules for students to accommodate times of highest productivity. Night classes taken from home online so that students can interact directly with a teacher in China as they are learning introductory Mandarin. Content that is always posted online. Lectures that are videotaped and posted daily to YouTube. Did I mention electronic texts that are either online or stored on their netbooks?

I'm also talking a different approach to homework. Repetitive drills on math skills will hardly help us keep our place as creative leaders worldwide. I want required posts to school and classroom Nings. I want a minimum of one online peer-review per night, whether that's commenting on a blog posting for a literature class or suggesting different approaches to a thought-provoking math problem.

It's 1:30 in the morning as I write this in my dining room. I'm not sure if you've noticed, but the line between work and home is pretty blurry. This obviously has its challenges, but a variety of mobile and Web technologies mean that we can re-engage with work anytime we need to (and, as a result, often be far more flexible in the process). There's no reason that this flexibility shouldn't extend to school. Kids don't stop learning when they hop on the school bus any more than most of us turn off our BlackBerries. Should we sometimes turn off those BlackBerries? You bet. But if a kid is ready to work at 10:30 at night or 2:00 on a Sunday afternoon, technology exists to provide that kid support any time of day or night. Private boarding schools have instructors act as resident advisors to students, meaning that they are literally available in person at virtually any hour of the day. Technology, whether through electronic communications or asynchronous access to learning resources can often do this approach one better.

Collaboration tools Ning, Google Apps, and Joomla! would be my collaborative platforms of choice. Classroom "websites" imply that information is statically placed online for student consumption. That approach is utterly 2002 and will not be tolerated at the Royalston Digital School. Rather, teachers and students will interact, create, post, share, and critique content via Ning social networks. Students will collaborate on documents and presentations using Google Apps and all students and staff will regularly contribute the school website powered by Joomla!

Blogging daily will be required, although access to student work will require authentication. Teachers and administrators should be the face of the school. Imagine ZDNet, but instead of Jason Perlow or Mary Jo Foley contributing content to the site every day, you have Mrs. Jones' Math Corner or Mr. Smith's Programming Challenge of the Day.

Individual Education Plans In US public schools, students with learning disabilities have Individual Education Plans (or IEPs). This is strictly a special education function. At the Royalston Digital School, every student would have an IEP. Assessments for incoming students based on the standards we expect them to reach by the time they graduate would identify areas of instruction. Interest assessments, learning style tools, etc., would suggest optimum approaches for each student.

Because the students would be using their Classmates in every class, it will be relatively easy to capture formative assessment results as they take tests, quizzes, and even respond to questions in class. Even in our small school, one person would be responsible for managing all of these data to ensure continued student growth and progress towards standards. This person would have no other job but to collect, analyze, aggregate, and manage data, as well as assist teachers in its collection and use to drive instruction.

I could go on here, but I think you get the picture. Students in the roughly 10-15 year old group have a wide developmental range and can benefit from highly individualized approaches to education. These approaches can largely be enabled by technology, providing access to learning tools whenever and wherever they need them, as well as allowing teachers to clearly monitor student needs and progress.

A school like my fictitious Royalston Digital School can address needs across the spectrum from gifted to struggling with tools we have available today. It just takes money and a willingness to try some fairly different approaches to meeting the needs of a truly challenging age group. I think there are a lot of us who have the willingness. Anyone have the money?

Editorial standards