Reflection on 21 Things That Will Be Obsolete by 2020

by Shelly Blake-Plock

Yesterday was a bit of a time-warp as I reached out to the community still subscribed to the retired TeachPaperless blog to let them know we had a new blog happening here.

I was happy to see a personal email this morning in my inbox from one of those subscribers who noted, "Good to have you back. So much is changing - certainly teaching paperless isn't such a distant possibility."

Truer words have not been spoken. Teaching paperless isn't a distant possibility. It's something that I'd been doing since 2008. In fact, here's a bit from the original post from February 2, 2009 that kicked off the nearly three year run of TeachPaperless:

Three years ago, the school at which I teach made the move to one-to-one computing. Initially there was hesitancy on behalf of much of the faculty with regard to the use of the new machines and confusion about how to best implement the new technology in the classroom in an effective and authentic way. For many, the technology of wireless tablet-PCs and LCD projectors amounted to not much more than a word-processor hooked up to a glorified overhead projector. Not that they were wrong... it's just that, for all of us and myself included, our thinking was trapped in the static paradigm we'd always lived with. A paradigm of strict schedules, top-down decisions, and analog television. But the world was growing more dynamic by the hour.

That's how it started. And later that year, by chance, an admittedly rather off-the-cuff TeachPaperless post called 21 Things That Will Be Obsolete by 2020 went sort of viral. The folks at MindShift helped me out and re-published the piece as well as a response to many of the detractors and critics at the time who raised many an eyebrow at my outlandish assumptions.

As I'm reflecting on that email I received this morning, I thought I'd take a stab at updating where we currently are in the U.S. at least when it comes to those things I said would be obsolete in education by the year 2020. Mind you, I wrote this list back in 2009. That's before the iPad. That's back when Edmodo was only a few months old. There was no Google Glass. Flipping classrooms was still something of an academic exercise... as in "academic research". Salman Khan had just quit his job as a financial analyst. And I was mocked for things like suggesting that ebooks would replace paperbacks.

Here's the original list with my current remarks on the state of things. And we've still got six years to go. Overall, I'm pretty happy with the predictions, but I'm also concerned that several of them should be "done deals" and we're still arguing over their merit (see differentiated instruction).

1. Desks :: I would not send my own children to any school that puts children in rows of desks facing a podium. To me, that is the ultimate red flag. Over the last few years I've had the chance to visit many schools across the country and I've noticed two things: 1) in general, elementary schools — and in particular kindergarten classrooms — seem to get it right more often than their secondary school counterparts 2) in general, the more "august" a school, the more likely the classroom design signifies outdated pedagogy.

2. Language Labs :: I have no idea what our expectations are for foreign language study in this country. And I used to teach foreign language. All I can say, is that it if foreign language instruction were being taken seriously and we were using the contemporary methods available to us (not to mention methods that have been working in the rest of the world for decades) we'd be a nation of fluent bilinguals and trilinguals. The entire concept of Language Labs is one of the most egregious and unauthentic tactics one could possibly use to teach language. Solution? Let the kids use available adaptive technologies individually on their own time on whatever device they choose, and bring them together on authentic projects in real-time which demand target language usage and increasing proficiency. You want to see kids figure out Spanish? Give them a 3D printer kit, a Spanish-English dictionary, and an instruction/assembly manual and some reading material written in Spanish. Let's really "flip" foreign language instruction.

3. Computers :: This was a bit of a trick answer back in 2009. I said something along the lines of really meaning "our concept of what a computer is". Well, that's less crazy in Glasshole-infested 2014. What will this mean for schools? 1) Contrary to my initial thinking, I think laptops of some variety will actually become more important in education especially as regards the ability to code becomes more central to the education experience 2) Everything is a computer... meaning we're not long away from classrooms not just full of tablets and BYOD, but packed with multiple data access and data collection points blended in with the mechanical systems that comprise everything from the HVAC system to entry access points, public surface computing, and (very soon) the coming sea-change with regard to 1) wearable computing and 2) drones and robots. Sci-Fi for sure.

4. Homework :: The fact that my kids are bringing home their homework on Xeroxed textbook packets from the year 2004 is insane. Don't even get me started on this one. Just go read some Joe Bower.

5. The Role of Standardized Testing in College Admissions :: I don't know where this one is going at all. On the one hand, the increasingly accessible technology around portfolio-based assessment and digital badges should be a big influencer. On the other hand, there has been an enormous amount of "status quo" around the issue of admissions historically. This one is above my pay-grade, all I'll say is that colleges who don't put some thought into alternates to the "new" SAT are going to be kicking themselves by the time 2020 rolls around.

6. Differentiated Instruction as a Sign of a Distinguished Teacher :: We live in an era of easily accessible and relatively affordable adaptive technologies that can support personal and personalized learning. Next step: train, support, encourage, and expect the teachers to use this stuff in a smart way. I have no doubts that by 2020 this one is a "done deal" across the profession.

7. Fear of Wikipedia :: I remember visiting a school library a few years ago where someone had created "Don't use Google or Wikipedia" bookmarks and left them on all the tables. I don't think that person would take the same approach in 2014. We've grown considerably more nuanced in our approach to information, and the "Ban Wikipedia" hysteria of the past seems trite by today's standards. Is Wikipedia a good source for a college paper? No. Is any encyclopedia a good source for a college paper? No. Is writing a college paper the be-all-and-end-all of knowledge gathering activities on Earth? No. Move on.

8. Paperbacks :: 2011 saw ebooks sales beating print sales on Amazon. It's just a matter of time.

9. Attendance Offices :: I was too snarky in the original post regarding this one. I think especially in light of the many many many recent tragedies involving guns in schools, we are likely to see an increased move from attendance offices to security offices. Maybe we'll even see smart systems enter school culture via what used to be attendance offices. I suggested bio-scans in the original post, I think whatever we devise in reality will wind up being both more compelling and perhaps a bit stranger than fiction. This is one to watch, especially if you are interested in IT systems and the Internet of Things.

10. Lockers :: I might take this one back. Though I do think the "lockers" themselves are going to need to be replaced with something else. But the reason I say I'd be willing to take this one back is because from a design point of view, I see the pendulum swinging from nano back over to mega. Have you seen the size of the phones people are carrying around? Have you seen the size of the headphones people are wearing? We're gonna need somewhere to put all that stuff. Maybe smart lockers... though that idea has been around for a while.

11. IT Departments :: This is one I sort of hedged on in my original post, suggesting that IT departments would grow into something new. Back then, much of the focus was on how to filter the Net and how to manage massive install operations. Much of that work has been figured out (though hardly perfected). Next projects: 1) what to do about wearable tech 2) how to implement or augment for universal design across new technology environments 3) how to create more intelligent buildings 4) how to explain in clear terms to everyone on staff what The Singularity means to them.

12. Centralized Institutions :: I described school buildings themselves as becoming "homebases" of learning. And I stand by that. Despite the realities of the hours during which schools need to be available in order to let parents put in a day's work, what happens in those buildings is going to change in a big way. More community education (adult ed, CEU, tech training, workforce dev) and more unstructured project based and inquiry-driven learning by students supported on the backend by adaptive tech and blended learning environments — this will become the norm. Learning on-demand and on-the-go will be the expectation by 2020.

13. Organization of Educational Services by Grade :: Blended learning has the opportunity to forever put this dinosaur to rest. RIP.

14. Education Schools that Fail to Integrate Technology :: This one actually really ticks me off. It is insane that in 2014 we have top ranked Education Schools who fail to model authentic and meaningful tech integration into the methods of teaching. This stuff needs to be in the water; it can't be served by the "edtech department". In light of this and the potential for alternative certification primarily handled online, I'm going to make a bold prediction here and say that most current education schools — particularly those who are primarily working in the pre-service prep space — will either shutter their windows or drastically reduce staff by 2020.

15. Paid/Outsourced Professional Development :: Ironic coming from a guy who runs a company in the PD space, huh? In fact, not at all. I think that smart folks in the professional development space want teachers to be the ones leading PD. That's part of the larger shift to blended learning and I think it is key to the future of the teaching profession. In fact, there is a lot more good those of us in the PD space can do by giving support to teachers who lead PD than by trying to maintain guru status. Don't trust anyone from a PD company who tells you otherwise.

16. Current Curricular Norms :: Increased personalization; increase in the acceptance of personal plans, objectives, goals. Local and hyperlocal resonance. Social learning. "Sharing is the new essential." Hippie-stuff, I know.

17. Parent-Teacher Conference Night :: If anything, parents and teachers have more opportunities now than ever to connect with one another. Why don't we get rid of Parent-Teacher Conference Night and turn it into Parent-Student Learning Night? Have parents and their kids coming in together to learn new things and make new projects happen. In the bigger picture, parents don't need to know what grade their kid has in Math class; parents need to understand how teaching and learning are happening in the math class. Demonstrate that by bringing all parties together and making something meaningful.

18. Typical Cafeteria Food :: Kids. I'm talking to you. Please take pictures of the food in the lunch line and send them to your local newspaper's website. Everyday. For a year. At the very least, post on imgur. Want a real challenge? Check out what this 4th grader did.

19. Outsourced Graphic Design and Web Design :: Dear school principals, You may have noticed that there are students in your school. You may have also noticed that your website still sucks. And you can't read it on a phone. Idea: throw a weekend Hackathon for student teams to develop a new school website. Take the $65,000 the design firm quoted you and give it to the winning student team in the form of scholarship money to college or maybe as seed funding for their web dev startup.

20. High School Algebra I :: My colleague Jason Lewis says that when it comes to math, what we really need is to make the shift to computational thinking. This doesn't start by writing new curricula and designing new lesson plans. It starts by teaching teachers what computational thinking is all about. That's not meant to sound snarky. Rather, it's something of a warning that if we don't update the way we think about math in schools, we're doomed to fail our kids (in more ways than one). Our math crisis is as much a teacher crisis as anything else. Not in the sense that the teachers are at fault, but in the sense that the teachers are by-and-large prepared to instruct math in the way that it's always been done rather than in the way that we desperately need it to be done. This isn't just about curricular change, this is about philosophical change.

21. Paper :: I've actually changed my opinion on this. I'm going back to paper. First thing I'm gonna do after I finish this post is go buy a new printer. I need to print out the Internet. ;)

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