What will the future classroom look like?

Ben Colmery, Colin Brauns, Jackson Moore, David Donaldson and Nabeel Ahmad. Five different people from diverse backgrounds that are challenging the way education is thought of today were asked one common question.

We interviewed five different people from diverse backgrounds that are challenging the way education is thought of today. These game changers are all using digital technology in creative ways to foster a knowledge society through the construction of innovative interactive education platforms. After speaking with these extraordinary and dedicated professionals—Nabeel Ahmad, Colin Brauns, Ben Colmery, David Donaldson, Jackson Moore—we synthesized their experiences and the obstacles they’ve faced as well as their visions of what they believe the future of education will look like.

Nabeel Ahmad, Associate Adjunct Professor at Teachers College Columbia University and mobile learning thought leader for IBM Learning

Nabeel Ahmad is the mobile learning thought leader for IBM Learning. He is leading a shift in IBM’s mobile learning strategy, focusing on how mobile devices can be used in the workplace for learning and performance improvement. He has worked with Bank of America, Columbia University, the New York City Department of Education and the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute on various learning projects. Nabeel holds a Doctorate in Educational Technology from Columbia University, a Master of Science from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science and a Business degree from the University of Oklahoma. He teaches a mobile learning graduate level course at Columbia University. He has published on mobile learning topics and has a keen interest in educational technology for growth markets.

In the changing world we are now living in, Nabeel Ahmad argues that education has to adapt. In the past generation, people could be engineer for forty years in the same company but today, one single skill is no longer sufficient; everybody need to develop multiple skills. In developed countries, technology is now everywhere and many companies understood there are a lot of opportunities to make money with technology and to improve the types of opportunities that are available such as distance learning. A lot of companies are trying to get in what is called “educational technology”. It corresponds to technology to help improve a certain aspect of education. In particular, education software are very profitable, both test preparation software designed to help improve standardized test scores, and personalized software to help primary school students with their homework. However, technology should only facilitate the education process, not replace it. This is one of the major challenges Nabeel identifies with technology: people tend to assume that pushing technology is the solution rather than a facilitator. It is important to define the usage of technology have proper training in order not to waste money and time. It is said that a computer is always the smallest person who uses it. Without training, technology used in education can be very detrimental. Whether it is mobile applications, or educational software on computers, the key is to know how to use it the right way. For him, technology will particularly enhance education through increased personalization, especially for test preparation. The questions you are asked depends on your response to the previous ones. Even if it is still an algorithm that can have imperfections, it will be better overall. In developing countries, the big thing happening is in the mobile space. Nabeel mentions that a lot a people do not have personal computers or do not have access to computer lab but most everybody have a mobile phone, even if it’s a basic one. In the company he is working at, IBM, the big strategy over the next five years is in Africa (they call it “the final frontier”). They see Africa as the biggest area for growth so they are developing a lot of initiatives on mobiles including in the education field. He argues that the best strategy to use technology to enhance education is not to try to get people to do something they are not used to (like using a computer), but to figure out a way to do it through the phone people are constantly using. Another challenge he identifies is the fact that a lot of teachers are reluctant to use technology because they fear their students might know better how to use it. His recommendation is to start with small initiatives to win people over. A good example he gives is the use of instant poll using mobiles ( It enables the teacher to ask a question and the students to answer by sending an SMS. It can give the results in a graph immediately so it is a good way to adapt the pace of learning while being anonymous. It is an example of small initiative with technology enhancing education by providing useful instant feedback to the teachers. According to Nabeel Ahmad, the future of the classroom will be much different than today and in particular the role of teacher: it will increasingly be a collaborative approach where the teacher has a role of facilitator instead of the traditional top-down approach. For sure there will be an increased use of technology, but understanding how to use it appropriately will be the challenge. There will be increasingly more virtual classrooms such as skype session with a class in Europe happening at the same time. The challenge will be to manage the classes that are no longer confined to physical borders. It will take time but in the long run, technology should definitely enhance education.

Colins Brauns, Founder Free Skool Cambridge

Colin Brauns founded Free Skool Cambridge, a start-up non-profit developing a peer-to-peer education and skill-sharing system mediated with modern web technologies. It is a decentralized peer-to-peer education system—systems which tend to be locally based, and bring education out of institutions—taking advantage of a market of skills and talents unimpeded by bureaucracy or costs or lack of information about who to seek, and enabling people to teach other people their skills. Colin is a lifelong entrepreneur with a wealth of work experience in areas such as clean technology, mobile marketing, and digital media. He is currently launching a media production company, and a nightlife oriented web magazine in Boston. Some of his past experiences have included empowering peer to peer education through a Free Skool at the University of Denver, training students to exercise their citizenship through Public Achievement, facilitating peace and peaceful dialogue through PeaceJam, implementing a sustainability agenda on his college campus, and supporting women’s issues through Men as Allies. He has a B.A. in Digital Media Studies, from the University of Denver, where his studies focused on critical theory of new media.  

Obstacles to education depend on what the goal is—what’s getting in the way of what. One is the culture of schools, which is outdated. We still live in a society where schools are teaching for an industrial age. The lessons that we’re learning are antiquated. Schools are having trouble competing with entertainment technology. Kids have rich experiences with video games, TV, cell phones. They live in one world and go to school in another world. Schools need to train people for what they going to need to know, which is hard, because you have to predict what the jobs are going to be. Not to mention the whole funding situation.

With regard to the evolution of education, personalization is going to be a major hallmark—like Khan Academy’s individualized programs—you can really track people and follow them individually and personally. You use to go to school and there was a talking head, and you’d go home and do the interactive part. You would get the information from the professor, and then you’d take it home and try to make things happen with it. Now we have access to information that’s instantaneous and as interactive as a talking head could be, and we can learn at home and then go to school and do something with it. Teachers teach the material, but they also teach how to use it. With digital technology, this becomes all the more significant.

Going along with personalization, a laptop can learn your style. People can connect, download information, Skype. Technology flattens things out a bit. Historically, priests owned all the information. You had to go to a priest to learn to read, or even to read a letter. There was a confinement of information that got more distributed with books, but now its so cheap that everyone can access it. It’s an information revolution. A teacher might mention an event that happened in a certain decade and a student can Google it and in seconds know the exact day.  A kid who likes videogames could learn to design a map and then become an architect. And even really young kids—one year olds know how to use iPads. It’s totally accessible. To everyone. It’s a sort of “choose your own adventure” education. And distance learning allows people to have classes that would never be able to be held in a single location. 

Ask any teacher who has kids texting in class about the detriments of technology in education. You can talk about how great it is that kids can take notes in class on a laptop, but lots of those kids are checking Facebook. As for distance learning models, the great thing about having a video call is that you can create a virtual classroom in which you have the best and the brightest in any field teaching remotely, and there doesn’t need to be physical access to the person to learn what they have to say, but you lose everything gained from the physical aspect of the classroom. Obviously it would be completely impossible in primary school, for example. You can’t have a virtual teacher teaching seven year olds because you need someone to be physically there in charge, supervising. But even for older learners, distance learning has drawbacks, taking away the personal, interactive aspect of learning. There is no substitute for the physicality and the locality of physical interaction.

 There are a number of priorities. Getting devices cheap enough so that children can own and personalize them is essential. The Khan Academy model is also one to follow. At the global level, getting people in developing countries educated to solve basic socioeconomic and development problems.  Teaching kids to read. Giving women rights. Getting kids to stay in school. Accelerating people who are in school.

The classroom of the future will just remove the room part, and make it more integrated with society. With the increase in computer speed and technology, and the miniaturization of computers and augmented reality, you’ll be able to point your phone at a kind of flower and identify that flower. Teaching will be personalized to the learner, it will learn how you learn, it will evolve to learn better. Everyone will be totally wired. Across all different educational levels and countries we’ll see that education is really fusing with everyday experience. The need to be near a source of knowledge like a teacher will evaporate and there will be more peer-to-peer learning and sharing.

Ben Colmery, Deputy Director, Knight International Journalism Fellowships

Ben Colmery is Deputy Director of the Knight International Journalism Fellowships, the flagship program of the International Center for Journalists. Colmery has worked on developing and evaluating initiatives in Eastern Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and South Asia to build the capacity of journalists and citizen journalists to inform the public through both traditional and new media. He has also completed extensive research on the use of economic journalism to foster transparency in the oil, gas and mining industries in Ghana and Nigeria. His journalism development career began with a training program he launched in Ukraine, in the wake of the Orange Revolution in 2004, to promote print journalism in several small Ukrainian communities. He has an M.A. in international media development and communications from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and a B.A. in English literature from Albion College.

According to Colmery, the biggest obstacles for education today are twofold: Access to resources—investment and funding—but also making sure educators are up to the task. For teachers there’s the issue of qualification, but also incentive. Does education translate to jobs?

He says there’s been tremendous innovation in access to educational resources. We’ve gotten to the point where you can sit at home and watch youtube videos and learn a ton. So much is available out there. In a lot of ways you don’t necessarily need to pay for the privilege to go to the best schools to get an education. We’re creating these resources and making them publically available. I mean, Anne’s class is an excellent example. Creating these wikis. We’re learning something within the walls of these schools and sharing that with the rest of the world. There’s a demand for that. And that is huge progress. Opensource too, it’s making the guts of technology, programmable technology, available to the public to experiment with it. Educational systems have adapted very quickly to all of these changes, but students are coming in more and more advanced.

What you’re starting to see with all these digital resources that are becoming widely available is that people are able to practice outside of the classroom, and it’s starting to seep into the classroom.  Professors are starting to work in new media and make it part of the curriculum. It gives people the chance to touch and use rather than just talk about. With something like Twitter, for example, the minute you follow someone, they become your researcher, in a sense.  As for the role of collaborative platforms in the classroom, it broadens academia. Academics are functioning silos, focused in their one area of expertise; they have tunnel vision, deep in one category. Collaborative platforms can diversify the sources.

As a detriment, technology in education is a distraction. With regard to the disadvantages of distance learning, part of what makes education valuable is being face to face with people. Also, peer groups. People go to school in part to be around other people, which is harder to do in a virtual environment. Distance learning models shouldn’t be a replacement, but rather a supplement. If there’s not alternative, more education is generally better than less.

For a project combining technology and education to be successful, it’s got to be low cost, and something that doesn’t have a high barrier to entry. Something that people don’t need a lot of knowledge going in, if it’s going to have a broad benefit. It all comes back to media literacy, Helping people connect and communicate through media. You can apply to any discipline, because any discipline has information sources.

As for the future of education, realistically, if we’re talking about the developing world, I don’t think it’s going to be that different from what we see today. There’s going to be continuing challenges to get people into the classroom, to get teachers who are skilled enough to teach appropriately and adequately. And access to reliable electricity. There just aren’t the resources for classrooms in the developing world to advance that much. But if these resource obstacles lessen, we could be looking at a lot more computers, and access to the internet in every classroom. Hopefully a more creative environment where people are able to engage these technologies in a way that stimulates a creativity and an entrepreneurial quality and where they don’t simply have access to information, but they can engage it and create it, and see the results of connecting one piece to another and turning it into something bigger.  

David Donaldson, Director of Education at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF

David Donaldson is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer in Slovakia. He is now the Director of Education of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. Among other projects, he is currently working on bringing global awareness in the classroom, by incorporating international issues and cultures in after school communities.

According to David Donaldson, education has to be global. By this, he means that global awareness and the understanding of different cultures around the world has to be fully included in every student curriculum. But the biggest challenge is teacher’s perception of time and perception of understanding international issues as something that falls into their curriculum. Most schools only include global awareness in social studies rather than being multi-disciplinary as it is meant to be. The reason behind that is that a large number of schools do not assess social studies and knowledge in a standardized based way. Therefore, social studies are being marginalized.

The consequence is that certain students (mainly students in under-performing schools) are not given the opportunity to explore international issues and different cultures. However, this has improved over the recent years. Many schools are beginning to identify the importance of students to learning about the world around them. They may have different reasons to do that: to build business skills, to compete with students around the world by learning foreign languages, etc. But, whatever the agenda, it allows teacher to introduce cross-cultural awareness.

Among the successful initiatives that are facing this challenge is iEarn (International Education and Resource Network) which is connecting classrooms around the world using a platform “to learn with the world, not just about it…” Teachers are given the autonomy and the opportunity to share their ideas and link with teachers around the world with similar projects using whatever language they chose. iEarn is conscious of the different access to internet around the world (especially developed vs. developing countries) but is designed to allow communities with possibly slow connectivity and limited access to internet to participate. UNICEF Education Fund is currently testing the platform to connect high school students from Bronx & New Jersey with high school students from eight sub-Saharan countries. The biggest challenge is to prepare the students correctly “to go to the platform” to make sure they do not perpetuate stereotypes, and communicate using technology the best way they can taking into account that some communication items are lost in these types of discussion such as body language. There are many other non-profit initiatives like iEarn that are helping to pick up the responsibility to bring these opportunities of global awareness to school. These initiatives bring technology in a way that can definitely enhance education as long as the students are properly prepared. Otherwise, there is a real danger to perpetuate stereotypes and potential lost opportunities to have rich discussions and provide meaningful inputs about important issues. David Donaldson argues in should be included in the school curriculum because he definitely expect that it has a positive impact on student learning, by improving students skills. According to him, the future of the classroom will embrace both student and teacher’s autonomies; it will go towards a co-constructing knowledge with teachers acting as facilitators. More importantly, the future classroom will be embracing different cultures, appreciating both differences and similarities. In David’s view, it will enable students to develop new skills that will help them to make well informed decisions both in their local and their global communities.

Jackson Moore, Committee Member of The Public School New York City

The Public School is a non-profit initiative that offers tools and spaces for people to self-organize their learning environments. Currently operating in 8 different cities around the world (Berlin, Brussels, Durham, Helsinki, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Juan), The Public School claims to be a school with no curriculum. On their website, classes can be proposed by anyone interested in teaching or learning about a particular topic and then sign up for the classes they want to attend. When enough people have claimed interest, TPS finds a teacher and offers the class to those who signed up.

With the growth of international uprisings that question the way governments and financial systems have been constructed and are being managed today, it becomes increasingly relevant to rethink about the economic model of academic institutions and their effect in creating a knowledge economy.  Likewise, digital tools that are available for free have helped users organize and generate new spheres of collaboration that are fundamentally driven by learning and do not necessarily have a specific traction in the production economy. For Jackson Moore, it is self-education that has progressed the most with the technological tools available today. These technologies will be beneficial as long as the digital features contribute to allow users to meet offline and exchange face to face learning experiences.

Currently, we are experiencing a degradation of universities that have increased student debt in order to become part of a certification system. According to Jackson Moore, if education is standardized it is destined to be uneven. Ideally, in the future, digital technologies can facilitate an open-source and non-profit model of education that will allow people to collaborate in exchange for knowledge. The more people that get involved in collaborative education the better, since it is the people who are involved that determine the character of what education organizations will offer. The following is a transcript of his interview:

In the future we will see a divergence of education for the purpose of certification and education for the purpose of knowledge. Today people are paying large quantities of money to obtain certifications and fill a certain role in society. In the future education will depart from a commercial or capitalist model. Projects will take on the quality of collective projects that are fundamentally motivated by learning and that may not have a specific traction in the production economy.

An increasing sphere of inquiry and creativity is possible for people at this point in history due to an immense amount of wealth that our technological progress has brought us. The world of digital technology has made knowledge free and has made intellectual property obsolete. However much authors and researchers try to fight it, the fruits of their labor are going to be disseminated and enjoyed for free which basically means that they are going to have to commit to participating in a post capitalist aspect of their society. The Internet greatly facilitates decentralized networking and organization but as long as that is followed by meetings in real places with real people, will it be beneficial for new education models.

“In the future knowledge will be free.”

Jackson Moore talks about how technology offers tools for people to organize and create a sphere motivated by learning without a specific track in the production economy.