What should the role of schools be in contemporary education?

The internet has a way of scrambling our timelines. Today (16 Nov 2016) I noticed a paper “Learner-Centered Education” was recently uploaded to the Academia web site. Written by Jim Spohrer,  now Director, IBM University Programs (IBM UP), Jim discusses educational computing methods in terms of Engagement (motivation), Effectiveness (how much of the lesson students actually learn) and Viability (broad applicability in the educational sociocultural milieu). These are very contemporary issues. But, as I began reading I said to myself, “this is old stuff” — and a little searching revealed the 20 year old original publication date. Old but not resolved. In the paper, Jim asks:

What about the social and cultural infrastructure required to make it work?

This is the question Open Educative Systems addresses.

My hypothesis is that learners are transcending school systems entirely and we need to shift our units of analysis. Teachers and classrooms should join textbooks, videos, charts, etc. as “learning objects” instead of being seen as necessary and sufficient channels through which learners access teaching*. The idea that teaching must be delivered through institutions such as schools and universities is so ingrained in our thinking that imagining a different set of structures has become a global taboo.

Today, ubiquitous computer-based devices (including mobile phones) and AI algorithms have brought us to the point where true “personalized teaching”* can be implemented under learner control. When the learner is very young parents and counselors will be needed to insure children can explore in safe environments but these need not be schools as we know them.

Open Educative Systems (OES) comprise at least 10 separate but coordinating institutions:


I first wrote about this concepts in a paper “– OPEN PORTAL SCHOOLS – The Real Impact of Computer-Based Education“in 1982 and have been refining the ideas ever since. I’ll describe each of these components in separate blogs. For the moment, notice #2, #6  and #8 in the puzzle.

#2 offers, among other resources, what we now think of as school classrooms. They serve as ideal learning environments for some learners at various points on their educational path. They are no longer the only venue for either teaching or learning.

#6 is a placeholder for a function now divided among classroom teachers, school counselors, expensive private educational consultants and various psychological practitioners. Charting an individuals lifelong learning pathway is a complex task and deserves serious professional attention.

#8 has a new label since the puzzle image was created. I’m now calling this function “Care Camp”. It’s 24-7 “babysitting” for anyone of any age whose parents, adult children or custodians don’t feel comfortable leaving the person at home or in public spaces alone. It is the “in loco parentis” we now delegate to schools and the adult day care facilities for the elderly and infirm. Today, we often use schools as care camps for children whose parents are employed or otherwise unavailable to supervise their kids. In most classrooms there are many children present who are not ready, able or interested in interacting with the lessons planned by the teacher. Care camps are an alternative safe place for them to be.  Imagine being a teacher in a classroom where all the students were there voluntarily!

Later in his article, Jim talks further about his concept of viability:

“Viability is the most difficult dimension to assess, for nothing short of the development of complete curricula and test deployment in school systems will suffice to answer this question. It is going to be very difficult to examine viability, for it depends upon social cultural, and political issues as much as in evidence of engagement and effectiveness. There will be major challenges in deploying any new pedagogy in the reality of the public schools system or modern university.”

He is thinking of the viability of using computing to provide instruction in schools. In 20 years we have moved way beyond this question. Now it’s “Are schools, as we know them, viable at all?

Are you, or anyone you know, interested in pursuing this topic? Do leave a comment here.Mt.-Zion-school-house.jpg

*IMHO, ‘teaching’ should not, as it so often is, be confused with ‘learning’. Learning (by an individual, as compared to an organization) is always personal. When learning has taken place the person thinks and probably behaves differently than at the previous moment. ‘Teaching’ is an act performed by teachers, not learners (although roles can shift almost instantaneously); teachers create conditions in which they hope specific, targeted lessons will be learned. Consider that what is learned in a given educational environment may have nothing to do with the teacher’s target but it is still learning. Unless and until we are able to disentangle our notions of teaching from learning we will be severely handicapped in our ability to improve either endeavor. The current state of our schools is largely the result of this blindness.


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