So…is it all about technology?
No, but technology does introduce new possibilities for learning, and children today will need to be well versed in those possibilities by the time they graduate from high school. Even so, it’s comforting to know that the benefits of quiet, focused class time are not lost on the tech-driven, über-connected students of the new millennium. As Gabbi Fisher ’13 says, “…I prefer to keep those [techie] tools as supplements instead of substitutes for real class time. I love class time without technology because it allows me to concentrate on my teacher and peers in real life, and nothing beats the connections made and revelations encountered in a physical classroom.”
Will teachers disappear from classrooms?
As classrooms become less teacher-centered and more inquiry-driven, the roles teachers play as guides will become even more important. Instead of being the primary dispensers of information, teachers will facilitate research and application, help students turn information into knowledge, and then help them apply that knowledge to real-world situations. Figuring out how to make these classroom shifts is a big part of why Palfrey chose connected learning as this year’s professional development theme and why it is resonating with PA faculty. Referencing connected learning guru Mimi Ito’s workshop in September—which launched the theme—PA journalism instructor Nina Scott says, “I was excited by the workshop because of John Palfrey’s energy and his devotion to diving into the future with gusto, grappling and wrestling with questions we’ve had for years—that all educators have had for years—about not only how to use technology in education but how to keep up with the kids who are fully embedded in that world.”
And what about those reading, writing, and critical thinking skills?
In a world in which journalist Nick Kristof live-Tweets his Bahrain visa crisis, Newsweek transitions to an all-digital format, photographs of the devastating effects of the earthquake in Haiti can be shared instantly, and social media is recognized as a tool for political change, reading, writing, and critical thinking skills are more crucial than ever. Of course, they will be paired with skills that are more important today than they were 10 or 20 years ago, such as collaboration, cultural literacy, information analysis, and advanced problem-solving, but even so, their importance remains intact.
Connected Learning in Action
While surely the shift to a connected learning paradigm will bring groundbreaking changes to Andover classrooms, connected learning is already an integral part of many PA classes.
Close to home. Some of the strongest examples of connected learning already in place at PA are grounded at the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and the Addison Gallery of American Art. “Having the Peabody involved in  courses,” Palfrey says, “whether it’s a tiny modular thing or something more extensive, that’s absolutely connected learning. Having students look at the maps that Sidney Knafel ’48 has just given us in the Addison when they’re doing history with Emma Frey, that’s absolutely connected learning. I don’t care if it’s hard copy or digital. The format doesn’t matter. It’s the connection, the connective tissue we draw upon.” Alums. While Palfrey acknowledges that the core work of learning a discipline like math is going to happen in a master teacher’s classroom, he’s excited by the myriad opportunities for learning from PA’s rich network of alums who have expertise in everything from innovative surgical techniques to chicken farming. “Some of the best teaching I’ve ever done,” he says, “has been with a guy named David Hornik, who happens to be the dad of Noah Hornik ’15. He was a graduate of Harvard Law School (HLS), and he and I taught a course on venture capital at HLS, which he volunteered to do. He came to Harvard for three weeks. We co-taught the class…The students loved it, we got great reviews, but we also, I really think, taught a lot. And the point was he was an alum who just wanted to give back.”
Technology with pedagogy as a goal
One of the many benefits of technology in the classroom is that it enables teachers to provide prompt and more efficient feedback to students on their work. In Vic Svec’s nearly paperless Russian classes, students do the majority of their work on iPads. They submit homework electronically; Svec marks it up and sends it back electronically, often within an hour of receiving it; students correct their mistakes and send their work back to Svec…electronically. Each and every piece of homework goes back and forth between teacher and student until it’s right and until each student understands why. Students even submit audio files of their oral homework. Sure, Svec used to do this same thing when students turned in paper homework, but the exchanges took days and weeks, not hours. To those who argue that technology makes more work for teachers, Palfrey says, “The technology is not making more work; the desire to give feedback to kids is what’s making the work.” Svec echoes that and adds, “If you do it right, it makes a lot more work. But it also makes the work better.”
These are, by no means, the only examples of connected learning already happening at PA. In Nick Kip’s Greek and Latin classes, students do grammar drills using interactive Excel sheets that Kip first created more than a decade ago. Nina Scott’s journalism students blog about hot topics in the news. During the recent presidential election, Sue Greenberg’s new media students blogged and Tweeted in response to real-time results. Archivist Paige Roberts is building bridges between libraries, museums, and archives to create educational programming that makes the best use of PA’s cultural heritage collections. And in teaching fellow Patrick Rielly’s English courses, students engage in nightly class discussions about their reading assignments on Twitter. Like many English teachers, Rielly, in the past, had his students keep reading journals or write one-page reading responses, but he’s found that having real-time discussions with students on Twitter allows him to provide immediate feedback.
And What If…
Beyond what is already happening in Andover classrooms, Palfrey proposes a range of models that will make the most of students’ time at PA by connecting it to blended or hybrid versions of online education. “What if,” he says, “we extend what our classrooms are and [extend them] out to the teaching that’s happening elsewhere?” Sometimes, he explains, that might mean offering Andover content to others. Sometimes that might mean teaming up with another school. And sometimes that might mean PA students taking classes elsewhere via the Internet. Looking forward, he recognizes that the virtual opportunities of connected learning are far greater than those possible in a traditional brick-and-mortar institution.
- What if Vic Svec isn’t just sending feedback to PA students who are taking his Russian classes, but also to three students in Illinois, two in India, and four in the U.K., whose schools don’t offer Russian? And what if these nine students participate in Svec’s classes either live via Skype, if time differences allow, or via downloaded video recordings?
- What if, when PA’s budget does not provide for an Arabic teacher, PA teams up with four or five schools whose students also want to study Arabic, and the schools collectively hire a teacher for a virtual class?
- What if students in 10 literature courses around the world who are all reading the same book take part in Rielly’s nightly Twitter discussions? What enlightenment could readers in India shed on Toni Morrison’s Beloved? What enlightenment could PA readers shed on Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger? And what could these students teach one another about culture, community, and collaboration?
- What if PA faculty members develop teaching materials (which is already happening in many subjects) and share them more broadly with the world in ways that are well thought-out and sensible?
Relatively soon, Palfrey hopes to implement a summer program in which, say, 100 beds are designated for non-PA kids who come back every summer and who, during the rest of the year, do PA coursework remotely. “Let’s imagine,” he says, “that four of the classes that [these students] get at home are fabulous, but they don’t have enough science. It just doesn’t exist. They would take the online science course with 10 other PA students.”
Or, he says, “You could even slice it more thinly. You could say kids come for one week during the summer. There’s week by week by week, and we have five cohorts of kids come. You could do it with Exeter and you could do it with Harvard, and you could split it up so they could come for one summer here, one summer there. I think there are lots of versions of this that we should open up. And it might mean that youth from more quarters end up coming to Andover. I feel like we already sort of do that with (MS)2. We have a version of that. So I think we’ve got a whole bunch of neat experimental models that we can work from.”
As the list of what-ifs clearly demonstrates, Palfrey is putting all of his experience, know-how, and energy into figuring out how connected learning at PA will look in a year or two, but he’s very much looking forward to hearing more ideas from faculty. “Connected learning is a set of possibilities,” he says. “And what I want most is for our faculty here to be engaged in this inquiry, and to be engaged in testing, exploring, assessing—really carefully assessing. Asking ‘Does it actually work? What works? What works better?’ Because ultimately, what we’re trying to do is to serve our kids better, right?”
Finally, Palfrey plans to create an institute at PA designed to give faculty and students a place to assess digitally mediated learning, a lab in which new tools and teaching techniques are tried out, tested, tossed around, and assessed. In a world that is changing incredibly fast, he wants PA to have the capacity to be able to act quickly, be a part of those changes, be a center of excellence that serves as a model for other educational institutions, and lead the movement in educational transformation. “Let’s get in front of the mob and call it a parade,” he says.
1Connie Yowell, “Connected Learning: Reimagining the Experience of Education in the Information Age,” HuffPost Education, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/connie-yowell/connected-learning-reimag_b_1316100.html (March 3, 2012).
Kristin Bair O’Keeffe is an author, speaker, and writing teacher with 18 years of teaching experience in both traditional and virtual classrooms. She also is Andover magazine’s class notes editor.