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Tomorrow's Classroom

By 2020, school will be less of a citadel than ever, and kids will be doing more and more of their learning in the real world.

When McKinzey Manes heads for the office in the morning at 7:15 a.m., she’s dressed for success—in a jacket, sweater, light-colored shirt, and low-heeled shoes. Likewise, her business partner, Aiden Haubein, favors khakis and collared shirts. They’re disciplined, they work hard, and they’re still in high school. Manes and Haubein, both 18, are developing an app they’ve dubbed the “All in One,” which integrates the various elements of people’s professional and personal lives: calendar, email, cloud storage, tasks, notes, and projects, at the Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS), an immersive, hands-on program offered by the Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kansas.

They might spend half their school day at the office, otherwise known as the district’s CAPS building, brainstorming a new feature or meeting with professional programmers.  

There’s plenty of precedent for taking their efforts seriously. Just consider the case of Nick D’Alosio. In March, the English 17-year-old sold his news aggregator app Summly to Yahoo for a reported $30 million in cash and stock. Even while he’s still in school, D’Aloisio will be starting work at Yahoo’s London office.

Manes and Haubein may not make millions before they graduate, but they’re already thinking like, and acting like, professionals. That’s important, according to Donna M. Deeds, the executive director of CAPS. “If you think about education and the world of real work, it’s two different silos that never touch.’’

Now in its fourth year, CAPS is changing that by “aligning opportunities for juniors and seniors to where the markets are going,” Deeds says. “So if an economic trend is in bioengineering or IT medical device development … we let industry drive the way.”

By blurring the boundaries between school and the “real” world, the program may also be providing a model for what education will look like in the year 2020.

In fact, a number of forces are conspiring to open up the classroom, integrate schooling with the larger world, and personalize education to students’ individual needs, abilities, and interests. Digital technology is blending face-to-face instruction with personalized online learning.

The Internet is providing students with almost unbounded access to texts, primary sources, and experts, as the traditional textbook (to just about no one’s regret) withers away. Meanwhile, the Common Core State Standards are calling upon students to think more and create more. And digital technology, to invoke again that great agent of change, has lowered entry costs, making it easier for students to publish their work—be it stories, apps, inventions, games, songs—in a real and thriving marketplace.

Free Thinking, Personalized Learning
The Common Core standards have gotten L. Robert Furman excited. In fact, says the principal of South Park Elementary Center, in Pennsylvania, the new standards, working in concert with technology and blended learning, are the wave of the future.

“What’s exciting to me about the Common Core is that we’re going back to a state where we’re letting kids think. Not every answer has five options,” says Furman. It’s his hope that within 20 years, the standards will “give our students back the ability to freely think, to problem-solve, and to debate and persuade. We’ve lost a lot of that due to the nature of No Child Left Behind.”

Cameron Evans, the national technology officer for Microsoft Education, agrees. He expects that the class of 2020—today’s fifth graders, who will be the first to fully benefit from the Common Core and blended learning—to have more “entrepreneurial activities to contribute” by the time they graduate. “These students will be producers, not just consumers of content.”

Both Evans and Furman stress the 2020 blend won’t be complete without blended learning, and that means putting technology in students’ hands.  To prepare kids with the “21st-century skills” they’ll need in the knowledge economy, says Furman, schools have to embrace technology as standard educational practice. A self-described “tech evangelist,” Furman was recently honored by the National School Boards Association as one of the nation’s top 20 ed-tech leaders to watch. Not surprisingly, he makes sure that South Park has the latest technology to give teachers the best possible tools.

His school received an $85,000 grant to bring in multiple iPad carts to enhance blended and distance learning. This allows students, for example, to interact with their counterparts at a school in Ireland once a month to share experiences. “We use Skype a lot,” says Furman. “We [had] an author visiting from Alaska who has written a lot of books our students enjoy and is Skyping with our fourth-grade class. We’ve embraced technology to learn more and dive deeper into content and find new ways to solve problems.”

This “knowledge economy” is not fact-driven or skills-based any longer, he contends. “It’s the ability to think outside of the box on ways to solve problems, and we’re starting [that] at a very early age.”

The school is purchasing a new wireless infrastructure to accommodate the iPads. Most classrooms have interactive whiteboards; Furman says all of them will within two years.

He envisions that in the coming years, teachers will guide students toward knowledge—on the Internet and via distance learning and videoconferencing—rather than distributing it to them directly via textbooks. “Letting students venture out to gain more knowledge is what hopefully is happening and should be happening. In 20 years, it will be the norm and not the exception.”     

According to Microsoft’s Evans, that trend is already under way. Teachers’ dependence on textbooks is diminishing, and more and more educators are relying on the Internet for relevant content. He cites the growing treasury of online resources such as Khan Academy and TED conferences, as well as those established by organizations like the Smithsonian and PBS.

By 2020, education will also be more responsive to the individual learner, he says. “There will be machines that learn as well as we do, and curriculums can be dynamically assigned based on each student’s needs and abilities,’’ he says.

Preparing Students for Every Opportunity
Blue Valley S.D., where caps was developed, is a modest school district, with just over 22,000 students served by five traditional high schools, a small, alternative high school, nine middle schools, and 20 elementary schools.

CAPS was the vision of schools superintendent Tom Trigg. It came about in response to discussions with several businesses and colleges in the area about what students need to prepare them for every opportunity—whether it’s going to college or into the workplace. Students are eligible to apply for the program as juniors and can participate for up to four semesters.

Tonya Merrigan, the district’s head of curriculum and instruction, envisions offering more programs like CAPS as a way to meet changing educational demands. “I think we’ll take some of the concepts and infuse them into all of our levels with a more hands-on approach. I think our kids will demand more of us. They will be able to do more, and we don’t want to hold them back.”

There is no question that CAPS students are already doing more than many people their age. In a global business class, for example, CST Industries, one of the program’s partners, has students working on a project to determine whether the company’s massive storage containers—which are used for petroleum, water, and sand—can be used by the state’s burgeoning fracking industry.

Another team of students owns the rights to a full patent on a straw that filters out contaminated water. Although there is a similar product already on the market, these students, now sophomores in college, “created a more eco-friendly, biodegradable product.”

CAPS “gives kids an edge, so when they enter college they’re not just academically sound but they’ve seen the other side,” says Deeds. “This is a model that has absolutely no limitations,’’ she adds. “In traditional education, even if you’re doing blended learning or using technology very proficiently, it’s still scoped with what students are expected to learn in high school, so there’s a ceiling, so to speak.”

In all CAPS courses, says Deeds, a certified instructor works in tandem with area business partners to ensure that high school standards, as well as criteria for any applicable college credits, are being met. Students spend two and a half hours at their business location, then return to school for the rest of the day. And they are accepted at all levels of academic performance, Deeds says. At present, there are 930 enrolled.

By working on real-world projects, students gain poise and self-confidence—not to mention LinkedIn profiles and a network of valuable contacts.

“They all understand how to do a 30-second elevator speech,’’ says Deeds. “Every day I come to work and think, ‘No, he or she can’t be 17.’ ” In a way, the program marks a return to the old days, when teens were already parents and running farms and making budgets, she says, “yet we still have kids raising their hands to go to the bathroom.”

The All in One app will be ready for field testing by the end of the school year, says Haubein, who will attend Kansas State University in the fall. He’s also still involved in a project he worked on with another student earlier in the year, a one-piece modular shelving unit. They hope to find the right material for it and bring it to market.

Manes, who will also attend KSU, says CAPS has been an invaluable experience. “The biggest thing for me was realizing that working on real-world and professional-level projects isn’t as complicated or intimidating as I thought looking in from outside,’’ she says. “Now I have the tools to be able to make those connections and get in and get more opportunities than I would have otherwise.”

In the afternoon, the partners split up to go back to their respective high schools. The transition back to traditional classes is a challenge, says Manes. “It’s hard for me, because I get so excited by what we’re doing in CAPS, and all of a sudden, half an hour later, I’m sitting in English class and I have to write an essay.”

—Summer 2013—

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