Smart Classrooms: The Ultimate Learning Machines?
Ah, the wonderful BMW 7 Series automobiles; not only the ultimate driving machines,
but also the smartest cars on the road. The 7 Series comes with revolutionary
iDrive. While some believe that the i stands for intelligent, others insist
it stands for irkonomics—the application of technology to confuse and
annoy users. Car and Driver magazine was so impressed with how smart this car
is that they praised it for its “funky controls that must be explained
to valets and anyone else entrusted with moving the car.” The Car and
Driver technical editor was awed by the near-human intuition programmed into
it: “This car,” he said, “is always making assumptions about
what you want or how you should drive. It would be better if some of those assumptions
were right.” The New York Times further explained the power of irkonomics.
“[After] 45 minutes … going over the car’s features …
I still did not know enough to operate the radio myself.”
iDrive is managed by a single joystick-like control where you’d expect
the gear shift lever to be. By moving it in one of 8 directions and then rotating
its knob, you can press its top to make your selection from 700 functions and
menus that display on a small screen. This is such a technological tour de force
that the New York Times suggested, “the steering wheel seems like an afterthought.”
Oh yes, while you’re browsing those 700 menus, you have to drive.
We are pouring zillions of dollars into our smart classrooms to apply the same
irkonomic principles used so effectively in BMW’s iDrive—perhaps
we should call it iLearn—with similar results. The overwhelming majority
of learning d'es not take place in classrooms. It takes place in dorms, at home,
in study groups, in the library, on walks in the park, in the shower, in labs,
in conversations, in interactions with online content, and always in the heads
of the people learning.
For example, people do not learn to read in classrooms. They get introduced
to the subject by teachers. They are shown pictures of the alphabet, appropriate
books to read, CDs on pronunciation, and so forth. Then they read everything
they can. Their parents, peers, and relatives read to them and with them. Their
support groups show them in dozens of ways the importance of reading. They might
easily read 10 hours for every hour spent in the classroom. If students confined
their learning to just their time in the classroom, their reading comprehension
would be abysmal. That’s just what happens to children who do no learning
outside their classrooms.
If 90 percent of learning is done outside the classroom then no more than perhaps
20 percent of the money we spend on improving learning should be directed to
our classrooms. In a classroom setting, the most critical things are the students
and the teachers. Money spent on improving either of those will have a bigger
impact than anything we do to create an iDrive-like environment within the physical
confines of a building.
Schools need more motivated, creative students with
a solid grounding in the prerequisites for a course and the knowledge of how
to find and use information. That will enhance learning in a classroom more
than 700 multimedia gadgets accessible via controls, the mastery of which would
gain one instant admission to Mensa. Classrooms need enthusiastic, well-prepared
teachers who love teaching as much as the subject they teach and understand
and use good pedagogy. They will be able to make learning such an enjoyable
imperative to students that their students will use their laptops in class to
work on extra credit simulations rather than sending instant messages to potential
mates. Great faculty, even in the dumbest of classrooms, will initiate much
more effective learning than mediocre faculty in the most advantageous environment.
A smart classroom is just a set of tools for students and teachers. Better tools,
however, don’t always help. For example, Photoshop may be at the pinnacle
of image editing software, but most of us will make a far better drawing with
pencil and paper in less time than it would take us to figure out “superior
Adobe technologies such as cross-product color management tools, Smart Object
technology, and transparency.” Even mastering Photoshop will not make
most of us artists nor will smart classrooms make most teachers into paragons
Without appropriate training, even the most wonderful tools are usually useless.
Often, misuse of tools is harmful, or in the case of a driver going 60 miles
per hour while absorbed in iDrive menu hierarchies, potentially fatal. We may
not kill any students or faculty with irkonomic, smart classrooms, but those
classrooms may actually inhibit learning. The tools a smart classroom needs
are those that can be used with almost no training. That reduces smart classrooms
to classrooms with projection and network connectivity. That turns out to be
a good thing since such classrooms are affordable and the equipment may actually
Car and Driver says that the BMW 760Li is “less endearing to operate than
to sit in.” For an ultimate driving machine with a price of $116,450,
that is a tragedy. For that price you could build a smart classroom that would
be less endearing to learn in than to sit in or instead you could invest your
money in smart learners and smart teachers. It wouldn’t be as snazzy as
iDrive or iLearn, but humans, not classrooms, are the ultimate learning machines.