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 of pedagogy.

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 get used.

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.

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