Pushing the corporation’s training into the 21st century, almost two decades ago for AMR Corp., the parent of American Airlines and SABRE (which has been split off subsequently), a group of us in the future-looking department benchmarked corporate and academic training and education. One of our trips took us to IBM’s training center in White Plains, New York — IBM then being considered rather the leader in corporate training and education (running neck and neck with Arthur Andersen; tempus fugit, o tempora, o mores).
IBM put us through a wringer designed to make us think hard. For one example, they asked us why we weren’t benchmarking our own pilot training, which they had benchmarked a few years earlier. Pilot training at airlines in the U.S. was the best in the world, one fellow noted: You hire people who already know how to do the job well, and you have the pick of the best; you train them in simulators and in an intense classroom situations; then when they go to the job, they have trained people behind them to make sure they do it all right; then you call them back every year to refresh with the latest technologies. (Most other training at airlines still is not up to the pilot training standards, which is good for safety as far as pilots are concerned; aircraft mainenance is close behind. One gets an appreciation for true concern about safety when studying that process. But I digress.)
Apart from the charge to look inward, one other huge lesson we got was to upgrade technology in the classroom. AMR’s Committing to Leadership project had what was considered to be the best classroom resources in the company, outside of the pilots’ various simulators, but it was ancient by today’s standards. We had white boards, flip charts with lots of color, tables that pushed students to collaboration (they were round), and lots of smaller rooms for small group meetings. We had VCRs and televisions in each large classroom. We had specially-edited out-takes from longer video programs, tailored to the curriculum.
IBM showed us the what they called the “classroom of the future.” It looked a lot like a college lecture hall on the students’ side, but it could be reconfigured. The big stuff was behind the podium. Using a PC to control the devices (286? 386? I don’t recall), there were chalkboards/whiteboards that could be raised to reveal rear-projection screens. Behind the screens was the guts: A video projector connected to a VCR; another projector that could show screen shots from a computer. There was a cassette tape deck, a CD player, and a 16-mm projector for film. The podium had a set of controls that ran the lights in the classroom, the chalk boards, and the VCR, cassette deck, film projector and CD, assuming all of those were cued up; switching might require a technician to staff the technology back room during presentations, if more than one film, video tape, audio tape or audio CD was required.
For a then-ridiculous sum of $30,000, classrooms could be updated.
You can figure where this goes. My laptop, which I got used for under $400, substitutes for most of the machinery in that old, futuristic classroom. With an internet connection (wireless, now), the laptop makes the IBM prototype positively ancient.
I think of that “classroom of the future” quite often. I’m happy technology has advanced so far, and that so much of it is so cheap. But it really comes home when I’m in a room that lacks internet or intranet access. Students in many districts assume every computer can go everywhere. One kid last year asked me what use any computer could be if it lacked live internet connections.
The reality in many of America’s classrooms bogs down in the 1990s. Not only do they lack live internet, many classrooms lack projectors compatible with computers. In the past year I’ve been in classrooms that lacked VHS players, and one that came equipped with a Laser-disc machine (those may be older than my children); even where projectors exist, sound reproduction often depends on the 1-inch speakers in the laptop. They’re stereo, but that’s small consolation.
While we’re at it, can we work on the layout of the classrooms? Schools that are wired well — or even wireless — often feature banks of computers along walls, so students stare at the wall while they work. The old tables we had at AMR, round ones, encouraged conversations during work. Can we do something about making it easier for students to work at a computer AND interact with humans at the same time?
How to use computers remains one of the hardest questions to answer in education. It is clear, by now, that education missed the boat on adopting and adapting television to the classroom, to pick one notable failing of the last century. Nowhere is television used to its potential, and often it’s not even used to good purposes. Computers are still in infancy as classroom tools. Can we figure out how to use them to great advantage in the classroom?
If the ideal teaching situation is Aristotle* at one end of the log and Alexander at the other, we need to work to be sure the computer does not come between teacher and student, or worse, replace the teacher altogether.
- * Or earlier, Leonidas, or Lysimachus.
Tip of the old shower-proof electronic scrub brush to Connecting Through Conversations.