Thursday, November 12, 2009

A school in a backpack?

Two of my favorite blogs, Dezeen and Ashoka have featured posts on modular solutions to real problems. Dezeen highlights the "OpenStructure" project by designer Thomas Lommee. Lommee has designed a group of modules that fit together into a number of forms--a bicycle, a kitchen, a cabinet. Ashoka gives attention to a project at Rice University where students fit several highly important toolkits (an ob-gyn kit, a diagnostic lab, and a community health outreach package) into individual backpacks, which could be carried into remote regions or those without access to health care. This sort of modular-ization extends to the hard sciences. The site Hackteria is a gateway into projects that re-assemble biological building blocks into new uses--a sort of DIY bio-engineering/art lab.

The core idea here--that highly important things can be designed into modules, assembled into different forms, and made portable--is an exciting one. It is also one that has a great deal of frequency in education right now. There is talk about students assembling modules of learning--youtube here, academic courses there, life and work experience appended--into their own version of education. (Westminster is in the process of making it easier for students to create their own majors.)

But while on the student end it is a moderately easy thing to do, on the school end it is much tougher. Even the easiest school to create--a private elementary school--is bound by enough rules, regulations, and complications to make the creation of a new school almost impossible to do at low cost and quick speed. The creation of a new, agile college or university is essentially impossible.

This is a big problem for people who love learning--because it is not clear that powerful learning comes from people solely schooling themselves. (Hence the fact that people go to teachers to learn guitar even though you can see hundreds of guitar-training videos on youtube.) And it is a big problem for people who love schools, because it makes it less likely that innovators will be able to create alternative models to existing schools. But I wonder if it would be possible to use the principles of these design initiatives to come up with a radically new form of school--a school in a backpack.

Lest you think this entirely crazy, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, such things flourished all over the US. Itinerant school teachers travelled from town to town, taking up residence for a time, contracting to teach local kids to read, and then moving on. (For Mormons, the most famous itinerant teacher is Oliver Cowdery, who came across Joseph Smith just as Smith began his work on the Book of Mormon, and became Smith's second-in-command for almost a decade.) Then formal schools, state mandates, professionalization, and inexpensively constructed school buildings put itinerant teachers and their schools out of business.

Today, many of the things that undermined itinerant schools may sometimes be impediments to learning. And the possibility of carrying a school in one's backpack is real--a laptop and the tools of the teacher's interests are about all one would need.

A school in a backpack could certainly provide the same sort of solution for rural people and slumdwellers that labs in a backpack do. And I think the logic is the same--education, like health, flourishes in the mix between technology and human interaction. High-quality, lasting improvements require more than simply sending in the technology. But I am particularly interested in what a school in a backpack could do in the developed world.

In the US we tend to believe that innovation emerges from entrepreneurs with drive and good ideas. But those innovations and the new businesses they birth almost always start small. There aren't good ways to start small with schools right now. Perhaps a school in a backpack would be the thing.

1 comment:

lionofzion said...

I like this idea a lot, and I'll need a little longer to roll it around in my head.

I think one of the major obstacles to backpack schools in the developed world is that developed nations don't like anything nomadic, itinerant, or otherwise hard to keep track of.

Itinerant schools would have the same kind of social stigma gypsies and the homeless have. Governments would be highly unlikely to support them, because they'd be nearly impossible to track or regulate.

Which is a sad thing, really.