This piece at Slate is a reminder of how a particular breed of techno-enthusiasm sometimes runs roughshod over experience in American education. Amanda Ripley notes that the best-performing students in the world go to school in classrooms that look a great deal like classrooms in America only, well, less-snazzy. That is, students in South Korea, or Singapore, or Finland sit in rows at desks oriented toward the front of a classroom where a teacher stands. In Ripley's telling, most of these classroom include little, if any, technology. And what technology they include is used for assessment and providing instant feedback to students and teachers, not for learning. Ripley argues that the main distinctions between excellent schools and poor schools are the skill of the teachers (in leading countries most teachers come from the top third of academic performers, in countries like the US the percentage of teachers at the top of their classes is much smaller), and the amount of time spent on task, not access to technology or the design characteristics of the classroom or school.
Now there are a number of ways to explain away Ripley's insights. They may apply only to k-12 settings, not to higher education. Or she may be taking a snapshot of a practice that has worked exceedingly well up until now but is about to collapse. Or they may work well for educational systems focused on performance on tests, but not for those focused on creativity. Or it may be the case that classroom design is largely irrelevant, and that students in the right culture and context could learn as well seated cross-legged in the grass as they do in rows of desks.
I'm not sure any of these explanations really tell us anything, in part because they overlook the key problem with classrooms--we don't have enough of them. That is, the problem facing education in the US (including higher education) is a lack of capacity. In Utah, the state has set a goal of having 66% of adults with a higher ed degree or certificate by 2020. To do that, colleges and universities will have to not just account for the ongoing growth in the student population but also add capacity to graduate an additional 190,000 students. (Given retention rates, the number is actually much higher. Something like 250,000 additional students will have to enter the system to get an additional 190,000 graduates.)
Some people hope to use technology to increase capacity, and that may be part of the solution. But the findings about the settings where students learn well should remind us that technology-driven learning won't do the trick alone. The capacity issue is a huge one because schools are big, expensive, and permanent; and colleges and universities are even bigger, more expensive, and more permanent. What we need is some sort of compromise--technology and capacity together.
Fortunately, the two could align in higher education. The future might look like this--colleges and universities build cheaper, plainer, more temporary buildings, or they take over unused space in the community--warehouses, empty office plazas. (At the extreme you could imagine pop-up schools in the most capacity-challenged areas--schools designed to last only a year or two and then move to other areas of need.) They build no technology into the building except wireless. Then professors and the students go at it, constructing the courses and the learning out of the content available on the web, and building the sort of relationships essential to good learning in any setting.
Cheap schools + cheap technology = deep learning.