In a recent conversation with a group of colleagues about the impact that our failing economy will have on class sizes in education, my good friend Marsha Ratzel—-who writes over at Reflections of a Techie—asked:

So what we will do with our most gifted students who have small class sizes and our most in need students who need that one-on-one?

Now, maybe I’m crazy, but Marsha’s ideas—combined with the ideas about innovation shared by Clayton Christensen and company in Disrupting Class—have got me thinking that the current economic crisis might just spell the end of traditional K12 education—-ushering out classrooms jammed with 30 kids all studying the same thing at the same time from the same teacher, and ushering in an era of student-centered, individualized digital learning experiences.

Here’s why:

In the past ten years, there has been a lot of talk about using technology to create more student centered, individualized learning experiences, hasn’t there?  It is an obvious change—given the accessibility of free digital tools that can facilitate learning—that has made almost no progress depite a cheeseload of cash and a whole bunch of philosophical windblowing.

But the desire and interest is there….

Christensen and the boys argue that self-directed digital learning experiences haven’t caught on in traditional school settings because they are competing against well-established heirarchies that would suffer if the current models for learning changed.  Think about it:  Everything about schools has been in place for decades—and everything that supports schools, from financing to teacher preparation and development, to school leadership, has been in place for just as long.

Heirarchies are rarely interested in changes that challenge the status quo.  Changes require action—and action is the enemy of the comfortable.

Innovation, Christensen argues, comes in areas where there is no competition.  In schools, this could play out with the top level classes that Marsha is talking about being cut due to budget constraints—and then being replaced by digital alternatives.  Will districts really be able to afford the superfly math class that serves 12 students or the innovative elective class that serves 5?  Can a superintendent really justify a position for a teacher who isn’t working with a full load of kids?

While the original digital courses designed to fill in the gaps where traditional teachers once stood won’t compare equally with a teacher-directed classroom, they’ll be embraced by policymakers because they’re affordable—and when the option is a slightly flawed digital course or nothing, parents and principals won’t complain either.

What’s really interesting to me is that over time, digital courses offered as replacements for classes that are cut because of the economy will see dramatic improvements in quality.  Tools will become more interactive, tailored, responsive and intuitive—and digital teachers will become more effective in their practice.  With each improvement, digital courses will gain in respectability and be valued more and more by communities looking to save cash AND provide individualized instruction for students.

By then, us traditional teachers will be out of a job!

It’s time for us to adapt or die, I think—-and honestly, I’m excited about the potential change.  I’m tired of pretending like I can do a good job meeting the individual needs of the 85 kids I”m responsible for teaching each year, and I know that self-directed learning that I pursue online is far more rewarding than the structured PD that I’m force fed each year.

Why shouldn’t these changes come for my students too?

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