In My Opinion: What the 21st Century Classroom Looks Like

Not too long ago, my six-year-old daughter wanted to make a kite, so we opened up her laptop and searched “how to make a kite” on YouTube. We had several videos to choose from on the first page of results, and my daughter soon found one that suited her purpose. Within minutes she was collecting material and pressing pause during each step in the video as she followed directions. She could rewind or play the video as she progressed, and an hour later we were testing her kite outside.

Welcome to learning in the 21st Century. Today, students learn from peers, an online community, and experts who share their knowledge through traditional and online publishing resources. University students I work with have access to more information through their cellphones than I did in my entire library as an undergrad.

Smart phones are a wakeup call to educators. The days of constructing four walls with a podium at the front and calling it a school house are over. Today’s students are highly connected and consume information when and where it’s needed. New pushes in augmented reality, combined with the possibilities of hardware like Google Glass, will change the face of education as we know it.

Unfortunately, many educators tend to focus on testing memorization skills—think every multiple choice question you ever endured–but, as Socrates lamented when writing became popular, memorization is no longer important; and the testing of memorization skills is a significant distraction in education. This reliance on a historically structured curriculum leads to one right answer, as Sir Ken Robinson says, “at the back of the book,” rather than opening up the curriculum to multiple questions, ideally generated by the students themselves.

What society needs are people who can ask good questions, come up with creative solutions, critically examine those possibilities to figure out which one creative solution is most likely to be effective, and communicate that solution effectively enough to motivate others to action. Classrooms in the 21st century will take this into account. One step in this direction is the flipped classroom, in which students watch lectures and read course material outside of class, and use class time to engage with topics and course material through small group discussion or individual projects.

The 21st Century Classroom will be a place where students move up on Bloom’s taxonomy (the new version) beyond rote memorization skills to creation skills. These classrooms will be intellectually safe, comfortable places that encourage peer interaction and tactile connections with the material students are studying (virtual or physical) because these experiences inspire creative solutions and communication skills. Successful classrooms will facilitate networking, small group collaboration, and interaction with the subject of study.

These rooms will also be highly connected. Right now campuses have WiFi available but not in all classrooms and learning spaces. New technologies will allow students and instructors to stay connected constantly. Successful educators will be the ones who can connect learning material with the visual, tactile, and social aspects of the subject: e.g., connecting students with professionals who are successful in their respective fields.

Thanks to initiatives like TedTalks and Creative Commons, students have an unprecedented opportunity to listen to lectures from individuals who are the brightest minds in their field. Students also have the ability to securely attend classes through video they may have missed due to illness, or meet with scholars and practitioners virtually as a class through software like Vidyo. Location is no longer a barrier for those who are connected. If the traditional schoolhouse is a wooden building in a field, the 21st Century Classroom is Willie Wonka’s glass elevator, able to move sideways and slantways and even travel outside the factory. The instructor’s role has moved from content deliverer to experience facilitator.

In short, the 21st Century Classroom will be flexible and highly connective. Moveable, comfortable furniture will be important to encourage small group collaboration and communication. The ability to move furniture will also be important to incorporate new technologies as they develop because we don’t know when, where, and how much space this hardware will require. Connectivity through a media that allows as many types of learning as possible will be important as learning institutions seek to distinguish themselves. Learning institutions that thrive in the 21st Century will have classrooms that embrace the social, physical, and emotional aspects of learning.

My six-year-old is now seven, one year closer to higher education. She’s used to having simple questions answered by her computer, and
she’ll be expecting an engaging learning environment.

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Dr. Shawn Apostel is the Instructional Technology Specialist at Bellarmine University where he provides support to faculty and IT to facilitate online and classroom instruction that incorporates technology. Prior to his appointment, he served as the Communication Coordinator for the Noel Studio for Academic Creativity at Eastern Kentucky University and as the Information and Graphics Specialist for the City of Toccoa. He has a B.A. in Journalism, an M.A in Professional Communication from Clemson University, and a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Technical Communication from Michigan Technological University.

His research interests include teaching with technology, applied creativity, digital ethos, e-waste reduction, and visual communication. He serves as a reviewer for various journals and conferences. His work is published by IGI Global, CCDigital Press, Lexington Books, New Forums Press, and Computers and Composition Online. He co-edited Online Credibility and Digital Ethos: Evaluating Computer-Mediated Communication which was published by IGI Global in December 2012, and co-authored book Teaching Creative Thinking: A New Pedagogy for the 21st Century which was published by New Forums Press in Spring 2013.