Learning With Technology

New Schools for the New Millennium

Prakash Nair, RA, REFP




We worry about our schools becoming ineffective when we should be afraid that they will become irrelevant.


A blunt, but accurate way of saying that the time for incremental school reform is past. If schools do not undergo radical reform, they will simply cease to exist as the primary source for “education.”  Already, the staple of schools – information – is more widely and easily available outside school than it is within school.  Schools are also slow to respond to the communication revolution.  However the technological changes happening in the world outside school are not, in and of themselves, the most powerful reason for school reform.  Technology empowers schools to establish new learning environments that reflect a shift away from the traditional teacher-centered model to a student-centered model of education. 


Establishing New Learning Environments

Incorporating New Strategies






Traditional Learning Environments


New Learning Environments




Teacher-Centered Instruction


Student-centered learning

Single sense stimulation


Multisensory stimulation

Singlepath progression


Multipath progression

Single media



Isolated work


Collaborative work

Information delivery


Information exchange

Passive learning


Active/exploratory/inquiry-based learning

Factual, knowledge-based


Critical thinking and informed decision making

Reactive response


Proactive/planned action

Isolated, artificial context


Authentic, real-world context


ISTE data reprinted with permission from National Educational Technology Standards for Students (June,

1998), published by the International Society for Technology in Education


Technology – Asking the Wrong Question


It is easy to assume that technology is some kind of magic bullet that will cure all of education’s problems. However, educational technology has been around for at least twenty years. During this period, the US has spent about $100 billion on educational technology. Despite these expenditures, experts agree that technology has not lived up to its promise of reforming education. The good news is that the technology itself is not the problem – only the way in which it is used or not used in schools. In other words, even though technology has the potential to radically reform education, it has not actually done so. Noted educational technology leader, Dr. David Thornburg says that the problem is that schools are asking the wrong question when they acquire technology. Instead of asking, “How can I teach with computers?” they should be asking, “What can I teach now that I have computers?” The first question represents an approach that superimposes technology onto an existing educational paradigm, whereas the second question recognizes the paradigm shift that technology represents.


Test of Technology Use in Schools  


There are some simple questions that can be asked to determine if the full power of technology is being leveraged toward creating schools for the 21st century. Only by adopting policies and practices, which enable each of these questions to be answered in the affirmative, can schools justify the enormous, and ongoing expenditures that technology represents.


  1. Is technology doing your heavy lifting?  Is technology being used for processing intensive tasks such as quickly graphing your data and allowing students more time for creative activities?


  1. Is it providing you with easy access to abundant information?Are students accessing the Internet when and as needed and is information an abundant resource as opposed to a scarce commodity?


  1. Has it revolutionized communication in your school?
    Is your school an active participant in tailored web portals? Are students using email and chat for schoolwork, projects and socializing?


  1. Is it providing truly interactive experiences to your students?
    Are your students using truly interactive software that takes them into areas never anticipated by the designer and which fosters critical thinking and creativity?


  1. Is it providing simulations?
    Are simulations of real-world situations used routinely in your school as a learning tool?


  1. Are you utilizing technology to enhance the following?
    Project-based Learning?
    Service Learning?
    Collaborative Learning?


  1. Are your students using technology to ask why? Technology helps with the how, what and where, but are your teachers using it to motivate students to ask why?


Making Technology Accessible


Having technology in school is not the same as having it accessible when it is needed, where it is needed. According to the US Department of Education, “Access to technology requires that it be readily at hand for use as needed, not simply for uses that can be predicted in advance and squeezed into a fixed time slot.” If there is one thing that all the experts agree with, it is that technology can no longer be limited to what is available in a computer lab. In fact, the very idea of teaching “computers” is dated. Now, the push is to make computers available for curricular activities in class when teachers and students need them.


The New School Day

According to noted educator, Roger Shank, “We should spend 1/3 of our time at the computer, 1/3 talking with others and 1/3 making something.” In a somewhat similar vein, Dr. Thornburg notes that there are four modalities for learning which he describes with the following metaphors: the campfire, the watering hole, the cave and life.  Traditional schools have emphasized the campfire (teacher-centered model) and paid little attention to the other three, equally important, learning modes.  Dr. Thornburg believes that the information absorbed during the campfire needs to be understood via discussions with your peer group (the watering hole), internalized in solitary work and reflection (the cave) and then applied in real-life situations. Only then will the cycle of learning be complete.  From a practical standpoint, we need to design our schools to ensure that all four modalities of learning will occur.


How Well Does Your School Measure Up to Needs for the 21st Century?


The above discussion leads to the question – what are the important trends in the world of education that schools for the 21st century need to respond to? 

There are 15 key trends happening in the field of education and related educational technology. Many of them have direct facility ramifications.  Use them as a checklist to see how many of these trends your school facility is designed to accommodate.


1.     Ubiquitous Computing:  Leading educators and major school systems (including New York City which is the country’s largest) have accepted the notion that all children from the 4th grade onward should have access to laptop computers and the Internet when they need it, where they need it.  This view is endorsed by the US Department of Education which said in a recent report on technology, “Access to technology requires that it be readily at hand for use as needed, not simply for uses that can be predicted in advance and squeezed into a fixed time slot.” From a practical standpoint we can assume that students will spend a significant amount of every school day using computers in class.  By extension, we can assume that since it is impossible and impractical to put 30 PCs in every room, we are looking at laptops or some other portable computing device for use in the classroom.


  1. Wireless Networking and Robust Internet Access: While it is still a relatively new trend, wireless networking is possibly the one innovation that schools cannot afford to be without.  Not only does this bring the Internet and the school network to every child in every room, but also it is now possible to painlessly bring these services to forgotten annexes and “temporary” buildings within the school grounds.


  1. Technology-intensive Teaching and Learning: Schools are finally figuring out that computers can redefine not only how you teach, but also what you teach. From a practical standpoint this has resulted in the advent of more project-based and collaborative learning and less lecture-style teaching.


  1. Emphasis on Informal Learning: By some measures, less than 25% of all learning occurs within the classroom.  We now know that the so-called “un-programmed spaces” in schools are extremely important because it is in these “nooks and crannies” that much of the socialization, interaction and real learning take place. Many architects are now building such informal meeting places into the design of schools.


  1. De-emphasis of Classroom: As evident from trends three and four above, the dominance of the classroom as the center of the learning universe is now in serious jeopardy.  Classrooms themselves need to be redesigned so they function well in an environment where self-directed learning and collaborative projects will largely replace “chalk and talk.” 


  1. Food Court vs. Cafeteria: Noted facility planner and writer Paul Abramson recommends that food courts replace school cafeterias.  If the quality of cafeteria food weren’t reason enough, we know that students should have greater variety in their diet and be able to eat lunch at their schedule and when they are hungry. Will this create havoc with scheduling the school day? Perhaps, but it is challenge that institutions of higher learning have already faced and successfully overcome.


  1. Shared Common Areas: Reluctantly, and against the protestations of custodial personnel, schools are opening their doors to the community at large.  The flip side of the coin is that many new schools are dispensing altogether with traditional auditoriums, gymnasiums and school libraries, choosing to partner instead with local community institutions to create shared common areas and high-quality media centers.


  1. Imaginative Furniture Design:  This is an obvious area needing improvement where the impact of innovation can be immediate and significant. Fortunately, we are now beginning to see worktables and computer-friendly furniture including ergonomic desks and chairs beginning to replace the horrendous desks and tablet armchairs that have said “school” more loudly than anything else.


  1. Team-teaching, Non-Chronological Grouping and Inter-disciplinary Curriculums: This will call for more flexibility in classroom shapes and sizes including the use of temporary partitions, moveable walls, etc. The old one-size-fits-all approach will severely limit the ability of schools to provide quality 21st century education to their students and deny them the flexibility they need to implement these ideas effectively.


  1. Emphasis on Service Learning: More and more schools are requiring students to do some level of community service as part of their graduation requirement.  Some schools have structured off-site programs for students. The impact of this trend is that space will be freed up within schools for varying periods of time during the day. Creatively programming these spaces for the students that remain will be an interesting challenge to both architects and educators.


  1. Students Creating Products for Business: The numbers of tech-savvy students are rising each day even as business struggles to fill hundreds of thousands of hi-tech vacancies.  Suddenly, business is finding out that partnering with schools goes beyond community outreach and can actually help their bottom line. For schools, such partnerships, when well managed, bring much-needed revenue and for students it provides the hands-on work experience and financial benefits that beats flipping burgers. As more students get involved with real-world projects both on and off-site, it will be time to rethink equipment, room uses and space configurations in school design.      


  1. Computer Labs Replaced by Distance Learning Electronic Studios: With the advent of wireless laptops, every room and every subject can be taught in a so-called “lab” setting within the primary classrooms. This frees up the traditional computer lab for other uses. One logical choice (since labs are fully wired and “technology ready”) is to convert these old labs into distance-learning studios where students can meet and work with experts from around the world.  Such rooms can also serve as full-blown presentation “theaters” so that students get to present their work individually and in teams in a professional setting.


  1. More hi-tech Production Facilities: Even as schools adopt a wireless standard, there will be increased demand for high-bandwidth applications like film and video production, broadcast journalism and the exchange of large quantities of data between partnering institutions. Wireless networks will not be ready to handle such data intensive tasks for several years. In the meantime, schools will need fully wired production facilities where students would work on these kinds of projects.  The exact number and design of such facilities will vary by school and the educational program it offers.


  1. Parent and Community Education Programs in Schools: Trend number seven touched upon this, but schools are realizing that for technology to make a real difference in the life of a child, it is important that its effects be felt at home and in the community. Schools that have tried it find that involving parents and local community members through technology literacy programs in school is an excellent way to improve their participation in children’s education while often improving their economic situation.  A properly designed distance learning center (preferably with monitors recessed inside glass-topped desks) as noted in item 12 above can double as the parent and community training center in the evenings and when school is not in session.


  1. New Learning Partnerships with Other Schools and Universities: Ubiquitous computing and distance learning now make it possible to have real-time communication with a variety of educational partners. For example, District Four in East Harlem, New York City now routinely runs technology-intensive interdisciplinary projects in which students from various other school districts are invited to participate.


The insular citadel that used to be school is quickly changing to a model where “school” is not just a place, but also a doorway to a world of learning.  The ease with which students will be able to pass through this doorway will determine the success or failure not only of any particular school, but the institution of school itself. 




Prakash Nair is the President and co-founder of Urban Educational Facilities for the 21st Century (www.designshare.com/uef.htm). He is an internationally recognized expert in the field of school facilities and technology.  Prakash welcomes your comments, thoughts and ideas. Please contact him via email at Prakash@designshare.com