So I’m home from Seattle today with some mixed feelings about Microsoft’s School of the Future Summit, which was really excellent in some respects but left me wanting in others. The best part without question (and not that surprisingly) were the conversations with folks outside of the session rooms. With 250 or so people from 31 countries, it was probably the most diverse setting (geographically, at least) that I’ve found myself in. I had some interesting conversations with folks from Norway, Chile, Hong Kong, Sweden, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Finland, the UK and others that no doubt gave me a much broader perspective of what the conversation feels like abroad. And it was diverse in ideas as well. My sense is that we’re all obviously feeling the pressure to think differently about schools and schooling, but depending on cultures and circumstances, there were a wide variety of approaches to the shift. I heard about models that ranged from kids doing one subject per full day throughout the week (as in math on Monday, science on Tuesday, etc.) to ones that made real use of mobile technologies, to others that were entirely online. (More about that in a second.) I talked to folks who taught in schools where every student had a computer and to others whose few classroom computers ran on dial up, some who were integrating social tools with depth, others who had never really considered them. It was, to put it mildly, a very eclectic and by and large passionate group.

But after a couple of days of listening to speakers like Michael Horn (“Disrupting Class“) and Tony Wagner (“The Global Achievement Gap“) I can’t say that I feel any greater clarity in the conversation around just what schools of the future are supposed to be about. Horn said that in 15 years almost 50% of all courses will be delivered online. Wagner said that we need to reinvent schools but didn’t give a very cohesive vision on how to do that.  And while it was encouraging to hear Martin Bean of Microsoft talk about teachers and students learning in “media rich, socially connected” spaces as “content creators and knowledge starters,” it was less so when he seemed to define the idea of “nurturing powerful communities of learning” simply as creating portals to connect various constituencies. Admittedly, those snippets may not be totally fair to those speakers’ larger messages, but they were indicative of the general sense that I got, one that said “yes, we need to do something, but we’re not very close to having a cohesive vision around what exactly we should do.”

Or something like that.

All of which made Rob Paterson’s post that came through my Twitter feed in the middle of the conference yesterday so much more thought-provoking. In talking about the pressures facing universities from decreasing budgets and relevance, Rob says

It’s going to be interesting to see how this unfolds. The web offers a whole new way of restoring this way of learning directly from an expert rather than from an institution.

Rob offers up a vastly different “hang out a shingle” driven model for some seeking learning after high school, one which challenges the diploma driven status quo pretty compellingly. And it really got me wondering (once again) about the relevance of the pretty standard K-12 curriculum and assessments that are driving our systems. As I commented to Rob, I think I’m finally getting to the root of my continued frustration with my kids’ education which is the system’s inability to help them find and nurture the areas they truly have passion for. It would be nice if the institution were the place that connected my kids to the experts they desired and needed to support their learning, wouldn’t it? Again, I know it’s more complex than that, but you get the point.

As would be expected, much of the conversation was spent on the barriers to change, and at some point I found myself amazed at how deeply woven the reasons why not are ingrained in our conversations. At one conversation, someone said that many of her teachers didn’t feel like they needed to teach with technology at all since their students were doing just fine passing the tests without it. And I wanted to scream (but instead politely said) ‘then we gotta change the assessments.” Nothing in these conversations changed my view that to really change what we do in schools we have to first change our understanding of what it means to teach in this moment. That doesn’t mean than we throw out all of the good pedagogy that we’ve developed over the years and make everything about technology. But it does mean, I think, that technology has to be a part of the way we do our learning business these days.

Finally, I think the conversation that most blew me away was the one with Andy Ross, the VP of Florida Virtual High School. They’ve got almost 1,000 full time staff now and over 20,000 kids on their waiting list to take classes. They can’t hire teachers fast enough. Kids can take their entire high school curriculum online without ever meeting a teacher face to face, though there are plenty of phone calls and e-mails. Andy said that their research shows that those kids do better on the standardized assessments than kids in physical schools, primarily because of the deep alignment of the curriculum and the programmed delivery. Now I’m not saying that those are necessarily reasons to move everything online, but it was the one solid vision of a “School of the Future” that I got at the conference. Andy agreed to come on and do a UStream at some point in the near future, and I’ll be sure to be posting times and dates in case you’d be interested.

Anway, just some reflecting on an interesting couple of days…

(Photo “green tree core” by pbo31.)