The 21st Century Classroom

Max Zhu

Max Zhu, ORION Intern

When I was in grade one, my teachers used the Macintosh Classic to enter the report card.

When I was in grade three, I exchanged monthly letters with my pen pal in the United States.

I was forbidden from listening to my Walkman throughout elementary school.

I secretly used my mobile from grade seven to 11 (many apologies to my hall monitors). You could imagine my relief when the Board uplifted its previous 4-year ban on cellular devices!

The widespread emergence of wireless communications has launched BYODthe B-Y-O-D (bring-your-own-device) generation across school boards in Ontario. Whereas schools once shunned students from typing away, today’s educators are taking a more proactive approach to embed learning technologies into the curriculum. Resources such as Khan Academy (a “$1 trillion opportunity”) and TED talks serve students of all capabilities, in a wide array of subjects while freeing them from time limitations. So long to the pressure of note-taking! Combined with responsive web design – leading to apps – students are enabled to do so much more than they could before. Of course, they can do less…but our children are much too bright to do that (right?)!

Many of these apps are the by-product of innovative strategies of teaching and, subsequently, learning. As the education sector concedes that students learn best under their own strategies, teaching models are adapting and styling courses to students’ preferences. It’s twice as hard to learn when you’re learning how to learn first! To make it easier, educators are looking for new models that strengthen knowledge retention. At the Hacker School in New York City, administrators are testing the viability of impact-based schooling. ‘Hacking,’ by definition, is a collaborative effort where participants “get together, network and discuss/argue/prototype” their interests. The School offers programmers a three-month, full-time space to improve their coding skills via collaboration on projects that they’re passionate about. Simply put, students are motivated to learn from their own interests. With no teachers, grades, tuition or curriculum to meet, students can intrinsically value their attendance at the School. And best of all – all of the students’ learning is new to them! Nothing is what they already know.

CSIThe Center of Social Innovation (CSI) extends the hacking model of education. On June 1st and 2nd, CSI gathered over 100 attendees (from designers to developers to high school students), organized them into eight-person teams and asked them to solve a modern-day problem in the classroom. By the end, each group presented a unique web app to solve their dilemma. Steven Hodas, executive director of Innovate NYC Schools explains:

“There’s been a failure on the part of school districts to do their job and reach out and engage people who could help them solve their problems…you have this really almost funny disconnect with developers in ed-tech with pretty good problem-solving methodologies, energy, and tremendous goodwill, but they don’t know what the real problems are because they don’t have deep experience – sometimes no experience – in schools.”1

By working together, amateurs and professionals are bridging the shortage in collaboration. It’s a really unique way to find friends, too, when you’re naturally matched with those that share your concerns in the world. And it won’t be long before we replicate this model in other professions! Imagine a convention on responsible business!

We’re starting to see self-driven learning in high schools as well. At the state-funded Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA), students have Wednesdays to themselves to do whatever they opt to – with the space, materials and expertise of the school’s faculty and labs. It’s very similar to Google’s “20 percent time” but even less restrictive in direction! The result? Out-of-the-world inventions such as foot-controlled robotic arms, the discovery of a new nano-material (say what?) and a wind turbine via online collaboration with IMSA’s sister school in China.

All of this relates back to helping students reveal a purposesolar to the general education they’re getting. For too long, students have complained that school is “useless” or that “business students shouldn’t be learning physics.” Now, schools are letting the kids run school their way – with phenomenal results. These projects are not theoretical possibilities anymore; with crowd-funding software like Kickstarter, a class of grade 4 students raised $5,800 over two weeks to completely overhaul their classroom into green energy. The U.S. Department of Energy recognized the school for their dedication to solar power and use of the remaining cash, which was used to purchase materials for solar-energy projects.

MooCDon’t be discouraged though! You don’t need a lot of funding to develop your curriculum. In fact, the evolution of courses started long ago. No matter what, where or how courses are led, the need for physical classrooms is inevitably dropping. MOOCs (massive open online courses) have gained a significant amount of traction in recent years. So much that Moody’s recently ranked a “credit positive” for large, established universities that offered an online sections to their courses, allowing them to grow beyond geographical barriers, attract new revenue streams and diversify student enrollment. Did you know that about a third of post-secondary students in the United States are enrolled in (at least) one online course? I personally took an online course in my studies at York University this year. I truly enjoyed the experience as I could, contrary to traditional courses, choose between attending in-class lectures and/or watching them online. ORION has done students a great deed! My professor also ran his own blog to share insightful content and journalizing his frequent trips abroad. (If you’ve never blogged before, this might change your mind)

The only constant today is change. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. The 21st century classroom is changing faster than ever, and it’s only gaining momentum. All of the stories in this post were shared on our Twitter feed, so stay tuned to learn the latest trends in research, education and innovation. And remember, there’s a world of knowledge outside your door. Be optimistic and make it better – I’ll certainly do my part!

Bring it on.


1 Kamenetz, Anya. “EDesign Labs Helps Teachers and Students Hack The Future Of Education.” Fast Company. 02 Jun 2013: n. page. Web. 18 Jul. 2013. <>.