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Mike Silagadze Headshot

The Classroom Is Broken

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If you brought a teacher back from 50 years ago and put her in a university classroom today she would be able to pick up exactly where she left off. The classroom experience has barely changed. The main difference she would notice is that in the classrooms with the most sleeping students, something called PowerPoint is being used as a sedative.

This is a pretty sad state of affairs, especially considering the fact that the state of the art in pedagogy tells us that the current system is just about the least effective way to teach. Walking into a lecture hall today is like walking into a newsroom that still uses typewriters.

Research shows that student concentration plummets within ten minutes of being in class. Results suggest that students often retain as little as 10-20% of what they hear during lecture. Some studies even indicate that students who studied material independently and attended no lectures at all performed just as well on measures of comprehension as those who attended every lecture.

There is a huge amount of investment in physical classrooms -- both previous and ongoing. The university construction industry is over a billion dollars a year in North America alone. The problem is that these classrooms are used to deliver the same ineffective experience that hasn't worked for decades.

It doesn't have to be this way.

We know a lot more about education than we did a century ago. There is an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence pointing to the benefits of "active learning." Active learning transforms the student from a passive recipient into an active participant, using strategies that make the classroom experience more collaborative. In almost every instance, in every subject matter active learning environments produce comprehension and retention rates that dance circles around passive learning environments.

But despite the resounding evidence in support of active learning its use in universities remains fairly limited, with a few notable exceptions. One reason lies in the incentive structures of universities. Professors are rewarded primarily for pioneering research rather than for great teaching. However, an equally important reason active learning has failed to take hold is a matter of cost. There are several ways to implement active learning, but ultimately it comes down to either keeping classes sizes at less than 30 students or equipping each desk with a computer. Both options are extremely costly.

One attempt at a solution to this problem has emerged in recent years. It's called "clickers" -- plastic, remote-like devices that students purchase for around $40 and bring to class. Professors bring a shoebox-sized clicker receiver and can pose questions, at which points students "click-in" their answers. The professor can then use the responses to grade the students and stimulate in-class discussion. About 10% of university classrooms now use clickers.

But in the last few years something remarkable has happened: the world has gone mobile. The percentage of undergraduate students who own some form of mobile device -- be it cell phone, laptop, or tablet -- skyrocketed to well over 95%. Over 60% of students now have smartphones and while about 87% own laptops, more own traditional cell phones. Typically, between all of these devices one can expect that in a classroom of 300 students there may be 1 or 2 that do own a connected device. Add to that the fact that a pre-paid cell phone can be purchased at a convenience store for around $25 and every student has access to a mobile device.

The students have brought technology into the classroom. This development presents an opportunity to radically transform the classroom experience for students and teachers without imposing a huge burden on the university. The devices students already bring with them to class are the ideal tools to facilitate engagement in the classroom. Yes, Apple's iBooks announcement was exciting and gave us a glimpse into the future. The future, however, where every student comes to class equipped with an iPad is still a distant one.

The classroom may be broken, but we know a lot more than we did a century ago. There is mounting evidence that active learning boosts retention and comprehension. When coupled with mobile technology, this has the potential to revolutionize the classroom experience, making it truly interactive. Studies have shown that using mobile technology in the classroom increases comprehension of complex concepts by 25%, doubles attendance rates and boosts grades by 5%. We have the technology. We have the empirical support. The first step to the future of learning is in the palms of our hands. What are we going to do about it?