Back to School Lists Circa 2014: Too Retro – Time to Retrofit

By Lee Shapiro

I remember my excitement as a young boy going back to school after Labor Day.  It was a time to see old friends that may have been away at camp for the summer and to make new friends that may have joined our class.  There was the preparation that went into the first day – and the ritual of shopping for school supplies.

In recent years, my own children have gone to a local Target or Office Depot to fill backpacks for those in need.  They would take a list provided by the charity and comment how they remembered getting their own supplies in order.  New pencils sharpened and ready, eraser with a brush attached, a fresh bottle of Elmer’s Glue, blunt scissors and a clean case. I am sure many of you had lists like the one below.

And then there were the books – as my own kids moved into middle school and high school – the books were heavy and costly. While the used book programs took some sting out of the cost, the weight added sting to their backs. A 2004 study conducted in Italy, found the average child carries a backpack that would be equivalent to a 39-pound burden for a 176-pound man or a 29-pound load for a 132-pound woman. Of these children carrying heavy backpacks to school, 60 percent experience back pain as a result.

What troubles me about all of this is how impervious our educational system is to change. Today’s students live in a digital world – they chat with their friends, share pictures and make plans using What’s App, Snap Chat, Instagram and Facebook. Their news comes from Flipboard, Salon or links in their social media pages. And they play games – which engage them for hours (now more than they spend on TV…or homework).

But when they go to school, they are in an analog world, moving at a pace geared towards the entire class (not individualized), using materials that are likely out of date the moment they are printed (which is why the student has to juggle so many Xeroxed handouts), and are often asked to do homework without having the foundation to understand or support the effort. When was the last time you played a game on your phone or online where you had to wait for the rest of the class before you could advance to the next level? Are you aware of games that are not intuitive enough to start playing right away or where there is no community to help you learn a path forward?

It seems to me that the future back to school shopping list should be:

That’s it! No books, no crayons – everything needed for education available where and when the student needs it – and anywhere the Internet is available.  In the cloud 24x7x365.  The student advances at his or her own pace and can be monitored by a teacher who can provide supplemental instruction modules when needed.  Or pair the students with others that may be at the same level for small group instruction. Engaging the student with sight, sound and motion in a format that is familiar.

The impact can go beyond the classroom and lessen the financial burden on families as well. The FCC estimates that learning tools such as textbooks and cost about $3,871 per year per student. Switching to a single digital tablet for textbooks would save $60 per student, at a total savings of about $2.94 million. We are seeing momentum swing to the side of digital learning with the Obama administration announcing in 2012 that all students should be using digital textbooks within 5 years.

While obsolete technologies are already being replaced with modern advancements, it’s imperative to continue to push further toward a better, more innovative learning experience in the classroom.

My hope is that we can move our schools into the future – because the future of our students depends on it.