Teacher Reflections

Microsoft’s Classroom Utopia

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-tFdreZB94]


First, let me start with the most promising aspects of Microsoft’s vision for technology’s role in improving how people live and learn in the future.

Technology will allow people to:  

  • easily and more immersively connect with experts around the world.
  • pursue more meaningful projects for authentic audiences
  • spend more time with the  people around them instead of completing routine tasks.
  • easily collaborate on projects with more natural human interaction.
  • learn seamlessly from the world around them and access information easily.


Some of these benefits of technology reflect the shifts that  Prof. Nick Burbules argues will occur when learning becomes more ubiquitous. These shifts include:

  1. A blurring of formal (institutionally guided) learning vs informal learning (e.g. people using heads up displays on glasses to learn about different species of plants while snorkeling on vacation)
  2. An increase in socially connected learning whether it is through social media, comments in a news article (or a video chat with a scuba diver.)
  3. More problem based learning instead of curriculum based to encourage learning where its application can be seen in authentic contexts. (e.g. students researching ways to preserve marine vegetation that is currently at risk.)
  4. Learning that is more “just in time” instead of “learn it now, use it later” (see #1 above)
  5. Student-oriented instead of teacher driven (e.g. students 3-D printing a model to test their solution to a real world problem)

However, my biggest concern with a classroom with the types of technology shown in Microsoft’s utopia is the fragmentation of experiences and relationships.

As technology allows people to connect with those around the world and access information that is relevant and interesting to them, what remains of the classroom community? When projects are more individualized and there is less of a need for everyone to be reading or watching the same thing at the same time, what remains of the relationships between students and the shared experiences that occurred in a traditional classroom?

Some of the most meaningful classroom experiences I have had—as a student and a teacher—is passionate, emotional, even raw discussions face to face.  There is an authenticity and serendipity to conversations people have when they have to confront the reactions of their peers that cannot easily be replicated digitally. These interactions help cultivate empathy and new perspectives which are less likely to emerge in a classroom empowered yet fragmented by technology. 

In a ubiquitous learning environment, Prof. Nick Burbules assures teachers that their role is not only important but enhanced for it includes:

“….helping learners organize and integrate their learning in meaningful ways; in helping learners to sequence learning opportunities; in helping to inspire, motivate, and model learning as an active endeavor; and in providing supplementary assistance and support for learners who are struggling.”

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges we educators face in the 21st century classroom is to continue to cultivate a classroom community grounded in strong student relationships and shared experiences while they use technology which allows them to seamlessly connect with the world beyond it.  

[NOTE: This post was inspired by a discussion in Prof. Burbules’ course on Education and Technological Reform. The coursework is part of the New Learning program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]

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