Dear "21st Century School" Authorities:

I've been thinking a lot about your ongoing discussion at Dangerously Irrelevant regarding what a "21st century school" might look like. You have kindly suggested that a 1:1 laptop initiative is one possible characteristic of a 21st century school. While I don't disagree, I feel like the student to computer ratio is attracting far too much attention in the current paradigm and may be harming educators' ability to understand how a "21st century school" is different from any other school. Does the hardware and software combination define the "century" of the school? I hope not.

Some recent commentary by Ryan Bretag on Web 2.0 tools illustrates a new train of thought:

"Yes, teachers are using some of the tools or even a lot of the tools. While this is great and provides wonderful new contexts for students, I'm not convinced this will fundamentally shift education if we continue to retrofit these tools instead of embracing the philosophy of participatory and connective learning. In other words, it is time we start seeing these tools as the tip of the ice berg not the identifier of classrooms or schools that have become 21st Century, that have become participatory."
If a given school has a 1:1 computer to student ratio, but is not using them to do "new things" then is it truly a "21st century" school? Simply putting a computer in each student's lap doesn't mean new, innovative, engaging or even effective teaching and learning is going to take place. Contrast this with a school that has a 1:2 or 1:4 computer to student ratio that is using the hardware and software more effectively via student-centered activities, education-friendly networking, rigorous and relevant project-based learning and the like. We often get hung up on the hardware and stuck on the software rather than their connection to teaching and learning.

From hardware/software to pedagogy
I realize that mentioning 1:1 initiatives is merely one possible characteristic of a 21st century school. A "shift" in our educational system is not going to happen due to fancy new websites and hardware tools. It will begin to take place when we take steps away from "retrofitting" these new tools and instead spend our time and effort brainstorming how the tools might match up with pedagogy that "works." To better emphasize this, I would like to suggest that a "21st century school" should not merely be measured by its hardware purchases, but rather by what happens with the tools for educational use. Answering the question, "How are research-based strategies being used in connection with 21st century technology tools?" seems to be an appropriate filter to add to the paradigm. The TPACK framework is a great first step for helping educators connect technology, pedagogy and content.

A simple change in "marketing" 21st century schools as more than a "building with up-to-date hardware" may be a useful first step in helping others begin to identify examples of this "undefined" term. Let's continue the conversation in lieu of how schools are using the technology rather than simply their ability to secure as many laptops as possible.