Are We Ready For the Programmable Classroom?

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Winners and losers will emerge in the next decade by 2030.
Is your kid’s school district embracing the inevitable future?

Dr. Shawn K. Smith
Dr. Smith is currently serving as Chief Executive Officer of Modern Teacher.

In June of 2013, I sat in my living room reading Bill Wasik’s article in Wired, “Welcome to the Programmable World.” I found it fascinating. For the first time, I began to understand the concept of The Internet of Things (IOT), or as others called it The Internet of Everything. While industry consensus on its name remained non-existent at the time, Wasik named it The Programmable World. That summer night in June, he opened my imagination and gave me a glimpse into the future. You could say I was hooked, but for different reasons than you may think.

When Wasik saw the objects in our home connected to each other, I saw the objects in the K–12 classroom connected to each other. I couldn’t help but find the parallels of inanimate objects surrounding us improving the lives of those in my profession. I am a teacher. I have dedicated my life to education. First by serving seven years as a classroom teacher and then by leading public schools and ultimately school systems. Today I am an author, speaker, and the president of an education company committed to transforming our nation’s traditional classrooms into modern learning environments and preparing teachers and school districts for the inevitable future: the programmable classroom.

Machine learning doesn’t scare me, it excites me. Especially as machine or deep learning gets more sophisticated. Advances in computer vision, voice and speech recognition, and language processing can support teachers across America to fully appreciate the potential of personalized learning. Our profession must come to terms with this new technology and see it as a tool to assist in designing learning experiences for kids that maximize their full potential in life.

Today, Wasik’s descriptions of smart homes have by and large come true. As he wrote in 2013, we would see coffee pots talking to alarm clocks, thermostats communicating with motion sensors, objects all around us integrating and connecting on the grid. In his article, Wasik argued the Programmable World would need to pass through three stages to reach its full potential. First, more devices would need to be connected: sensors, processors, everyday objects. Second, those objects would need to rely on one another without human intervention. And third, once more objects became connected, they would need us to perceive, design, and program those objects as a system of integrated parts—a coordinated nervous system full of potential.(1)

Even Wasik might acknowledge today his surprise at the evolution and rapid proliferation of the Programmable World. Take Amazon for example. In 2013 it seriously began moving toward the next generation of artificial intelligence. It prioritized the development of voice recognition technology that would tap into the Programmable World’s central nervous system. While skeptics outnumbered believers inside the company then, Rohit Prasad thought it could be done.  A leading speech recognition scientist, he left his post at a Boston-based technology company to build a team at Amazon to conquer this challenge. He joined the Alexa project—at the time in the later stages of developing the hardware device, but still lacking the voice recognition power we see today.(2)  Alexa makes it more efficient for us to turn on the lights, order products, stream music, or retrieve information.

Wasik’s Programmable World remains in its infancy. Google, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Cisco—the companies redesigning their business around the IoT—are all betting on the future of machine and deep learning. Consistent with Moore’s Law, processing speed continues to double every 1.8 years, technology continues to permeate our lives and become cheaper, and nanochips continue to shrink. We see no evidence the trend will slow, even as technology disrupts every sector of our lives—from how we bank to how we shop, how we entertain ourselves to how we consume media and news, how we travel to how we access our social networks. Fast is getting really, really fast.

Now, two decades after American classrooms became connected online, our education system finds itself at a crossroads. Our greatest hope as an education system is to produce the next generation of graduates equipped with the skills to compete in this era. Our 20th century model of education mimicked the Industrial Revolution—designed to standardize and mass produce—which successfully lifted millions out of poverty through education and training. As our economy continues to leave behind an analog world and shift to a system built on ideas and critical thinking, this antiquated model can no longer deliver the American dream. Yet, for the first two decades of this century, education has remained stubbornly isolated from major advances in technology. This one is different. Here’s why.

First, it’s true technology remains an integral part of our lives and the next generation depends on it, but consider this staggering fact: none of the more than 50 million students in our nation’s K-12 education system was born in the 20th century. That means they most likely were not alive during September 11, 2001, don’t know a world without Snap, YouTube, Facebook or Twitter, and can’t remember life without mobile devices. Second, state policy continues to change. Students drive school-based funding in most states, creating a competitive market for charter schools, online schools, and private options. Proximity no longer guarantees a customer for the neighborhood school just around the corner. Third, personalized learning continues to gain momentum. In a world that expects customization, parents seek schools that view their child as an individual. This demand-supply tension promises to only accelerate in the future. These conditions, combined with a host of other industry-specific issues, creates the need for schools to change with the times.

So, what does the programmable classroom look like? Imagine the typical classroom today in the United States: one teacher, 25–30 students, and an abundance of content (subjects) translated into curriculum. The classroom contains assessments to gauge student learning, with gradebooks to store that information and connect to the district’s student information system along with health records, past academic history, state standardized tests scores, and other important information. Classroom productivity and learning tools also exist in this world, tools such as calculators, games, books, paper, computers/devices, crayons, software, etc.

Many of these objects moved from analog to digital over the last decade. Static content from textbooks became digitized in dynamic, multi-media formats. Games and books went online. Crayons turned into sleek, stylized pens. Assessments shifted from paper and pencil tests to adaptive software solutions. Curriculum became housed in learning management systems. Gradebooks went online giving parents and students 24/7 access in real time. Calculators became installed on devices. The list goes on.

Think back to June 2013, when Wasik educated us on the Programmable World. When the objects around us began to communicate, and the elements of our physical universe converged and came to life.(3)  This awakening created a network that, over time evolved to include many other physical objects that understand our needs, our behaviors, and enable our dreams.(4)

Enter the Programmable Classroom. Over the past ten years, the objects in the K-12 classroom slowly migrated from analog to digital—a trend accelerating versus slowing down. In the future, these classroom objects will begin to talk to each other without human intervention.

Cameras installed in each classroom will be connected to facial recognition software. This software will capture in real time how students are responding to the content they are learning. Some will show high levels of engagement while others will show confusion. Some will show frustration or anxiety and still others will show joy. This software will send data to a bank of learning objects (games, simulations, projects) that students are working on. The intelligent machine will adapt the content based upon a student’s success with it—and design and assign a series of interventions to support the student through the learning experience. The experience will be designed based upon a student’s sophisticated learner profile, a complete brain imaging scan that knows precisely how Johnny learns best and under what conditions. Assessments will be connected within the Programmable Classroom and the data will be exchanged in real time with digital content recommendations, productivity tools, and of course, the teacher’s recorded grade book.

Teachers will serve as coaches, experts, and mentors to students, building relationships with them that focus on their social well-being. They’ll serve as a critical component in the Programmable Classroom, drawing on their wisdom to facilitate students in becoming producers of ideas and content rather than solely consumers of it. They will help them find their place in world, teach them how to contribute to it and find joy and meaning in their lives. As machines do more of our mundane work reaching our maximum human potential will be deeply connected to those virtues that make us most human: empathy, gratitude, kindness, humility. These are the true pillars of knowing and feeling needed to thrive in the 21st century and beyond. Being fully present in mind and body is what distinguishes us most from machines.

At the high school level, student schedules will not be built on an archaic industrial model that groups and regroups students every 60 minutes into different teacher’s classrooms based upon the course and grade level. Everyday lectures will be replaced with personalized learning options. Students will learn in a blended world, coming to class when they need support or a place to work. Courses will be structured around solving real world problems, and most will have an embedded internship that will strengthen school-community connections. When lectures are used, it will be for their power of story rather than the daily sit-and-get consummation of knowledge that we see happening today.

While just one example, you can see the potential of this technology. In the world of the future, teachers need to find the right balance between learning in the personalized, virtual world and learning when kids are powered down. They will need to define that balance. Technology affords teachers the ability to spend more one-on-one time with their students, tailor instruction to their individual needs, invest more in critical thinking activities, and design more authentic learning experiences for kids. And this is just the start.

For the Programmable Classroom to reach its full potential, four major things need to happen. First, the multiple vendors that provide the district’s content, assessments, learning management systems, and tools need to play in the same sandbox—meaning they can’t offer disparate, standalone solutions. This also requires districts to build a Digital Ecosystem that supports multi-vendor solutions and offers single sign-on—or access using a single set of credentials. Second, these vendors need a seamless data exchange between them. That means that assessment data needs to be shared with adaptive content providers and that needs to be delivered through the learning management system. Third, a few new products need to become ubiquitous and widely available on the market. This includes sophisticated learner profiles to provide better information on how individual students learn best, facial recognition software that can capture students’ responsiveness to the content they are learning, and voice recognition technology to make it easier and more efficient for teachers to pull from a host of providers to deliver personalization to their students. Fourth, school districts need to take ownership for the end-user experience in their ecosystem. This redesign makes the network of classroom objects function like a coordinated nervous system.

How are school districts thinking about this shift? In truth, not many are. Districts don’t need to predict the future—but they can certainly shape it. They can shape it by designing processes that re-imagine the future of learning and align the organization around that central vision. Districts leading innovation in this realm will inevitably win by 2030. In my second book, The New Agenda: Achieving Personalized Learning Through Digital Convergence, I write about a process and methodology to bring coordination to these changes. The central idea focuses on the convergence of five major parts of the education system: Leadership, Instructional Models, Modernized Curriculum, Digital Ecosystems, and Professional Learning. Let me pause and clarify. Leadership pertains to the strategic oversight and organizational communication of district leadership; instructional models refers to the specific practices teachers use in the classroom and online; modernized curriculum means the digitization of content and subject matter students learn as well as real world problem solving with context and meaning; digital ecosystems applies to the connected nervous system of digital resources; and professional learning equates to the education teachers and other staff receive to become proficient in the programmable classroom. Coordination among these parts of the school system accelerates a skilled workforce proficient in the Programmable Classroom.

By 2030, winners and losers will emerge from this transition. Communities across America will feel the effects of how their school system responded to the digital revolution. Winners will tackle the potential this affords them head on. They will embrace conversations with their stakeholders and put forth a plan that navigates the acceleration of converging forces. We already see this taking shape. On the other hand, losers will ignore this and arrive in 2030 without customers—their students. Think Netflix-Blockbuster or Amazon-Borders. Where does your child’s school district stand? Are they confronting what lies ahead—or are they knee deep in sand and sinking fast?

Here are a few questions you could ask your school principal or district superintendent:

  • Has the district communicated a vision for learning 5 or 10 years from now?
  • Does the district have a vision for how technology should be used in the classroom?
  • Does the district have a plan to move more curriculum online?
  • Are virtues like empathy, gratitude, humility, and kindness part of the curriculum?
  • Can the district articulate the cognitive complexity of tasks within the curriculum?
  • Does the district have plans to provide blended classes in the future?
  • Is the district considering providing devices for students?
  • How is the district thinking about connecting students to real world internships?
  • How is the district thinking about training teachers?


[1] Wasik, Bill. “In the Programmable World, Objects Will Act as One.” Wired. June 2013.
[2] Levy, Steven. “Inside Amazon’s Artificial Intelligence Flywheel.” Wired. February 1, 2018.
[3] Wasik, “Programmable World.”
[4] ibid
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