The phrase, “The Classroom of 2020” has a futuristic ring that might quickly invoke visions of The Jetsons and Star Trek, popular television shows that aired on network television in the seventies and eighties. Time magazine published an article in 2006, “How to Bring Schools out of the 20th Century,” referencing Rip Van Winkle awakening from a long sleep, walking lost and disoriented through his home town until he happened upon a school. He didn’t have a GPS or a cell phone like everyone else; but the classroom environment, unchanged after 100 years, gave him comfort and allowed him to orient himself to his surroundings. The reality is that the year 2020 is less than four years away and, unfortunately, most of the classrooms of 2020 will look much like the classrooms of 2010, which looked much like the classrooms of 2000… It’s a trend that you can draw back for about the last 50 years. This is largely due to some key barriers to change that we see in our work. Our goal, as many schools across the country begin the shift from traditional classrooms to modern learning environments, is to force Rip Van Winkle into relearning what education looks like in 2020. Ultimately, innovation in the classroom has never happened at scale and will never happen by dropping in fancy new technology. Innovation has happened and will only happen through a fundamental change in the culture of our schools, classrooms, and district organizations. Culture change really only takes root if it is led, in part, by teachers themselves. However, in order to scale this cultural change, we must recognize innovators outside of the classroom at the administrative level that play an essential role in supporting this change by coordinating their organizations to make sure it will flourish.

So what will the most innovative and effective classrooms of 2020 look like? They will have made the massive cultural shift from a teacher-centered traditional room to a flexible, modern, learner-centered learning environment. More specifically, there are two trends that may become far more prevalent in the next four years thanks to advances in technology: personalization and competency-based education. Both of these trends will be driven and supported by Digital Convergence.

First, before proceeding, let’s be clear on what is meant when using the word “technology” and the term “learner-centered” as they both pertain to the classroom. We aren’t suggesting that the role of the teacher will be reduced. In fact, in a modern, learner-centered environment, the role of the teacher arguably becomes more important. Technology gives teachers the freedom and flexibility to better utilize their pedagogical and content-area expertise. Rest assured, our vision for the classroom of 2020 – let alone 2040 – relies on the critical, yet evolving, role of the classroom teacher.

The first trend we will begin to see more of in 2020 is greater adoption of personalized approaches. We’ve already started seeing a considerable amount of research that personalized learning approaches work. In four years’ time, advances in classroom tech will simply allow us to move further away from one-size-fits-all, teacher-centered instruction. This will be fueled by software that will be able to build and manage sophisticated learner profiles, deliver content based on learner responses as they move through a lesson or module, and allow for easier differentiation of instruction. There are already a number of companies and even school systems that have developed software that incorporates all three elements, and these early approaches will only improve over time.

The second trend we’ll see more of is somewhat of a natural outgrowth of the first, and that is competency-based education (CBE). Though this isn’t a new idea, it is still rare to see it in practice at scale. The term CBE refers to a system through which learners move by demonstrating competency or mastery of material. No grade levels, perhaps no letter grades, no seat time requirements, no Carnegie Units, just a learner progressing through content of their choosing and moving on after they’ve shown mastery. Part of why this has historically been so difficult is the amount of personalization of both instruction and data management required to pull it off, as well as a policy environment that acts as a huge barrier. By 2020, we will begin to see more districts embracing the tech tools that make standards-based grading and demonstrations of mastery easier. Eventually, more states will make the policy shifts toward flexible scheduling, grading, and attendance frameworks that are required to make CBE work. We’ve already seen about two-thirds of the states in this country begin to make this policy shift, and we can anticipate more movement in that direction.

Districts that incorporate the above innovations will be those that make necessary changes both inside and outside of the classroom. That’s because this transition affects, and must involve, all parts of a district’s organization. This is why we talk about Digital Convergence, the coordination of all components of the education system required to move towards the digital teaching and learning that makes personalization possible. Such alignment is an absolute requirement to move towards the classroom of 2020. What will your classrooms look like in 2020? Will they look the same as they do now? Or will they embrace the possibilities we see to transform teaching and learning through greater personalization?