Postcards from 2015

Here’s a couple snapshots of high school a few years from now using currently available tools and a few in development.  These pictures are student-centric; there are obviously a number of teachers and learning professional involved in the success of each of these students.  Comments, suggestions, alternatives welcome.


While getting ready for school, Maria opens her netbook at 7am to check her schedule for the day:

  • 9:00am language lab
  • 10:00am civics seminar (check three sites before attending)
  • 11:00am video conference with deputy mayor
  • 1:30pm math lab
  • 3:00pm band
  • 4:00pm volleyball

Marias’s civic seminar is an English/Social Studies block. As part of the course, she is the deputy editor of website attempting to illuminate the immigration debate. Maria has interviewed a dozen local and national politicians and activists on both sides of the issue and has produced article and opinion pieces judged by online peers and advisors. All of Maria’s contributions are filed in an electronic portfolio.

During the 60 minute language lab, Maria enters a virtual village market where she interacts in Mandarin with native speakers.  The 90 minute math lab combines self-paced online learning with occasional individualized online tutoring she gets stuck.

An online guidance system has helped Maria develop self-management skills, select the right high school courses, decide on a double college major—journalism and political science—and select a college.  With her Advanced Placement credits, Maria can finish college in three years including a semester abroad.  Her early acceptance letter included a work-study offer to write for the college web site.


At midnight, Mario is still contributing to a discussion stream with his virtual learning team comparing two opposing views of tax policy. He checked a Harvard resource, How to Write a Comparative Analysis, in preparation for his classroom work the next day.

He is nearly through his homework playlist that included a math game, a biochem simulation, and a virtual environment recreating the Battle of Bull Run. From his game score, Mario knows he’s got more work to do on quadratics. His smart recommendation engine has already queued a new math game that may be a better learning mode for Mario—the system determined that his persistence improves under competitive situations with public recognition of his point status.

Mario has nearly enough merit badges to complete Lower Division (what used to be 9th and 10th grade).  His culminating project and successful public demonstration will mark a midyear transition to Upper Division where he will begin earning college credit and begin working on a career concentration including an internship.


Monique is enrolled in the upper division of a virtual high school.  She visits the office at least one day a week to meet with an advisory group and project team.  Maria laughs at folks that are concerned about her lack of social interaction—she has 800 friends on her social network, a dozen mentors, five learning teams, four project teams, and three academic advisors that she regularly interacts with. She plays in a youth symphony and is on a year-round club soccer team (which takes care of her required PE credit).

Monique takes two online college credit courses and works 30 hours each week. When she graduates from high school, she plans to continue working and attend college online so that she can graduate debt free.  She plans to execute the online services business plan she wrote for a high school business class—she may just leave college with money in her pocket.
All of these school models blend online learning and onsite support; all are highly personalized and engage students as individuals and team; all utilize a tiered staffing model and a variety of tools.  You could do most of this today, but like School of One or NYC iSchool, it would be a challenge.  In a few years the content, assessment, management systems, and learning platforms will make learning experiences like these relatively common.  It will just take a little imagination, some focused investment, and a little room to innovate.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Doug Levin

There is some history of trying to imagine a future that we want to try and create. Perhaps some good ideas can be found within:
1995 OTA report:
2000 Learning Technologies Map:
2002 Commerce/ED report:
2003 FAS learning science & technology R&D roadmaps:
2004 follow-up report of ED/NetDay:


Tom Vander Ark

Great additions. The most important contribution of Disrupting Class may have been the vivid pictures of the future. I'm also fond of the short piece by Bror Saxberg and Gerald Huff in EdNext:
But compared to all of these, I intentionally picked a shorter timeline of just a few years from now--an extension of existing practice with tools in development and not a prediction.

Steven Strull

Greetings Tom - while I have no doubt this future is coming (indeed is probably already here) and I have chosen to embrace it, I can't help but wonder what the adults are doing. I'm not reading a lot about how kids, teachers, and other adults from the school and community will be interracting - learning from each other.
What lessons must be taught person to person? How will children and teachers organize themselves in schools? Will ed schools and other teacher preparation programs link coaching with teaching? What role will the adult or adults have in the lived experience of a wired student? What of judgement, empathy, experience, and equity?
And when we finally shed that 1950's classroom relic what will be the "important work" that children and teachers will do together?


Tom Vander Ark

Great questions. These postcards are the student experience--there's obviously a host of learning professionals behind them including teachers, online teachers, advisors, mentors, tech specialists, content developers, etc.
Most kids will be in blended environments (online & onsite) because parents and kids appreciate the benefits. Onsite learning will remain particularly important for advisory & guidance, tutoring & mentoring, application & integration, and some seminars/solons.
With all the different blends, I think it will be important to link preparation/development to the format--network specific, like High Tech High's graduate school.

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