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The future of K-12: Will we still need a physical classroom?

This post has been updated on January 23 2020.

Online education remains a key response to the documented shortcomings of K-12 education. There can be no doubt that the sheer volume of solutions and opportunities offered by online educational tools cannot be ignored by a society seeking to graduate better skilled, better adapted, creative, critical thinkers.

The future of education is most assuredly online. But what of the classroom? Do we still hold on to a misty eyed, romantic view of physical learning spaces? Is there a reason we should retain the physical classroom in the future?

A couple of weeks ago we explored whether the university campus would continue to exist in the form it does now, in the future. We concluded that there is educational value to a physical campus, as at certain ages (18-25) the immersive, regulated and social basis of the university campus was hugely beneficial.

However, the online university remains inevitable for two reasons. Firstly, the diversity between HE students’ lifestyles and ages required universities to adapt course material to online media that was accessible to students with varying schedules and lifestyles. Secondly, creating an online learning presence would invariably help universities become more relevant, increase their reach, and improve their revenue streams.

It is tempting to romanticize classroom-based education as being tactile, interactive and in a sense more “human”. However there are also a range of issues directly related to physically limited learning spaces, primarily under-funding and overcrowding, which will be addressed by the inclusion of more online learning frameworks.

Many online programs were created in response to the need to transcend limitations of time and place and increase availability of courses to students in rural and urban schools. Additionally, online education also facilitates critical 21st century skills by enabling self-directed learning, time management, and personal responsibility, along with technology literacy in a context of problem-solving and global awareness.

In this context one can begin to dissolve the romantic view of the physical classroom (complete with an apple on the teacher’s desk), and replace this with an equally attractive image of the online classroom. Some of the key benefits of an online classroom happen to address some of the key drawbacks of the physical classroom.


By empowering students to choose their productive study times, rather than shoehorn them into a predetermined schedule, online learning affords students the chance to optimize their study periods, rather than cope or adapt to schedules defined by the school.


Ironically, a physical classroom can dilute, rather than increase, personalized attention from teachers. With online learning models, combined with data mining, teachers can swiftly gain insight into who is struggling with a concept, and why. Something that, in a physical classroom environment, may only be realized once assessments are completed.


While socialization, and the development of social skills are all important factors to consider when “dispensing” with the physical classroom, we can also add bullying, social stigma associated with not wearing the “right” clothes, or coming from the “right” background to the negatives column. Students with social anxiety, or who fail to successfully compete in the oft times aggressive social posturing of high school, could benefit enormously by not being exposed to it.

Accelerated learning

With an online model it is possible for gifted students to take greater control of their studies, without having to wait for the rest of the class to catch up. Teachers can easily scale the curriculum to individual rates of learning.

As a result of these and a number of other classroom-based issues being addressed by online models, online learning continues to grow rapidly across the United States as an increasing number of students, educators, and policymakers realize the vast benefits of learning unconstrained by time and place.

For more articles about this topic, please visit the K-12 category.

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