September 21st, 2009
For those of you who are devotees of Woodstock, you will recognize the title “Ten Years After” as the name of a blues band of that era, an era that is famed for many things, but certainly not computer technology. Electric guitars they had aplenty, but not one participant at that festival of music could have imagined that, forty years later, students would be sitting in classes with laptop computers propped in front of them. For teachers and students at our school, “ten years after” represents a reflection point in time, for it was ten years ago that we introduced laptops into our classrooms.
Of course, as is frequently pointed out, the laptop is but a tool. When I think of tools, I think of the hammers and crow bars I used this summer to pull up the three layers of our living room floor. Simple tools, simple tasks, simple – predictable, that is – results (including a sore back). The laptop computer is anything but a simple tool. Hence, it isn’t surprising to find, ten years after, that we are still figuring out how it fits into the anything-but-simple task of teaching students. And so, I decided it was time I spoke with our Technology Learning and Teaching Specialist, Justin Medved – yes, the same fellow who a year ago suggested I begin this blog. Justin and I have been having conversations ever since, and our conversations led recently to a workshop we ran with our teachers – Learning in the 21st Century Classroom. A few themes came out of that workshop that I want to share, not that they will surprise anyone, but I believe that they must form a starting point for anyone who wishes to reflect further about laptops and learning.
The first theme is even older than Woodstock – “the medium is the message”. So wrote Marshall McLuhan, a great Canadian, in 1964. In terms of education, the medium is multi-layered, and includes all the subtle ways in which our children receive the message, from the position the teacher takes in the classroom to whether or not there is a wireless connection. For years, teachers have enjoyed the fact that they have a great deal of control over the medium. They generally choose the textbook, choose the arrangement of desks, choose to lecture or discuss, to read or have the children read, the homework, the projects, the essay titles and even the colour of the chalk or markers – all are shaped by the teacher’s choices. King or queen of his or her own domain, the teacher appears on the surface to control the medium. But as post-modern thinkers have suggested to us, you can only hope to control the medium and the message that flows from it if you understand the myriad ways that messages can be received and the multiple messages that may result.
Teachers are already beginning to understand something of this. Over the time I have been involved in education most teachers have become aware of implicit messages that we are in danger of conveying, including the following:
a) you can’t learn without a teacher,
b) the teacher and all teacher resources are authoritative,
c) a learning community is a dictatorship,
d) the teacher is the only arbiter in the class of what is important to learn, and
e) learning is a passive activity in which the students are filled with knowledge by the teacher.
All of these dangerous and implicit messages existed in potential before the laptop. Fortunately, the introduction of the laptop has tended to minimize these messages. With the laptop, the student is empowered to lead and carry out their learning independently. Unfortunately, the laptop has introduced some its own implicit messages. Consider the following:
a) I can learn adequately in a classroom while I send my friend an email or two, take a moment to check the scores of last night’s game when things get boring, finish the homework that is due for my next class, and organize my folders, or
b) More time should be spent on creating visual effects with my work, and less time spent actually thinking, or
c) The first website must have the right answer, because many people have visited the site before, or
d) Anything beyond one computer screen full of text is too much, and not worth reading, or
e) To teach is to read a PowerPoint presentation, and to learn is to type down what is on the PowerPoint slides, or
f) For every question or project assigned, there must be some website that can provide me with the complete answer; my finding it would take less time than my doing the thinking and creative work to produce it and it would more likely be right .
I have faced many students who appear to have learned these lessons. And I am not alone. Recent articles written by University professors and teachers also suggest the growth of these learning attitudes. Jeffrey R. Young has recently written about how a college dean has demanded that professors not bring laptop computers into the classroom. He cites a study in the April issue of British Educational Research Journal that, on the basis of 211 students, found that 59% found lectures boring and that the use of PowerPoint was one of the dullest experienced. He quotes: “The least boring teaching methods were found to be seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions” – all computer-free. A Ryerson University professor, a self-proclaimed member of the techno-gadget generation, writes in the Toronto Life about how he banned the use of laptops by students in the classroom. Which raises the question, “In what direction are we headed with education and technology, and must we throw out the baby with the bathwater?”
But before we answer that question, we first have to consider the other baby elephant in the room – the student. Is this student the same student we encountered pre-computer, the “BC” era? Again, many educators are making their voices heard on this score. A recent article suggested that students are unable to do math anymore because their brains are not trained to think in a focused manner. The computer, that allows the undisciplined mind to shift back and forth between work and play, accomplishment and arousal, and intellectual engagement and entertainment, has created false expectations for the budding learner. The message suggested by the medium is that learning need not get in the way of a steady diet of serotonin. But more insidious than that, one neurologist, Gary Small, the author of IBrain, has suggested that our present generation of learners have developed brains that actually work differently as a result of their internet usage. By continually searching and looking for instant sources of information, “digital natives”, as he calls them, develop neural pathways that may not exist in a non-native population. To put it simply, and obviously, those who use the internet get good at using the internet. The internet becomes a full-brain workout, as MRI scans will attest. But do these neural pathways and the increased use of the brain during internet use really translate into more profound learning? Not necessarily. One of the downsides of internet use, as Small sees it, is the increase of ADD diagnoses. And another implication, suggested by a critic, is that students put less emphasis on holding information in their long-term memory, because they focus on their ability to seek out new information and retrieve that information from the memory that exists in cyberspace.
So, even if we feel uneasy about how to incorporate computers in the classroom, we can’t ignore the fact that our students’ world is a world of computer use. Moreover, the world that they will inhabit after we are finished with them is likely to be even more so a world of computers. To react against this new world would appear to be short-sighted – tantamount to demanding that those who have been raised in a three-dimensional world be required to enter a two-dimensional learning environment to prepare them to go back out into that three-dimensional world. So how does a school use a 21st century classroom to prepare 21st century students for a 21st century world?
Very carefully! As we know, learning is complex. Learners are diverse. So are the subjects; learning French is not learning history. And so are the school’s learning objectives – we want children to learn to share and treat people with respect at the same time that we want them to solve problems, make persuasive arguments and utilize their times table. Thus, we must first ignore any simple answers. No, throwing computers out the window is not a nuanced response – nor is believing that on-line courses will replace the traditional school. We have to get smart about how we use computers and how we have our students use computers. Computers cannot simply be considered a convenience or a way of saving paper. As I stated at the outset, the computer is a tool. Educators must fully consider the implications of choosing the tool. As every carpenter knows, there is always a right tool for the right job.
But more than that, in this moment of reflection, teachers can also reconsider what learning can look like, and what we can do to stimulate learning that is multi-layered, memorable and of lasting value. The worst mistakes we made with the laptop are to use them to reproduce the poor teaching practices of the past. Is there a substantive difference between a student copying out a teacher’s board notes on computer rather than copying them out on paper? No, and moreover, both are questionable means of engaging students in learning. Better would be to send the notes to the students and have them do something with them – read another source and compare what the teacher has written with the other source, perhaps.
We have to take advantage of the real pluses that a room full of computers can produce. Computers are particularly good at connecting people with people far away from themselves – people with very different perspectives and life experiences. That kind of connection is worth making. Computers can connect people to many sources quickly. Give a group of students the task of finding on the internet three different opinions on the global warming crisis and then have them put away their laptops and discuss what evidence the authors elicit and why they might hold the opinion they do. Do you have quiet kids in your class who don’t have the confidence to jump into the heated debates you have? Set the class up on “discussion board”, an interactive chat that relies upon writing and responding to the written viewpoints of their classmates. Educators have to be on the cutting edge, technologically, and they always have to be asking the question: how can this newest technological advance actually advantage my students?
We also have to think hard about the geography of our classrooms. Recently, we began a pilot project with one of our classrooms where we created a counter around the perimeter of the classroom where students can plug in and work individually on their laptop, with a teacher able to see every screen. In the middle are tables where students can work together face to face, or engage with the teacher. Just as every tool has a purpose, so should every space.
Finally, every moment in a laptop classroom must become a teaching moment about how to use the laptop to the student’s best advantage. We must help our students reflect on their own use of these powerful machines. If we fail to point out the choices that they have to make with them, the choices will be made for them. The benefits of instilling an acute consciousness of the tool’s potential will accrue to both the present and the distant future. If we help students to develop a discipline about their use of this tool now, they will avoid its pitfalls and pave the way toward a future of wise computer use. For even with a tool as modern as the laptop computer, wisdom is a realizable goal.
Levey, Gregory. “Lament for the IGeneration” Toronto Life (2009) October p. 33-37.
Small, G., & Vorgan, G. (2008). iBrain. New York: Collins Living.
Also see: Marilee Sprenger. “Focusing the Digital Brain” Educational Leadership. September 2009 Volume 67 Number 1 Pages 34-39.