Each technology brings with it affordances and limitations. A screwdriver has different affordances than a hammer. It is effective at fastening or loosening screws, but if the task calls for using nails, a hammer is the better tool. Imagine a situation where you need to attach two pieces of wood. If you have a hammer and not a screwdriver, then you are most likely going to attach the two items with nails. Nails may not be the better option, but you use the nails because you have a hammer. In other words, the tool influenced the task and the end product. The end product (the two attached pieces of wood with nails) now has certain affordances and limitations as well.
In the early conversations about one-to-one classrooms, I took a stance that the jury is still out on the iPad and similar mobile devices as tools for creation, at least in terms of complex research, writing, and project-based learning environments. When I read articles and attended presentations about teaching and learning with iPads, over 80% of the demonstrated activities focused upon learner consumption and exploration: playing math games, searching the web and collecting resources, reading (with some note-taking), accessing media and occasionally creating simple media projects or presentations, using different educational applications to explore or study a topic, etc.
As an early adopter of the iPad, I quickly discovered that the iPad and my mobile phone slowed my ability to write; create graphics; capture and edit video; collect, analyze, and organize research. I could do some of these, but when I needed to write, re-write, and write again; a device with a full keyboard, a full set of word processor features, an an ability to quickly switch between multiple documents and content sources remained my tool of choice. The same was true when it came to collaborative creation of resources in Google Docs or Wikis. I could create some things on the mobile devices, but it usually took more time, and it required more steps and effort to create and incorporate a variety of media. When I needed to engage in research that required me to switch between three or more applications and sources of data, my productivity quickly diminished on the iPad, and I turned to my laptop and my dual screen setup. For me, it came down to what task I wanted to accomplish, the affordances of a given device as it related to the task, and the context in which I needed to carry out the task. I was willing to take notes on my iPad at a conference because I valued the affordance of a light, easy to carry device with a battery that lasts through the entire day. It had the added benefit of letting me take a picture of a slide, or interview someone for future use. However, if I wanted to gather notes from multiple sources in preparation for a presentation, working in my office with a computer allowed me to be more productive, and it showed up in the quality of my work.
Recently, I came across this excellent post from Fraser Speirs called, Beyond Consumption vs Creation. Speiers argues that this creation versus consumption perspective is less helpful than looking more closely at task completion versus task duration.
- How many steps are involved in a task?
- How many different sources are you using for a task?
- Is the task linear or not?
- What is the duration of the task?
Speirs’s suggests that you can evaluate the usefulness of a given device based upon your answers to these types of questions. If a task lasts a long time and is very complex, then a traditional PC is a good option. On the other end of the spectrum, a mobile phone is excellent for short and simple tasks. Somewhere in the middle are the tablets, working well or many short (or medium length) but simple to moderately complex tasks.
This is a great addition to the conversation about the affordances and limitations of different device for a given task. I want to think about these two factors more, but within the context of learning environments and experiences, I might want to suggest a third characteristic related to contexts. This could get at some considerations related to which device is most flexible, accessible and mobile given a particular context (field trip, conference, etc.). In some cases, the need for flexibility will need to balance the extra effort required to engage in a complex task on a mobile device.
Nonetheless, this duration and complexity perspective is a helpful tool for educators and schools looking at and planning for 1-to-1 and BYOD programs. What sort of tasks are needed for the learners? Do you expect them to focus upon simple and short tasks? Then a set of iPods might be a perfect match. This is not to suggest that schools should avoid BYOD programs if they hope for learners to engage in long and complex tasks, but it would good to take this into consideration. At minimum, it might require revisiting the minimum specifications or devices or ensuring that classrooms and schools provide devices for students who are working on longer and more complex tasks. Better yet, what if we engage students in the process of becoming adept at analyzing which device(s) would be most valuable for a particular task?
As a proponent of deep, immersive, student-centered, project-based learning environments; these considerations have significant implications for what and how we design learning environments and experiences. Ignore such factors and moving to a BYOD program has the risk of:
- reducing the complexity of student tasks,
- decreasing the time with which learners spend on the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy,or
- minimizing a focus upon complex tasks that require extended periods of time and access to a wide array of tools and resources.
At the same time, there is great potential in leveraging mobile devices to focus learner attention on very specific tasks over a short period of time, maximizing student mastery of important concepts, and giving them the ability to use powerful and mobile devices to extend their learning across diverse contexts (well beyond the walls of the typical classroom).
I’m grateful for this new addition to the conversation about how to leverage current and emerging technologies to increase student learning and engagement, lead students to deeper and higher levels of learning, and extend learning beyond the walls of the classroom.