Important Considerations for 1-to-1 Programs – Task Complexity & Duration

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.

Posted in 1-to-1, blog, BYOD, education, educational technology

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.

4 Replies to “Important Considerations for 1-to-1 Programs – Task Complexity & Duration”

  1. Gail Potratz

    There are valid and important points in this article and the comment above; however, I will comment on one small point that jumped out at me.

    Dr. Bull made a comment that indicates the inclusion of students in deciding device appropriateness to the task might be something to think about.

    In an article in which I was interviewed for a local paper about the technology and education at our school of which I am the technology coordinator, I was quoted as saying the true measure of the success of the move toward seamless integration of technology in the classroom is when students demonstrate the appropriate choice of device for the task at hand.

    Thank you for reinforcing what I believe can be a significant measure of how well we are doing in using technology effectively in our classrooms.

    This is one small point, but one with big implications for this age of multiple device classrooms.

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Gail…and for highlighting that point. It may be one small point in the article, but as you noted, it is really important; a sign that we are creating a learning environment where learners are active, engaged, and taking ownership in their learning. From my perspective, many of the most vibrant learning environments are the ones where the teacher becomes less and less visible as the students themselves become designers, leaders, and teachers in the classroom.

  2. Joshua Sommermeyer (@jsommermeyer)

    Dr. Bull,

    Thanks for putting your thoughts out there…

    I appreciate the different ways in which you have broken this down. I do however have a couple of comments to add.

    1) We have a 1:1 iPad program here at Concordia and supplement with carts of Macbooks for the “more complex” or more realistically, tasks that are better suited for a laptop than a tablet. Many of our students (I’d say 40-50%) have chosen to purchase an external keyboard/case to allow for “easier” text inputing. However, students rarely need all if any of the features of a PC/Mac based word processor in order to do authentic, critical writing. In fact, many of our students choose to use more streamlined tools because they are less distracting and allow them to focus on the task at hand (for example iA Writer vs. Pages).

    2) I get REAL frustrated when I hear tablets, PC/Macs, or even smart phones compared to a hammer or screwdriver. It is not as simple as that. To use your analogy these devices are better compared to a tool boxes in which you store multiple tools for multiple jobs (apps/programs). You need to create a presentation? Haiku Deck, Powerpoint, Keynote… You need to take notes? iThoughtsHD, Notes, Notability, Word, Penultimate, Mind Manager… You need to XYZ… there is likely an app or program for it. The real beauty is that some might use iThoughtsHD as a presentation tool or Powerpoint to make a poster. Are there some things a tablet is probably not suited for TODAY like writing code or doing CAD? Sure! But 3 years ago when the “tablet” first became mainstream you couldn’t do half of what you can do now, who’s to say that in the next 6-12 months (or 6-12 days) you won’t be able to do new things on those devices you can’t do today? I’d argue its vastly easier to use a tool like Haiku Deck to easily create a appealing/informative presentation because I can focus more on complex content/knowledge/skills related to the task rather than the cumbersome/clumsy/confusing tool such as Keynote.

    3. The biggest singular issue we have with iOS right now (not sure if these same issues affect other Tablets) is the difficulty with turning off the distractions of notifications (Mail, Calendar, Twitter, *insert your favorite social/distracting tool here*). There really is no easy way to shut that stuff off aside from going into Airplane mode, which disables your ability to access the vast toolbox/library of the internet. I wish there was a simple off switch for that.

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Thanks for the great comments! For the record, I am not one of those people who compares iPads to a hammer or screwdriver. That was an opening illustration to explain how all technologies (simple or complex) have biases, affordances, and limitations. It is just easier to illustrate that point with a simple technology, and then move on to more complex ones. If one tries to illustrate such a point with a complex and less universal example, then it is harder for a diverse reading audience to focus on the main point. Some argue, for example, that technology, is neutral…that it is all how you use it. And yet, an iPad makes a terrible hammer, blender, refrigerator, or nuclear reactor. That is simply because those other technologies have certain affordances in areas where the iPad has certain limitations. This is intended to provoke thought and conversation about what technology or technologies are most appropriate for given tasks. As you note, the iPad is, in some ways, a collection of technologies, so it is important to note that it had a wide variety of affordances as one considers a myriad of potential tasks.

      I would love to hear about your insights on the complexity and duration of student learning activities with and without iPads. Do students write more, less, differently, in shorter segments, longer segments, etc. Your reference to having other devices available to students and their not using them is a great case/scenario. Do you think that is because the teacher’s did not assign work that required a level of time or complexity that would call for such computers? Or, do you think that they are figuring out how to use the device to do things as or more complex than possible with the full computer?

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