10 Affordances of 1:1 Programs & Mobile Devices in Education

1:1 Program AffordancesWhile the number of 1:1 schools continues to grow, I often consult with schools leaders who are still debating the issue, wondering if it is a worthwhile effort for their school.  I respect that sort of thinking, and I urge such leaders to consider what kind of learning environment they want to foster. In their ideal world, what would a day at school look like?  What would the students be doing?  What would the teachers be doing?  What would it look and feel like?  What sort of things would students be learning?  How would they be learning?  A healthy conversation about such things can help when thinking about technology-related decisions because the technologies that we choose will directly impact our ability to make such visions a reality.

When it comes to 1:1 schools, there are many ways that schools carry out such programs and many ways that teachers and students make use of the devices.  However, there are certain affordances of 1:1 programs, whether we are talking about laptops or tablets.  Following are ten such affordances, with an emphasis upon 1:1 tablet environments.  If these align with the vision that you have for a learning environment, then a 1:1 program can help.

1) Personalized Learning – When you have a device for every learner, that opens the door for learners to have truly personalized learning experiences. They can work at different paces, with different resources, using different apps, on different tasks.  To leverage this requires a teacher who can guide and facilitate such learning.  Of course, there can still be times when the teacher directs every student to do the same thing in the same way and at the same time, but that is not a central affordance of 1:1 programs.  It is the nature of mobile devices to be customized and to meet the needs of individual users/learners.

2) Connectivity – We live in an increasingly connected world, one where we are in constant contact with people is different locations.  This connected nature of the contemporary world is one of the greatest changes of life in the digital age.  This is the first time in history when it has become possible to be more connected to a person a thousand miles away than a person a few feet away.

Mobile devices have features for offline use, but it is in their nature to be connected, and placing such a device in the hands of each learner provides new opportunities for learner’s to leverage people, groups, and resources that extend far beyond the classroom, school, or local community. If that is desirable in your ideal learning environment, then 1:1 devices will likely help you achieve such a goal. Be assured that they will drive learners to blur the boundaries of distance and space in the classroom…unless, of course, you restrict WiFi access.

3) Student-centered Exploration, Experimentation and Creation – If your vision of a learning environment is a class of students sitting quietly in rows, giving their undivided attention to a teacher in the front of the room, then a 1:1 program is probably not a wise choice.  1:1 devices call for user attention, especially as they are connected to the world beyond the classroom.  Placing such a device in the hands of every learner and then continually calling for them to put the devices down and “look up here” can be a frustrating experience for a teacher and learner.  Instead, 1:1 classrooms are inclined toward students working individually and in small groups: researching, exploring, creating, collecting, and analyzing.  You can still have times where students set the devices aside for small and large group discussions and activities; but that is not an inherent affordance of mobile devices or 1:1 programs.  Rather, the devices enable individual learners to make decisions about how to learn.  That is the nature of the app stores with mobile devices.  While some 1:1 implementations involve mirrored versions of apps for all learners and teacher’s directing learners toward which tool to use at which time, this is often an effort to work around the natural design of the device. It is more an effort to support traditional teaching methods in the face of a system that otherwise puts such methods in jeopardy.  Or, it may be an attempt to restrict some of these affordances while leveraging others.  That is certainly possible, but it requires careful planning.  The 1:1 classrooms that first impressed me were the one’s where the learners capitalized upon this user-centered affordance, and it produced a hive of creativity, ingenuity, and no small amount of “messy” learning.

4) Mobility – There is a reason that we call them mobile devices.  You can use them on the move. They are flexible and allow you to go from place to place while still being connected and productive, taking advantage of the many tools and features in different contexts.  This is a built-in affordance of the device.  As such, if you have a vision for a flexible, dynamic, mobile class and set of learning experiences; then 1:1 environments support that. They allow you to extend learning far beyond the walls of an individual room or even the school building.  There are plenty of examples of 1:1 classes where students still spend the majority of their time in desks, rows, and contained within a single room.  Yet, this is also not a central affordance of the device.  Designers made them to roam without losing access to large amounts of data and a variety of resources, and they can empower the teacher and class that wants to leverage that mobility.

5) Multimodal Interaction – Mobile devices are designed to accommodate different types of input and output.  Consider an iPad.  The iPad has the capability to input data using a wireless keyboard, and on-screen keyboard, by other touches and gestures, by speech commands, as well as by capturing still images and video.  This certainly supports the first affordance mentioned above…personalized learning.  It also allows input and output that engages multiple senses at the same time.  Compare this to a traditional book where there is largely one way to interface with the content.  This multimodal interaction has potential to increase attention and engagement while affording the learner with the opportunity to experiment with these different ways of interacting with content.  New aspects of this multimodal interaction continue to develop.  We already have devices on the market that use the internal camera to track and respond to physical gestures and eye movement; and learning applications will continue to develop that leverage these types of interactions.

6) Mark up – Electronic resources combined with mobile devices give learners the ability to “mark up” a text that would upset many teacher’s in a classroom with traditional school-issued texts.  Simple apps like iBooks and Kindle are more than just platforms for reading digital versions of paper books.  When a learner interacts with this content on a mobile device, the apps have the built-in capacity to mark up the book without destroying it.  Learners can apply simple reading strategies that we know are effective for improving comprehension.  Learners can mark up the text with highlights, with notes that predict what is coming next, with notes that pose questions, and with notes that document examples and illustrations that come to mind.  Learners can store such highlights and notes in a file, extracted for the learner’s own purposes or to share with the teacher.

7) Curation and Organization – Many apps enable the collection of diverse types of data from diverse sources.  They also allow one to organize and analyze that data in simple to complex ways.  Consider just one example, Evernote.  This tool is more than a digitized note-taking app.  It allow students to sort and organize their notes, to add images, links, portions of web-based sources, and more.  One can share portions of the notes with others, including the teacher for instant review. It allows audio recordings with attached written notes.  Evernote also integrates with a growing collection of tools that add hundreds of other features.  This is only one of hundreds of free or inexpensive apps that were designed to aid people in curating and organizing content.  As such, 1:1 programs allow teachers to promote types of learning that call for students to curate, analyze, synthesize, and organize data in various ways, everything from traditional notes to spreadsheets to data and knowledge visualizations.  Options exist for a wide age range as well.

8) Collaborative Work – Students can collaborate without technology, but mobile devices for each learner adds new possibilities.  Students take collective notes using a tool like Google Docs, contribute anonymous input using polling software, contribute to a collective essay, share resources with one another in Google Drive or Dropbox, or develop an annotated list of online resources using a social bookmarking tool like Diigo. For many 1:1 classrooms, this is an integrated part of a typical school day, and it represents a valuable skill in the 21st century workplace.

9) Democratized Knowledge – In the traditional classroom, the teacher was the source of knowledge and the one who helped to explain and illustrate the knowledge so that students could understand, memorize and use it.  That role continues to some degree, but mobile devices and 1:1 programs give each learner access to many sources of knowledge, with more example and illustrations than would ever be possible for a single teacher.  This disrupts that traditional role of the teacher.  At the same time, it affords the teacher with the time and flexibility to do more individualized coaching, mentoring, and guiding.

10) Instant Feedback – While instant feedback is not present in all aspects of a mobile device, they have a bias toward such feedback.  The relationship between a user and a mobile device is one of frequent input and output exchanges.  It is what can lead to those situations where a person is texting a friend while having a face-to-face conversation with another person.  While this is usually not considered a favorable behavior, it reminds us that the device itself is designed to draw one into frequent interactions.  Some leverage this to help learners gain more frequent feedback on their progress.  Many educational apps give such instant feedback.  Use of live polling apps can do something similar.  Since exchange of information between learners in amplified with mobile devices, the benefits of quick feedback from others in and outside of the classroom becomes possible as well.

These are just a few of the many affordances attached to mobile devices, especially in the context of a 1:1 classroom or school.  There are limitations as well, and you will find my mention of those in other articles.  Nonetheless, these ideas give you an opportunity to assess the fit of a 1:1 in your class, school, or learning organization/community.  Do these collectively reflect the type of learning environment that you want to see in your school? If so, then a 1:1 program may be an excellent investment of time and resources.  If they do not…if you strive to promote a more traditional learning environment, then this list offers some cautions.  Mobile devices are not neutral, and I’ve worked with a number of school leaders who learned that the hard way, expecting that a 1:1 program could simply be a high-tech version of an otherwise unchanged learning environment.  While that is possible in a very strict and controlling context, it is not the natural result. 1:1 programs change the teaching and learning experience in powerful and sometimes transformational ways.