Ban Devices from the Class or Help Learners Develop Self-Regulation?

In this recent Washington Post article, the journalist tells the story of Clay Shirky’s decision to ban devices from his NYU class. Shirky explains that he previously left the choice up to students. He considered it a challenge to be more interesting than the devices, and thought it appropriate to leave the responsibility of managing the devices to the students. The following quote introduces part of his reason for the change.

Despite these rationales, the practical effects of my decision to allow technology use in class grew worse over time. The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year. The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students, or the rest of the classroom encounter.

The article continues by pointing to research about the negative effects of multi-tasking and Shirky’s conclusion that there was more at play than a simple student choice. Instead, he argued that the presence of the devices forced students to struggle between paying attention in class and an “involuntary and emotional reaction.” He goes on to explain that he sees “teaching as a shared struggle…working together to help defend their precious focus against outside distractions.” 

Reading the article, there is plenty with which I can wholeheartedly agree. The growing research about multi-tasking, for example, is increasingly convincing. Multi-tasking has many downsides, including decreasing attention and focus, something that could certainly decrease learning as students grapple with new and complex ideas. More broadly, I welcome the wonderfully critical and reflective thinking about the nature and impact of technology in our lives. This is an important part of learning to thrive and survive in an increasingly technological age. Without taking time to consider the affordances and limitations, we easily succumb to mindless acceptance.

Yet, these very areas of agreement also lead me to think about alternatives to Shirky’s decision. If he held to an educational philosophy like educational essentialism, I would get it. He is the parent/teacher and his students/children need him to set most of the rules in lieu of their underdeveloped frontal lobes. Daddy knows best. Yet, in the article, Shirky points out that he does not hold to such a parent/child philosophy, but instead sees teaching as more of a shared experience, a “shared struggle”, an adventure (at least in part) in co-learning. Given such a philosophy, I wonder about alternative solutions. Consider the following five alternatives:

1. Provide students with access to some of the readings that led to his discovery/epiphany. Set aside some time in class for a robust discussion and exploration of the topic together. It may be that he did this, but it went beyond the scope of the article.

2. Set up a media journal assignment for students, where they logged their use of the devices during class. This would invite students to become more conscious about how the technology is impacting their experience in the class, also potentially leading to self-discoveries and robust c0-learning. It would also provide opportunity to compare different methods and strategies employed by students to leverage the devices in helpful ways.

3. Establish tech-less days and other days that are open. Or, based upon the planned activities for a given class, have students collectively vote on the “class rules”, learning to think through the issues together and make informed decisions.

4. Turn this into a class experiment with four groups. Group 1 uses devices when and however they want. Group 2 uses devices, but specifically focused upon learning strategies and supporting apps (note-taking, etc.). Group 3 uses devices, but they are charged to focus upon identifying strategies that best help them learn and focus, sharing their finding with others in the group (similar to group 2 but less prescribed). Group 4 refrains from any use of the devices in class. See if you can’t discover some patterns. Use the different group experiments to help students think through the issues more fully, and to discover the impact of different practices upon their learning.

5. Have students individually or collectively find existing research about the impact of devices in the classroom, using it to make informed decisions about their own usage.

Each of these five seem to align with Shirky’s stated philosophy of a teaching and learning as a “shared struggle” , and they do so by not banning the use of devices, but inviting students into the exploration and decision-making process. After all, these students will not have a parent to set these rules throughout their lives. Why not use this as a chance to help them learn to self-regulate? I understand that one argument against these might be that such exercises will detract from the main content and purpose of the class, but I contend that it can be done without having any effect on the overall student learning. In fact, by adding these elements of thinking about thinking and learning about learning, he is likely helping them think even more deeply about the course content.

Shirky is a brilliant thinker about new media. I value and learned a great deal from two of his books (Cognitive Surplus, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations). In fact, it would seem to me that his work around collaboration in the digital age might provide alternate insights into how to address the identified problem of attention-distracting practices in the classroom, insights like one or more of the ideas listed above. However, I do not write this as a criticism of the decision in his class. I don’t have all the facts nor do I fully understand the context in which he made this decision. Nonetheless, the article provides me with an opportunity to reflect on the broader conversation about the role of devices in the classroom, considering some of the options available to educators. In doing so, I am compelled to frame the discussion around a question that is larger than how to get students more fully attentive in a single class. Instead, I am asking, “How can we best help prepare young people to thrive as discerning consumers of devices in a digital age?”

12 Things You Can’t Do With an eBook

I like eBooks.  I really do.  I have hundreds of them…but I have a couple thousand books, and they’ll always play an important part of my life.  I’m an adult convert to the book. I hardly touched one until my senior year of high school. One summer, house sitting for a teacher who clearly loved books, I set the goal of reading one a day for the next two months.  I might have missed a day here and there, but there is no question that something shifted inside of me.  Even before that time, I respected books. Maybe that was due to good marketing from Scholastic or those posters in the elementary school libraries that cast a vision of reading as a way to explore exotic lands.  I always thought of books as something that could change you, but I just didn’t have the patience or discipline to work through a long one without pictures…not until that summer.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a book is, “a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers.”  Given this definition, an ebook is not a book, although the OED does define an eBook as “a version of a book.”  If that topic interests you, then there is no shortage of blog posts and articles on the subject.  Here is small selection that I’ve enjoyed:

For me, the comparison of the book and the ebook is a fascinating and valuable topic, but I realize that others see little use in the discussion, noting that the future is one where most reading takes place on some sort of screen.  Whatever the case, I’m devoting the rest of this post to reflecting on the obvious…not to make a point as much as to enjoy what is distinct about the book when compared to its digital counterpart. Ultimately, this is little more than a nostalgic reflection on the role that books play in our past and present.

Things That You Can’t Do with an eBook.

  1. You can’t turn the pages with you fingers.
  2. You can’t rip out a page, which might change the dramatic effect of that beloved scene in Dead Poet’s Society.
  3. You can’t lose it (well, you can, but you can usually download it again).
  4. You can’t watch a friend or loved one unwrap it and read that note on the inside cover.
  5. You can’t line them up on your shelves like a hunter’s trophy chest or relics that remind you of travels to distant lands.
  6. You can’t smell it (although people came up with a variety of solutions for this one already).
  7. You can can’t guess its age by the look and feel.
  8. You can’t use it as a subtle discussion starter with a stranger in the airport by lifting the cover up just a bit higher than usual.
  9. You can’t burn it in protest or blot out the “bad words” with a black marker, just enough mystery to entice the young and clever reader to fill in the blanks for himself.
  10. You can’t write in the margins, leaving the chicken scratch as mental (or emotional) footprints for your great-grandchildren to cipher after you’re gone.
  11. You can’t leave coffee, tea, wine, or tear stains on the pages.
  12. And you can’t steady the leg of that uneven chair with a bad one, leaving you feeling a bit better about wasting ten dollars on it.





Should Tablets Replace Textbooks?

I’ve read dozens of opinions and research reports on the topic of textbooks and tablets in schools.  As you might expect, there are different perspectives on the subject.  A popular way for articles to frame the conversation is to compare tablets with textbooks, as if having one excluded use of the other.  Of course, this is not the case.  Nonetheless, the following visual (click on it for a larger version) represents some of the different perspectives as well as references to summaries of a couple of research reports related to the topic.  I’d appreciate your additions and contributions in the comment section.


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.