Classroom Devices: Never stop asking “Why?”

In a recent post, I addressed some of the criticisms aimed at the use of classroom technology, and attempted to provide evidence that computers do, in fact, benefit students… however the type of devices and activities in which the devices are used, are critical to the overall success of 1:1 programmes. For many schools, the platforms and services they use, the devices and device specifications they recommend, have always been critically reviewed, and have always (and regularly) been met with the question, “why?”.

Technology for the sake of technology is never a good thing, and for a significant number of 1:1 programme, this has often been cited as the main point of failures. Not working with the stakeholders when implementing change will effectively doom any project, and not adequately integrating technology into curriculum, or choosing devices based on budget instead of functionality, will also doom and classroom technology initiative. At this point, I’d like to share a quote that sum up the issue and solution:

There can be infinite uses of the computer and of new age technology, but if teachers themselves are not able to bring it into the classroom and make it work, then it fails

Nancy Kassebaum

It’s critical when considering a classroom technology programme, that the conversation goes far deeper than providing laptops, because teachers need to be empowered to deliver the content in a meaningful way – and not need to fall back on printed worksheets and tests – and also require training and support so they feel comfortable making the switch. Without supporting the teachers and having a top-down plan for the implementation of technology, the plan will not survive contact with reality. A clear example of this “set up for failure” was Australia’s ‘Digital Education Revolution’ programme. This was a federally-funded project, and was designed to ensure that every student – Years 9 through 12 – had access to computers, where students could learn be part of the digital economy and acquire the needed hard skills for the future, and that the country would ultimately be well-placed to be a technology leader: A nation of innovation.

From the time this plan was announced, most educators and people working in education IT were ecstatic: A great initiative. Unfortunately, it was also quickly derailed by a plan to simply hand out sub-A$1000 netbook devices, which were woefully underpowered and loaded with expensive software the devices struggled to run. Worse, the national curriculum was not modified to allow the use of devices in the classroom, and it was up to individual schools or teachers to determine how the devices would work in the classroom. The only consultation process appeared to be between the Education Department and which vendor could provide the cheapest devices. Unfortunately, schools were given no choice, were not consulted, and barely had the staff or infrastructure to make use of the devices at all.

Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is most important.

Bill Gates

Ultimately, students were handed devices that weren’t fit for purpose, were asked to connect them to the School Wi-Fi network (if it was even up to that task), and were expected to wait for magic to happen… which it obviously didn’t. Every implementation needs planning, and simply providing technology to faculty and students, while providing no clear “why?” or “how?” (no guidance or support), can’t ever be expected to succeed, show improvements in student outcomes, or gain any efficiencies. In fact, due to poor management and planning, there are articles that suggest technology in the classroom is a “scandalous waste of money”. And in the way some states deployed DER funding, they earned the criticism.

Technology will never replace great teachers, but in the hands of great teachers, it’s transformational

George Couros

There are still those that remain critical of the use of classroom technology, despite the increasing availability of peer-reviewed research that link the use of technology with improved grades (within some OECD countries, and subjects like mathematics in Australia). Furthermore, there are numerous studies that provide evidence in support of gamification, game based learning (GBL), and suggest that technology increases levels of participation, motivation, and engagement; suggesting that magic can happen, when the right questions are asked before starting. Again, I find myself thinking of another great quote:

We need technology in every classroom and in every student and teacher’s hand, because it is the pen and paper of our time, and it is the lens through which we experience much of our world.

David Warlick

Speaking from experience as a staff member within a school with a technology programme: From the moment we decided to dip our toe into the one-to-one programme pool, we’ve had to justify the programme, the device choice, the platform used, the benefits of the options selected, and even the funding model to make it happen. We’ve always had people demanding a certain model of computer, or a certain Operating System preference, or a certain price-point, but it all came down to “why?” and “what will deliver the best learning environment?”. This sounds like a lot of arguments and hard work, and it was, but for us it was also healthy. It provided an opportunity for the school and IT to engage and work through ideas and potential issues, and through a strategic alignment, create a plan that would have support by all (well, mostly). This was not a time to accept the funding and do the minimum of work, nor is it something we can just ignore. We are already in the age of the digital economy, where science, technology, mathematics, technology, development, all require the use of technology… and providing students with early access to the technology they will require for the modern workplace and/or further education is critical. Yes, it’s time for another quote:

The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives.

Robert M. Hutchins

We started our notebook programme in 2003, as a parent-funded programme, with Office 2003, OneNote 2003 (which was a separate license back then) and Microsoft Class Server as our LMS. By 2005, we had realised that the pen was mightier than the keyboard, and started rolling out convertible Windows tablet that featured a stylus; and when combined with Microsoft OneNote), revolutionised our classrooms and learning opportunities, via collaboration, instant-feedback, and the ability to draw and diagram in subjects such as mathematics, physics, etc. We all learn in different ways, so providing a device that supports multi-modality, allowing input from microphone, camera, handwriting, keyboard and mouse, all allow the users to be instantly creative without worrying about the friction usually caused by technology. The device matters, and how it is used matters. Today, collaboration is the focus. Regardless of the subject, many find it helpful for the first step to be sketching out a plan, collaborating with their team on ideas, and then producing amazing things… and there’s no reason this can’t be done on a device rather than pen and paper.

Another consideration for classroom technology is usually around the model used. Some opt for a ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD) solution, where the minimum requirement is access to the Internet and a way to write; Some decide that more requirements are needed to ensure the classroom works as desired and use a ‘Choose Your Own Device’ (CYOD) model; And some, like our school, offer a ‘Here’s Your Own Device’ model where we choose the best possible option and provide it to the students. the last model, the “prescribed device” model, does offer a number of benefits to schools, such as providing consistency in the classroom – where everyone has the same device and software, configured in the same way, but it does come at a cost: Schools need to ensure that the right device is selected, and the right funding model is in place to ensure that both the devices are up to the task, and that the students/parents can afford the device. This is why we recommend a technology levy-based to reduce the financial burden on families, while offering the very best technology to support education and prepare students for life after school.

It has taken a while to get where we are, and we’ve had some tough “why?” questions to answer along the way, but we can now say that we have some of the highest satisfaction ratings ever, and the teachers and students are doing some amazing things. We now have a thriving Online Learning initiative run on the School’s Office 365 tenant, and everything is now possible, thanks to the right device, being integrated the right way. The teachers, being part of the process and having access to supporting resources and training have allowed them to adopt the classroom technology and run with it, and the student results speak for themselves.

If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow

John Dewey

Now, with the right device, and the right mindset, we’re looking at 3D classroom technologies, the maker community (3D printing), animation, and even VR and AR, and the students and teachers are already coming up with their own incredible STEM-focused uses of the technology. We’ll never stop researching better ways, and we’ll never quit evaluating them by asking the most important question: “Why?”.

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