This post is not going to promise dramatic learning gains from using a new technology. It’s not one of those stories where at first a teacher was skeptical, but in the end, the classroom was like a sports movie where the technology scored the winning homerun. I feel skeptical when I read those stories. I don’t doubt the success, but I wonder whether the learning gains, increased student interest/participation, or higher levels of reported satisfaction have less to do with the iPad, blog, twitter stream, or virtual environment and more to do with who is in the classroom.
Cathy Davidson recently described an idyllic experience of teaching a course in which she and the students shared in the discovery of new applications of technologies for learning. She describes the process of developing the course, the thrill when the students actually invited and facilitated a guest lecture, and the ways in which the students challenged her to really be collaborative, even in grading.
If we step back for a moment, though, and consider a class with Davidson and those same students without the new technologies, what would the learning experience be like? I imagine it would still be exceptional, because Davidson is an obviously engaged teacher and the students are obviously engaged learners. She employs teaching strategies that were effective before the new technologies she describes. In particular, she encourages students to take ownership of their learning experience and creates a flexible environment to support whatever direction they take. When developing assignments, Davidson incorporates research in motivation, particularly students’ likelihood to put more effort into writing for an authentic audience. She also has deep experience with her topic and an obvious enthusiasm for both the content and the teaching. These factors are consistently linked to positive learning experiences in educational research. Additionally, the students clearly seem motivated to learn. She describes the class list as a diverse collection of disciplines, so the students appear to be choosing the course. They demonstrate active involvement with the assignments and content and even provide substantive feedback for future courses.
Davidson’s approach to her class corresponds with much of the research on good teaching. Now, if we imagine the same syllabus and same access to technologies, but with a different teacher, what happens? The course might still be exceptional, or it might not.
A common theme when addressing technology in education is a focus on the particular technology and the success or failure of its use. In David Risher’s recent article about educational technologies in developing countries, he urges consideration of ‘the triangle that connects students, teachers, and ideas.’ The way in which a teacher incorporates a technology, designs the learning environment, and promotes learning determines the ultimate effectiveness of the technology. Returning to Davidson’s example, the students are described as knowing they can take risks through the support and encouragement she provides. The technologies are secondary to the empowering environment she creates. In other hands, the students may have been focused on their screens, updating their Facebook profiles while the teacher lectured at the front of the room…a forgettable experience.
When describing the participatory culture new technologies afford, equally important is the teacher who brings these tools into the classroom — the tool merely plays a supporting role.
Yesterday, I attended Google’s Big Tent Event in Hertfordshire. As an academic, I’m used to attending conferences at universities or Hiltons, not countryside resorts with helicopter pads. The event was held in a grand tent that could easily hold 500 people. It was well-insulated from weather and noise, carpeted, with an extraordinary sound and projection system, consistent and fast wi-fi, comfortable chairs, and to be honest, even the bathrooms were amazing. As I sat in my chair, discovering electrical plugs conveniently located under each seat, I couldn’t help but compare this temporary structure for Google’s few days of publicity events to public classrooms in their home state of California. I’ve conducted teaching observations in many elementary classrooms where 28 students share two or three computers, often less, because one computer isn’t working and a request to fix it may take days or months because budget cuts have resulted in limited staffing. I’ve lectured in university classrooms that either do not have a projector or the projector is broken and again, the fix will take weeks, months to fix because budget cuts have limited technical support. School-wide wi-fi is an unrealized dream at most schools. Even at the university level, a majority of classrooms in California do not have it. California schools’ permanent structures frequently do not have the insulation from weather or noise that Google’s amazing temporary structure boasted.
I wonder what could be possible if teachers had classrooms that functioned as well as Google’s Big Tent? If teachers had the technical and administrative support that benefited yesterday’s speakers, how could students’ learning experiences be improved?
Do the quality of bathrooms reflect the health of an institution? MP Jeremy Hunt may say yes. In his address to the Big Tent group yesterday, Jeremy Hunt drew connections between the vision demonstrated when developing London’s sewage system to current efforts to improve broadband infrastructure in the UK. The secret is the size of the pipes, apparently, and larger ones will ensure preparation for future data demands. Mr. Hunt used South Korea, who is #1 in OECD’s educational rankings, as an example of the success possible with super-fast broadband. While discussing funding models for the project, including private support, Mr. Hunt did not address what would seem an obvious part of the equation: education funding. UK schools have been hard hit by recent budget cuts, including canceling the Building Schools for the Future Scheme and recent £155m additional cuts in the standards fund. If the education rankings of South Korea are serving as justification for investing in infrastructure for faster broadband, it would seem that simultaneously cutting funding for education serves cross-purposes.
While much public debate surrounds the quality of education, often solely blaming teachers, the quality of educational environments, including support at the technical, facilities, and administrative levels need more attention. Let’s use Google’s Big Tent, rather than makeshift shelters, as a model for classrooms and start directing funding to supporting students and their teachers, rather than forcing them to make due without.
Started as a way to tutor his cousin, Sal Khan has developed an extensive library of online lessons in subjects ranging from Math to Science to History. While most online learning approaches are stuck in either the lecture format or the impersonal slide delivery (or worse, just a list of readings), Sal found a way to personalize the learning experience.
To ban or not to ban laptops in classrooms? What about cell phones? And calculators? Before we hand students a list of technologies to leave at home, let’s consider the real problem: attention vs. distraction. If you’re going to ban everything distracting students, you should consider what you’re wearing, how you talk, the guy in the front row who hasn’t called the girl in the 7th row, etc.
After teaching for several years, training teachers, and studying learning, I’ve developed a few strategies for maintaining student engagement. Of course, nothing is full-proof and there will typically be someone who falls asleep, looks clueless, glares at you during lecture, leaves after 15 minutes, or stares off into space. Try not to take it personally. After all, intentionally or not, I’ve been that student, haven’t you?
I just posted the following list on Facebook in response to a question on Metafilter and am re-posting it here:
Call upon people randomly. On the first day of classes, let students know that at any point in the lecture, you may call upon them. Cut up your roster and, when participation reaches a low point, randomly pull a name out of a hat. Ask them to concisely summarize something you just said, or discuss implications for a different scenario, etc. The point is to let them know that there’s rewards for paying attention…and consequences for not paying attention. I did this pre-laptops in the classroom and it improved discussion. It’s also a non-confrontational way of ensuring participation/attention.
Turn to someone next to you. One strategy I find highly effective in teaching is to identify a concept from the readings and say, “For the next 3-5 minutes, I’d like you to turn to someone next to you and discuss what you think the term participative media means. Think of a few examples from the readings/your own experience and be prepared to share them with the larger group.” I usually either walk around to hear people’s conversations, or meet with a student close by who hasn’t found a conversation partner. While everyone is meeting, I pick a particularly chatty group, or volunteer the person I’m speaking with, and ask them if they’d be willing to go first. As people share their ideas, I write them on the whiteboard, or insert their insights into my slide presentation and use our discussion as a springboard for the next part of the lecture.
Having people speak in smaller groups primes them with ideas for sharing in the larger group and so accomplishes two goals: engages them in the discussion and empowers them to participate.
You can have “laptops down” moments, where you ask everyone to close their laptops to help them think and focus.
I start the quarter off being honest and saying that it’s really tough to speak to a large crowd and tougher still when you have to compete for their attention (e.g., talking in class, or using tech to tune out), so to make it easier on me and more interesting for them, I’ll be asking questions throughout the lecture and if I see someone not paying attention, I will most likely call on them.
Have students present some of the info, where appropriate. Each class period, I have a 5 minute block for student presentations — students definitely seem more interested in information from their peers. If the students get the info wrong, I use it as a teachable moment.
Audience from Napoleon Dynamite spoof posted on YouTube
I also do fun things, like take pictures of the audience when they look the most bored and include it in the next class period’s powerpoint, just to let them know what my view is like. Then I use the image as a background for some of the slides. People love to see themselves.
Or, the best scenario is to incorporate the laptops into instruction. Even in a lecture, you can have scavenger hunts or discovery moments. For every class period, I assign a couple bloggers to report on what they learned. You get a record of the class, students who missed have a useful resource, and students with restless finger syndrome have somewhere to focus their energy. Here’s a link to course blogs from past students: http://www.brenmesm.blogspot.com.
There’s a misconception that in lectures we should be the only ones talking. An ideal learning scenario is one in which we empower students to feel responsible for their learning experience and create an environment in which the technologies, no matter how seductively distracting, can be used as part of their learning.