1to1 laptops – perspectives on the potential challenges and benefits

Last year, my school began implementation of a 1 to 1 laptop policy with all students, grades 6-12.  For the most part, this looks like a positive step forward, giving students and teachers access to technologies and resources in every classroom and at every seat.   The initiative, which after a bumpy beginning due to IT related challenges – in and out of school, seems to be firmly established.

In the classrooms I have visited / taught, most students have Mac laptops.  Some are using iPads as their primary tool.  Wifi access in all parts of the school is provided to all registered computers.

While I fully support the availability of technologies in the classroom to support learning, I have begun to wonder if there is empirical evidence to link use of technology to better learning outcomes.   At our school, it is too early for evaluation of the success of the initiative from a learning outcomes perspective.  However, it is not too early to begin planning for it.   I have also begun to be concerned with the appropriate use of laptops during class from a time management perspective.  A related, but separate issue.

In my classroom, I have noted that my supervising teacher is deliberate at the start of every class in instructing students to put away their laptops.  I have taken the same approach.   At the start of every class – unless we are utilizing computers directly, we begin with screens down, eyes up and traditional channels of communication open.    Together we analyze and discuss photographs or charts.   We work on think/pair/share activities.   We review homework assignments or discuss upcoming work.    Students respond to this and follow initial instructions well.    At the start of the class, there is generally nothing locking them to their screen.   At the same time, use of laptops is not required.

Once the lesson is underway, the screens begin to flip open and students use laptops more freely – some as a primary tool for note taking, others searching for supporting information during lectures/discussions.   For this reason, we have not curtailed this behavior.   In instances, when a student may look distracted, or is distracting others, we request that the laptop is put away.  After multiple warnings, if needed, the student is relocated in the classroom.

This is where I begin to have some concerns – especially as we move into a phase of our unit, where class times are largely independently organized.

From the front of the classroom, laptop-based activities look to be on-task and appropriate.

From observations from the back of the classroom, I have been able to see some actual usage.    The on-task nature of laptop use varies widely.   Overall, I would say it is good, but it is also apparent that not all students are remaining on task all the time.   (Nor would they with books…)    As I go desk to desk, students have shown me that they are mainly on task.   For those who aren’t, it appears that ‘real world’ distractions – the person sitting next to them, for example – may have more to do with the lack of productivity.   At least that is what we see….

However, it is easy to task switch on the laptop, moving from one application to the next without noticeable movement.   I know from discussions with students that Twitter is often open and active.  In some cases, students are using chat software – Skype or G-chat.     Students will defend the latter, noting that discussions are around classroom topics.   Even if there is limited or no social engagement, most students are engaging in multi-tasking to some degree.   This can be distracting and counter-productive.   My guess, if we tracked, we would find a significant amount of un-related activity on the other side of most screens.

My sense is that some of what has been observed (or not) is related to self-management, organizational issues and decision-making processes.  We may be taking it for granted that students know when and how best to use their technology effectively.  As a professional, I make choices about how I will undertake a task and what tools I will use to do so.   Regrettably  these are not always the best decisions and thus I’m required to redo work or spend time in porting it from one proprietary software to the next.    More and more, tools relevant to education are available online or on-board the student’s laptop.   This does not make the decision-making process any easier.   Should we create our outline in Microsoft Word, in a Google Doc or through a variety of software applications dedicated to that task?   I get a sense that this may in part slow down productivity in our students.

For this reason, it may be helpful to be much more prescriptive in our classroom management and use this as a meta-lesson on computer-usage in education.  Not only how to use a computer effectively, but when to use it effectively.

This could be done through guided and modeled use cases.   It may be as simple as stating clearly, ‘we will (or will not) need our computers for this task.’   Or, for example, ‘To take notes on this video, let’s use our laptops, so we can note key words and embed links for further research at home.’    Or, ‘For this assignment, please draw a table in your Humanities notebook, and begin to fill out each column with information we discussed in class today.   As the unit goes on, you should go back and complete this table.’  All of these examples guide our students towards an approach that we feel is best fit for the circumstances  (granted we certainly may not know best!).

At the same time, we could/should be building skills to help students make effective choices on the tools they use.   In our  previous Unit on Systems, as students moved into a phase of project production, through directed questions, we aimed to strengthen their reflections and thought processes in regard to choices made.   For example, a student told us they were planning to use PowerPoint for a final presentation on the system of electrical distribution.   The teachers asked why this choice was made, and further asked open ended questions about other options to effectively present a system with multiple nodes (as opposed to a more linear one).  In the end, through reflection, the student decided that Prezi would be a more effective tool as it allowed for a spatial representation of a system that better matched the electrical distribution system in Thailand.   The same question was posed to the group preparing for a presentation on the Feudal system in Japan.   In that instance, it was decided that PowerPoint was most appropriate given the content to be presented.

——-

Still, I am fairly certain that the ‘real world’ distractions our students face are present through their laptops as well.   I mentioned above the presence of social networks and communication tools, and I believe this quietly contributes to stunted production and focus.   However, the internet poses access to distractions much more broad and far reaching than fellow students in a single classroom.   If students are letting in their entire networks, the chance of a distraction is even greater.  On the other hand, this tool opens them to a world of resources as well.    Do the potential hazards and challenges outweigh the benefits

Ultimately, there are several issues in play:

  •  At one level, this seems to be an issue of classroom management.   As teachers, we can effectively moderate and maximize the value of laptops in class.   To an extent.
  •  Beyond this, there are sets of skills students need to acquire in order to effectively harness technology.   I’m not sure we are addressing these effectively yet.
  •  Additionally, the effective use of technology to support learning will stem from growing maturity and responsibility and the ownership of the learning process.

This technology is here.   How can we best harness it?

Questions:

As teachers, how do we mitigate the risks and distractions, while harnessing the potential of the 1 to 1 laptop policy?

How can we best teach and model principled and effective use of technology in and out of the classroom?

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