Set Students Free With Technology in Schools

There is a growing movement in schools to go 1-1 -- namely one computer device per student. This could be part of a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiative, a small pilot with one motivated teacher in a school, or a full-scale district implementation of hardware. If you follow #edtech on Twitter, you read all sorts of stories and blogs about computers sitting in boxes or on shelves as districts and schools grapple with what applications to upload, how they should train teachers, and acceptable use policies for students.

Is it possible that schools are going about this all wrong? In their quest for regulating every aspect of how students use the technology, they are removing one of the most powerful levers technology creates -- student empowerment. Instead of regulating, give kids the technology and get out of their way. I don't mean completely out of their way, but what more often than not happens are school administrators intimidated by how much more the students know about the machine put in front of them than the adults in the school do, trying to hyper-manage down their use to the level of just slightly below what the median-tech savvy teacher can handle.

Once all of the logistics are taken care of and devices are in the classrooms, what happen is typically less than transformative. More often than not, the devices are used to (a) drill students on test prep to marginally improve test scores; (b) "teach" students how to make a nice PowerPoint presentation; or maybe (c) have students watch videos and take multiple choice quizzes to learn something new

I've seen what my six-year-olds can do with an iPad. This generation of students are digital natives and we need to honor that by encouraging them to surpass what we know and are able to do with the technology. We need to look no further than this story on what kids in Ethiopia did with tablets even though they had no literacy skills or this TED talk on what kids in India did with one computer connected to the Internet even though they did not know what the Internet was. Neither had any instruction or adult guiding them.

I do not recommend abdication of adult responsibility, but I do recommend changing the way the adult in the classroom interacts with the students by changing the way students interact with the technology. Specifically, I recommend:

  1. Give students authentic tasks that will require them to use the tech skills they know and push them to learn new tech skills in order to apply the standards being taught. (An advanced version of this is to provide students with the standards as well and tell them they are responsible for understanding the content as a pre- or co-requisite to completing the task.)
  2. Create a culture in the classroom/school where students help each other by teaching each others what they learned on-line while the teacher steers and guides each student through the completion of the specific task, helping them when they are stuck or off-track. Sometimes that help may be telling them to learn from another student who knows more about that than the teacher.
  3. Explicitly teach digital citizenship as an extension of whatever values curriculum/program is currently used in the schools.

The students and the teacher will most likely struggle at this the first time and maybe second and third. That is fine (almost expected) as long as the teacher learns from those struggles and modifies the approach for the next time. Remember -- we are trying to change the structure of a 200+ year old institution and the habits and dispositions of students who have been ingrained in it. I also believe that the most effective way to go about this change is through scaffolding starting Day 1.

Most administrators push for greater regulation of how students use technology. In reality, it may be the less adults get in the way, the more kids actually learn. We're never going to have the perfect technology solution that manages every stage of the learning process while individualizing and personalizing instruction -- and we shouldn't even be striving for it.