Sunday, December 13, 2015

The new paradigm

Access to the digital realm in schools has gone through an evolution. Although the stages are not clearly bounded, a simple overview might look like this:
  • Computer Lab school (the school maintains a lab environment with devices standardized by model and installed software)
  • Laptop Carts (in order to bring technology into the classroom, laptop computers, standardized by model and software, are available for check out)
  • 1:1 (schools provide each student with a standardized model and software image)
  • BYOM (schools allow students to bring their own Mac, but provide minimum standards for software and hardware)
  • BYOD (schools release students from the obligation of computer make/model, but still maintain standards for software and hardware)
The most recent variant of this evolution has been called "1 to n", where 'n' represents that students will have an array of technology devices; Smart Phones, Tablets, laptops, workstations, etc. The implication is that each type of technology has its own affordances, so teachers can design tasks that are best suited for each device.

I propose that there is yet another evolutionary phase that is more important and better represents the future of tech in schools. I call this "1 to x".

In mathematics, n represents a variable, while x represents an unknown. As a variable, n implies that there are many possible values...a student might have one device (a laptop, perhaps), two devices (a laptop and a Smart Phone), etc. The actual value of n is....variable.

x, however, represents an unknown; a specific value, but one which is unique to the situation. For example, we know there is a solution, but we don't know exactly what it is.

In the realm of technology, this means we know a student has a device that they will choose to use, but we don't know (or particularly care) which one it is.

This implies that the user is now empowered enough that we can allow them to choose the proper tool for a task, and we neither have to prepare the tool in advance (as with 1:1 environments), nor do we have to design the task to match different tools (as with 1:n).

For example, in a 1:x environment, a teacher would tell students to read the first chapter of Moby Dick. He or she would assume that all students have devices and connectivity, and are savvy enough to find a copy online and read it. For some, it might take the form of a Kindle and a kindle account, others might stream it online with their SmartPhone, others might fileshare through Dropbox and read it on their laptop. As far as the teacher is concerned, and for the purposes of the class, it doesn't matter where they get the copy, as long as they read the first chapter. The days of having to order a class set and hand them out (which originated because there was not a resource with enough reliable copies for an entire class) is over.

In another case, the teacher might tell the kids to represent their research thoughts on some sort of digital framework that is most effective. Some students might make a webpage or blog, using their laptop. Others might make a movie using their tablet camera, and others might write a short story and deliver it in ePub format for a Kindle. Again, choice of the digital tool and platform is part of the students responsibility, and frees them up to find the best way to achieve their goal. In fact, their choice of medium and device is a rich area for discussion which is lost if the teacher mandates that they do it on a Google Site using their laptops.

There is an old adage; if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. By assuming that every student has the same assemblage of tech tools, we run the risk of over-standardizing our tasks, robbing students of opportunities for creativity and collaboration, and adding to the management tasks of teachers and schools.

With the developing savvy of students and technology use, the need for teachers or institutions to provide the device (either the device itself, or a minimum set of specs for student-owned devices) is rapidly passing. The need to design lessons that fit within those constraints is also passing, as is the need to provide instruction on how to use the digital tools. As we reach this new paradigm of 1:x, technology truly becomes a tool of expression rather than another obstacle to learning.

The journey into 1:x can take many forms, and in many ways we have already made it. Many math programs no longer specify what type of calculator kids need, I know of no school anywhere that dictates what kind of paper notebook, pens or pencils kids must have. We often allow kids to read books from other sources than the school supply closet (online, the school library, etc). Other than to provide for the need of standardized grading (which should be avoided) or for instruction (which is becoming less necessary), we should move away from providing too much of a framework for tech expectations.

It's a tiny step, but I recently handed out Kindle devices to a classroom of students, and made a conscious choice not to include the micro-USB charging cable. These cables are easy to find, abundant, and managing them would have been just another task to interfere with productivity. Although access to a cable is crucial for use of the devices, for the most part, students took this in stride ("Oh, I have this cable at home anyway") and I realized that we needlessly take on too many responsibilities.

In the future, I expect to see teachers and schools free themselves from the yoke and constraints of digital maintenance. The 1:x model assumes that students have digital tools, know how to use them, can choose the best tool mindfully, and can focus their creativity on the tools and skills they have rather than have to develop new tangential skills or acquire new devices to meet class expectations. This paradigm best represents true integrated learning and creative productivity.

1 comment:

  1. I think you are spot on, Myron, in this idea with students choosing the correct tool for the job and not having too much decided for them. I do wonder, however, about how the students will learn which tool is the best for a certain task. I wonder if they will keep doing the same thing over and over because they prefer it or if they do not know another way. So, I am agreeing with this as a direction, and I think that we, as schools, need to make sure we put the structures in place to make sure kids are exposed to multitude of ways to "do" things with technology and still allow their freedom of choice.