On Kindles, iPads, SmartBoards, Prometheans and Apps in the Classroom

The textbook is now digital but students still encounter it as they always have: wisdom to be received, perhaps highlighted, annotated, and memorized, but not created, constructed, or made sense of. Teachers still interact with students as they always have. The platform doesn’t offer them any new insights into the ways their students think about mathematics. As far as I can tell, the iBook doesn’t establish any new link between the student and teacher, or strengthen any old ones.

Dan Meyer,  On iBooks 2 and iBooks Author

In my classroom, I have very few textbooks.  They have their place in other classrooms but my students – students who have spent countless hours, literally years, of their life avoiding the very act of comprehensive reading – have no use for textbooks.  Textbooks create visceral disgust within them.  Everything which is unfair and wrong with the world, with them, with me, with this exact moment spills out like ill-placed illustrations, small text and incomprehensible, without-contextable, testable, contemptible chunks.  You bring a textbook to class, expect ramifications.  You may not have any students in your room.

Books.  My students don’t want no books.  They want experiments, conversations, ah-ha moments and excitement.  Which is funny, because our school’s Lit Department has dropped some serious cash on Kindles, iPads and time developing Promethean Board projects.  From the scuttlebutt – and number of Kindles which pop up like spring flowers in my classroom – the new flashiness gets eyeballs on words.  My students are reading.  My students are writing. My students talk more – to each other and me.  I know this because unlike last year, I get two or three sentence answers to science questions.  I ask for a blog post reflection on their work and the work is turned in complete.  I assign project books as research materials and the students mark six projects in the book instead of two.

But if that’s the only trick – buy a flashy toy – then the 1:1 Laptops programs, Smartboards and iPads should’ve solved the “education” problem.  Whatever that education problem may be.  Word processors should have made every kid a writer in the 90′s.

So why doesn’t technology-alone engage students in academics?  Christopher Danielson puts his own spin on what tends to happens to teachers when technology enters the classroom -

We tend to adopt the tool uncritically and use it without a tremendous amount of creativity. We extend current practices rather than use tools to change our practices. And frankly? I’d be a lot happier seeing more meaningful use of poster paper in more math classrooms. Let’s save the spending on Smart Boards until we’ve got that nailed down, shall we?

– Christopher Danielson, Smart Boards excepted, right?

He’s specifically talking about the difficulties with Smart Boards (I use a Promethean). And as a relatively tech-savvy dude….he’s right.  I don’t use the Promethean near as as effectively as I should.  Have my student’s suffered?   Probably not.  The Promethean is a fine broadcasting tool.  It’s a bit like an iPad textbook, or a fancy flashcard or TV – it broadcasts a small amount of information to a large group.  Or just a textbook.  Just a bit more interactive.

So what does work?

Economically disadvantaged students, who often use the computer for remediation and basic skills, learn to do what the computer tells them, while more affluent students, who use it to learn programming and tool applications, learn to tell the computer what to do.

Neuman, D. (1991). Technology and equity. Available at http://www.ericdigests.org/1992-5/equity.htm

AND

Those who cannot claim computers as their own tool for exploring the world never grasp the power of technology… They are controlled by technology as adults – just as drill-and-practice routines controlled them as students.

Pillar, C. (1992). Separate realities: The creation of the technological underclass in America’s public schools. MacWorld, 9(9), 218-230.

via Dangerously Irrelevant

While the poor/affluent part of this quote can wait for a different post, the striking contrast between rote and constructive learning held true 20 years ago, and for the most part, holds true today.  One classroom described in the Neuman quote sounds intriguing, the other doesn’t.  My classroom involves computer programming through Alice, computer-aided design through Google Sketch-Up, mathematical modeling in Excel & Geogebra, airfoil designs in FoilSimIII and others.  I can’t say anything I do is innovative, but I do do technology better’n most.  I’m not particularly interested in whether or not my students can use a computer.  I want to teach them how to use a computers.

Which brings me back to my first example.  Didn’t I start this post with kids getting Kindles and suddenly becoming readers?

Well, that’s not completely true.  The innovation in that classroom isn’t a two-hundred dollar device.  A teacher stands at the center of the new vortex, asking students to build, create, research and learn in ways they have never done before and with questions they have never asked.  You want to use the blowtorch in shop class, kid?  Lemme download the safety manual for you.  Here’s thirty questions on its use.  Call me when you need help, a reader or you’ve got your answers.  Finished the test?  Make a video on its use.  Blog about it.  Teach a peer how to use one safely.

A friend of mine has a word for this learning environment:  student ownership.  That’s what I’m looking for, that’s the trick to teaching (and teaching technical literacy on the iPad).