“Video killed the radio star,” laments the catchy lyrics of the old 80s song by the Buggles.
This trend, of one technology killing another has continued, as streaming media killed videos, smartphones killed cameras, and tablets killed PCs. But once more we have been surprised, this time by the technology taking over classrooms.
Schools are faced with a difficult decision - what technology would work best in the classroom? Laptops, tablets, smartphones, or something else? And, does it really matter? It turns out, contrary to what most would had predicted, the technology most used in the classroom is not what was expected, and this may have a huge impact on how our students learn.
There's little debate now. Technology will be used in our classrooms. Even schools who are resisting the move will inevitably be swept along by the biggest change to impact education since the invention of the printing press. Most schools have narrowed down their options to two contenders - iPads/tablets or laptops? However it’s still difficult for schools to decide, especially when multi-billion dollar corporations woo them with impressive presentations as they compete for a market predicted to be worth $50 billion in 2016. However, maybe its not the device that schools should be preoccupied with, but rather how students use these devices.
Lean Back vs Lean Forward
One way to look at how students use technology, and hence its potential impact on education, is called the “lean back” vs “lean forward” approach. This model, originally developed by Jakob Nielsen in 2008, considers the position we adopt when we engage with technology and the resultant impact this has on how we use technology, in other words our engagement style. For example, when I grab a laptop I naturally want to sit at a desk. This is referred to as lean forward device usage. By contrast when I use my iPhone or iPad I am more likely to use it sitting on a chair. This is called lean back device usage.
A lean forward device, like a laptop, typically sees the user more active but with shorter attention spans as they switch tasks and skim content. They are designed to be used with a mouse and keyboard, more often seated at a desk. The benefit of lean forward devices are that they lead to greater activity, with increased brain activity associated with skim reading, searching, and content creation.
By contrast a lean back device, like an iPad, sees the user more passive, but often with longer attention spans as they consume content. They are designed to be navigated with the flick of a thumb, while sitting comfortably on a couch. The benefit of lean back devices are that they lead to greater reading, and consuming of content, especially during “dead time”, such as while commuting or waiting (Whirlpool).
What goes around...
When it comes to learning, lean forward and lean back approaches have been around for centuries.
However, while elements of Lean Forward 1.0 and 2.0, and Lean Back 1.0 and 2.0 are the same , there are also elements that technology has introduced that are different. One of these is the impact on attention spans. For example, while Lean Back devices, such as TVs, are considered to have longer attention spans, the newer instantiation of smartphones and tablets has resulted in what is called “second screen” syndrome, where users simultaneously use their smartphones or tablets while watching TV.
While second screen usage allows for users to engage with others about the content they are seeing, from a learning perspective this is resulting in shorter attention spans and increased cognitive load. So, while a useful model, Nielsen’s model predates the rise of smartphones and tablets, and as such doesn't consider other potentially important aspects that need to be considered, especially when it comes to education.
What’s best for learning?
Schools are trying to select a technology that will best enable effective teaching and learning in the classroom. Craig Will, argued that its no longer as simple as lean back and lean forward, and proposed a Mind:Engagement model.
In this model he maps activity and absorption. The middle area is dominated by consumption, while the upper right quadrant, which would be considered the goal of educators - high activity and high absorption, is where students are using their devices for search, curation and communication, in other words activity. Gigaom Research, referring to marketers, suggests they “direct their advertising dollars to the upper right quadrant of the Engagement Style grid.” Educators should be doing likewise.
It’s not what device should be used in the classroom that educators should be concerned with, but rather how the device is used in the classroom. Current approaches are failing because schools are simply attempting to replicate old consumption based approaches with new technology devices. And so blackboards have become smartboards, books have become ebooks, and teachers have become YouTube videos. Approaches grounded in consumption are simply receiving a new silicon coating.
What is needed are approaches that encourage active engagement in the classroom, not passive content consumption. Lean back devices, such as tablets encourage more passive content consumption, while lean forward devices tend to encourage more active content creation. However, despite this, as Will's model points out, what is more important is how the device is used.
The rapid rise in tablets has seen reports predicting that tablets will take over the classroom, thereby making it an easy decision for many schools to make. However once more analysts have been “shocked”. A recent report has now revealed that Google’s Chromebook makes up half of US classroom devices. Unlike laptops, Chromebooks (aka Netbooks) are lightweight laptops that have little on-board storage, with most applications and data residing on the web.
"While it was clear that Chromebooks had made progress in education, this news is, frankly, shocking. Chromebooks made incredibly quick inroads in just a couple of years, leaping over Microsoft and Apple with seeming ease.” ( J.P. Gownder, Forrester)
Is this a shift arising from the failure of iPads that was widely reported in the media over the past two years? Is this a shift that signals a move by schools' from consumption-based approaches to more activated classrooms? Whatever the reasons for this shift, it seems Apple has already noticed as indicated by their recent entry of the iPad Pro into the market. This new device, which combines a larger screen size plus an optional keyboard and pen, is clearly targetted and not only content consumption but also at content production - everything from the middle to the top-right of the Mind:Engagement model. And according to early reports, its being suggested that the “shocking” swing towards Chromebooks in the classroom is already being eroded, as once more we witness another shift.
Forget the device
“Forget the device. Focus on web-based applications that best meet the needs of your students and teachers...more schools will officially embrace what has already been happening under the radar for years: BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). Students will bring in all kinds of technology ranging from smartphones to laptops.” (HuffingtonPost).
I would add, when it comes to Education Technology, focus on the education, not the technology, focus on training teachers not choosing devices. It's when we consider how we use technology more than what technology we use that our schools will have the best chance at transforming the classroom.
My son Joshua (10) wants to know what it would cost to build a bridge between South Africa and Australia. That’s the third question in the last ten minutes. “I dunno,” I confess, and he replies: “But how much do you think?” I direct him to Google.
There’s just no getting away from young children’s questions. They are naturally inquisitive.
In my university lectures, it’s a different story. Wrapping up, I ask: “Right class, any questions?” Thirty silent seconds pass. “There must be a question. Anything?” More silence, and then a hand goes up. The student asks: “Umm, will this stuff be in the exam?”
That’s not the type of probing question I was hoping for. Children’s insatiable curiosity and search for new knowledge is getting lost somewhere along the way. Where have we mislaid the art of the question?
Seek and ye shall … get impatient?
More and more, children are being told to shut up, take notes and do well in tests. Participation is discouraged. This attitude follows them to university: former Yale professor William Deresiewicz complains in his book Excellent Sheep that “curiosity is dead”.
Deresiewicz believes that even elite schools are simply manufacturing students: they’re smart, they’re driven – but they have no intellectual curiosity. They don’t ask questions.
Former maths teacher and tech guru Dan Meyer agrees. Modern students are “impatient with things that don’t resolve quickly”, says Meyer. He explains:
There’s a strange paradox at work here. We live in an era where information is more freely available and easily accessible than ever before. Learning has, broadly speaking, evolved in three stages. First, knowledge resided in books or was held by experts. Students had to “knock” – to go looking – to find the answers. Then came Google, and with it students learned to “seek” because it was right there at their fingertips.
With the advent of Facebook and other social networks, we’ve entered the era of “ask”. Knowledge resides in the minds of the network, so students can just throw out a question on their Facebook page: “Hey guys, how would you answer this question that our professor set?”
My PhD research traced the impact of this shift by exploring student learning on Facebook. Students don’t read lengthy documents – like academic papers – any longer. They don’t go hunting for answers. They just put a question out to their network, sit back and wait for the answers to come their way.
There’s the paradox: in the online world, asking is ubiquitous. But offline, in spaces like the lecture theatre, asking questions is a dying art.
The quest for the question
There are several ways in which teachers and parents can instil a love of questions that will last a lifetime. Take my son’s bridge question. “Josh,” I say, “that’s a great question. I don’t know the answer but it would be fascinating to find out. I wonder if anyone has ever thought about it? Why don’t you Google it and see what you can find?”
Now the kicker: “And while you’re searching, see if you can figure out what material would have to be used”. He looks at me for a moment, replies "OK”, grabs his phone and starts tapping away. We’re starting with one question and one answer – then going in search of more.
This building curiosity floods the brain with dopamine, which gives kids a positive push to learn and know more.
One recent study suggests that teaching children philosophy and guiding them through questions that lead to more questions has a positive impact on their progress with maths and reading.
For university students – like my silent class – one process of using questions to stimulate critical thinking and idea generation that works well is the Socratic method. This provides a space in class for questions, debates and for students to challenge their teachers and each other – respectfully.
In a research paper about the method, Sharon Jumper says that Socratic discussions are:
This technique is being applied well by a number of websites that flatten traditional classroom power structures. The sites try to encourage learning through questioning. Socrative, for instance, turns learning into a game: students compete through questions and answers.
Other sites like Socratic use gamification and also encourage students to put questions to the online community which has gathered there to learn. This sows the seeds of discussion – and paves the way for more questions.
Technology is a powerful way to get children and students asking questions. Researchers have found that widely available tools like WhatsApp can be used to encourage questions. Even the shyest person can be emboldened to use the messaging service rather than sticking their hand up in front of classmates.
In a world full of questions desperately needing answers, isn’t it high time that we reignited the dying art of asking questions?
Dr. Craig Blewett is the author and founder of the Activated Classroom Teaching (ACT) approach. He helps schools and universities around the world towards the effective use of educational technology.
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