Teaching with technology in a 20:1 school

Disorganization is death when you’re competing for lab space. Image Some rights reserved by EvelynGiggles
While my school plans to move to a 1:1 model in three years’ time, at the moment we’re still lab-centric. Working within what is essentially a 20:1 model – 20 students per available computer in labs – poses its challenges and has required me to be organized, flexible, and resourceful.

One of the issues is booking labs. Some periods have only one or two labs available for about a thousand students. This means my teaching has to be rigidly planned, because if I’m planning something that incorporates technology then lab availability is the main thing that dictates the timing. Having students complete the activity at home removes some of the potential for prompt feedback – it’s a lot more efficient to be able to sit down with a student in front of a computer than going back and forth via Twitter, email, or Moodle. Luckily, I’m fairly organized so I’m usually able to book my lab time weeks in advance.

However, for two periods out of our eight-period schedule, there are no labs at all. This means that I’ve got to find another way for students to complete technology-based activities. I’ve tried bringing in my WiMax router from home and asking students to bring in their own laptop or tablet – so for a recent infographic assignment, some students have been working on laptops, some on iPads, and some on (gasp) iPhones. Unfortunately, I have never gotten 100% of the students to remember. This means wasted instructional time for the students who haven’t brought the appropriate piece of tech. I’ve provided pen-and-pencil based alternatives in these cases, but it’s far from ideal.

Unplanned and/or incidental device use has gone more smoothly. My school relaxed its policy on personal electronic devices (PEDs) this year, and students can now have them in class, to be used at the teacher’s discretion. They’re also free to use them during breaks and lunch. This policy has been really effective in my classrooms. One students downloaded a PDF copy of class readings to his Galaxy SIII, and another did the same on her Kindle Fire. The kids are very conscious about asking for permission to look up words and images online using their phones. The new policy is contributing to a new culture of “know where.” I just wish that PEDs were more ubiquitous; despite popular perception, perhaps 40% of my students have smartphones, and just 10 or 15% have mobile internet access. I can’t justify reshaping my lessons to depend on technology when it’s available only for a minority – it’s not fair to the rest of the kids. I am, however, happy to integrate it as opportunities arise.

The future is choice.

The only bet I’ll place is that in the future, students (and their parents) will have a lot more choices about how they learn. Image Some rights reserved by Stuck in Customs
I was going to write a post about a theoretical future in which education was completely decentralized and students worked at their own pace towards a common goal. They would have a series of externally assessed checkpoints but could choose the order in which they completed the checkpoints and the medium through which they demonstrated their knowledge. In this fanciful version of education, students would be like characters questing through the educational manifestation of a role-playing game like Diablo.

But grand prognoses such as that miss the larger truth that no one learns in exactly the same way. Some people thrive in a collaborative environment; others excel individually. Some students love to talk with others; others prefer to receive knowledge and make meaning of it through an internal dialogue. That’s why there’s always going to be a place for stale, direct instruction – but that’s also why there’s always going to be room for disruptive forces. 

The future is choice.

The future, then, is CHOICE. That’s it. That’s what we’re seeing today – not the wholesale replacement of the old order, but an adjustment of the equilibrium. We used to have a choice between parochial and public schools. Secular private schools sprung up, and now we’ve got magnet and charter schools competing as well. Some parents decided to keep their kids close by and homeschool them. Montessori came up with his method of early education, and now parents have another alternative. Community colleges offer advanced classes to high school students. Universities offer summer programs for credit. At the tertiary level, Massively Open Online Courses are now giving students a third option beyond the traditional 2 year and 4 year degrees. And so maybe in the future we’ll have schools that function more as student incubators, giving them a playground to experiment and learn at their own pace, interacting with virtual peers sharing the same interests. Education will be distributed in the sense that if one educational setting doesn’t work for a student, he/she can easily switch to another.

The future still needs structure.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Children will still be children. They’re not going to grow up any faster. The pace of maturity is slowing down – as society becomes more affluent, kids don’t NEED to enter the working world as early as they did 200 years ago. There’s also been a commensurate increase in the barriers to entry in the working world; a BA/BS is the new high school diploma, and in many careers (teaching, anyone?) a Master’s is preferred. As creative as you may be, a diploma is often proof that you have the perseverance and work ethic needed to get the job done.

So however decentralized and distributed education may become, teachers will still be needed to provide structure, feedback, and most importantly, holistic support. In a MOOC setting, students may have an online persona, but their virtual peers won’t be privy to the day-to-day vicissitudes that comprise the experience of growing up. The most valuable role that we teachers play is not in teaching method Y of essay writing. It is in providing counsel to the students whose parents insist that he must go on a mission after graduating instead of going to college; it is in encouraging a talented yet unmotivated swimmer to overcome her fear of failure; it is in comforting and counseling a child who has been the target of bullying.

We teachers have always done that. Education has always been about developing students as people, not just as skilled workers. And I think it will always be so.