Saturday, August 28, 2010

Computers ≠ Student Engagement

Engaging students and enthusing them about learning has always been my goal. That is the main reason I have advocated the need for technology rich classrooms and in particular, one computer per child. A ratio of 1:1 in a classroom is not twice as good as 1:2. It is about one hundred times better. If I only had 30 computers in a primary school, I would give them to year 6 only. Anything less than 1:1 is just a distraction and annoying. Can you imagine sharing a pen with 4 other kids when you were at school?

I have been running one-to-one trials in primary schools for a couple of years now and reviewing recent research about one-to-one programs has changed my thinking. The little I have read suggests that there is no evidence that giving each kid in your class a computer will lift their test scores. That's obvious, I hear you say, but I think like many, I was carried along with much of the hype surrounding the promise of technology. I am beginning to understand that student-teacher interactions or relationships or classroom dynamics or whatever else you like to call them, are much more important in lifting students levels of achievement than the technology. Don't get me wrong. One netbook per child is essential, but my reasons for believing this have changed. A netbook can be "an instrument whose music is ideas" or an "imagination machine" or they can be digital exercise books. Teachers who use them as exercise books are wasting the devices' potential as cognitive tools that can help to ignite a love of learning in each student. That is where the student-teacher relationship comes into play. Recently I was telling a class of kids with netbooks that backing up data to a USB stick can be a problem because magnets can wipe the data from them. Before I had even finished the sentence some kid put up his hand and said, " It says here that's a myth about magnets and USB sticks". This 10 year old had googled my sentence and exposed me as imperfect. Someone had told me the story about magnets years ago and I swallowed it and passed it to kids for years. The embarrassment made me realise that I can no longer be the "Sage on the Stage" when kids can check everything I say on Google. It means teachers have to admit we don't know everything and that cooperative learning and collaboration is just as important for teachers as for kids. What I should have said was, " I need a group of you to work out a procedure for backing up data that we can communicate to other students around the world so this myth is busted. Google it and get back to me when you have put something together in a wiki."
 
Teachers are the gatekeepers of any innovation and are notorious for sticking their heads in the sand. Even if every kid is given a computer, as is happening in high schools,  teachers are the ones who decide if, how and when they will use use them no matter how hard you twist their arms. I think many of them are just being used as paper weights. I hope I am wrong.

Someone once said that, "learning is the product of effort" and Seymour Papert called his Logo activities "hard fun". I think any learning activities have to be hard fun in order to be worthwhile and computers are tools that can help teachers create hard fun. Note that I said they help teachers. The computers don't do it on their own. Teachers have to come up with the ideas, ask the kids what they think (that's novel) and be prepared to abdicate the thrown. So if you are not interested in lighting the fire of learning in kids, don't bother with computers, they will make no difference.