Digital immigrants quoted in Saturday’s Dallas Morning News article, “Tech, test scores not adding up” revealed their commitments to traditional, transmission-based education and their misunderstanding that a properly implemented laptop (or 1:1) learning initiative SHOULD be disruptive to traditional educational patterns.

“I play policeman more often than not when my kids are online,” a teacher in the survey wrote. “I’m not able to help students because I’m always shutting down instant messaging and e-mail sites.”

My question to this teacher would be, “What sorts of ways are you differentiating both instruction and assessment, to provide students choices in the ways they can learn and the ways they can demonstrate their learning?” Of course adolescents want to be social and WILL be social, in school and out of school, but the question we should be asking more than “do laptops increase test scores” is “are teachers working to design learning environments in which students are highly likely to be engaged in learning activities they cannot fake.” (Unfortunately, I was not quoted in this article.)

Teachers also noticed that students often were off task, especially in high schools.”I feel hard-pressed to justify computer use,” one teacher in the survey wrote. “It’s not always a natural fit.”

I would counter that most students today, who are “digital natives,” are not “natural fits” for the proto-typical classroom of the 1800s which persists to this day in many parts of the United States. Does computer technology “fit” into our present economy, political culture, and social environment? Of course. The question should not be “Does technology fit into my traditional way of teaching my class in high school?” but rather “How can I modify and further improve the learning environment, ongoing assessment methods, and opportunities I provide students to interact with each other and our curriculum?”

These survey responses were gleaned from assessments conducted by scholars at the University of North Texas for Irving ISD. These responses should not really be surprising to anyone– after all, many if not most of the teachers in Irving and other parts of the country are still digital immigrants. It is natural for them to look at something like a laptop initiative and see problems, drawbacks, and negatives instead of opportunities and advantages.

Perhaps the biggest thing we need to help everyone involved or connected to education better understand is this: SCHOOLING AND EDUCATION IS ABOUT MUCH MORE THAN TEST SCORES! Yes I know, I’m SHOUTING here, but this is a point that most people in our state legislatures, in our press news rooms, and in our school boardrooms don’t seem to get very well. We had to take tests, and kids today need to take tests, but we have GOT to stop looking at “test scores” as very reason we send children to school and try to force them to stay there for 13 years!

We also need to understand that when assessing “success” of a 1:1 project or any other learning initiative, we must ask more than just “Did the kids have laptops?” We need to be asking and analyzing WHAT THE STUDENTS DID AND ARE DOING with their laptops, and perhaps even more importantly WHAT ARE TEACHERS ASKING STUDENTS TO DO with their laptops. According to the same UNT assessment cited in this recent article:

The UNT survey also found that about 35 percent of high school students don’t bring their laptops to class, making it difficult for teachers to use them in lessons.

So what does that mean? If a third of students aren’t bringing their laptops to school, how immersed is the learning environment? How many kids do you have to have with laptops to make an “immersed” learning environment? I would say that certainly needs to be more than just two-thirds. But again back to this question– we have to be asking what teachers are doing with their laptops, and asking students to do with them. The importance of asking this question is vital! If teachers are merely “accomodating” learning with digital tools, rather than “transforming” or “infomating” the ways they are teaching and inviting students to learn– then the laptops may indeed be a waste of money and energy. 1:1 learning should be about teaching and learning in more engaging, authentic ways– not just replicating traditional teaching methods with fancy digital toys. At least one former Irving school board member seems to think the Irving laptops have been a waste of resources. Again according to the above-linked article:

Former school trustee Owen DeWitt, who initially promoted Irving’s technology bond in 2001, now says he thinks the project should have been phased in more slowly with a smaller group so teachers could adapt.”I think you need a comprehensive plan to be successful, and I don’t believe that plan was ever developed,” he said. “They’re over-expensive play toys.

I would speculate that the problem here is likely not so much the implementation timeline or the scope of the district’s 1:1 laptop initiative, but rather the TEACHERS themselves. Are teachers teaching differently, and are they receiving the TIME and SUPPORT they need to teach differently? Is the district administration encouraging the teachers to TEACH DIFFERENTLY, or just to teach the same but with laptops?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I am certain of one thing: MY HAT IS OFF TO THE EDUCATIONAL LEADERS AND TEACHERS OF IRVING ISD, who are not just “talking the talk” of preparing students for their future– they are “walking the walk” through their laptop program. Have pioneers always run risks and made mistakes? Of course! But that is why we need pioneeers. We can’t have settlers unless we’ve had a good string of pioneers to blaze the trail first. And that is exactly what school districts like
Irving, other districts involved in TxTIP, districts in the state of Maine involved in MLTI, and others are doing.

Long live the technology pioneers! Thanks for blazing new trails, and sharing your lessons with the rest of us. Don’t lose heart as news articles like this one are published which seem to more fully showcase the perceptions of digital immigrant teachers rather than the innovative pioneers who are also teaching your kids! The press always focuses more on the negative than the positive. The very fact that Irving is persisting in this 1:1 initiative and publicly sharing the assessment results with the rest of the world is a TREMENDOUS benefit and value to the rest of us.

When is your local school district going to start following the lead of innovative districts like Irving ISD, and walking down the road of 1:1 learning? No, your teachers are not all ready, but they never will be: They are mostly digital immigrants, after all. Are the kids ready? Absolutely. They were ready years ago for something different. We’re the adults, and we can be the leaders. We’ve got to encourage and model DIFFERENT teaching, not merely DIGITAL teaching.

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4 Responses to Laptops should be disruptive of traditional education

  1. astephens says:

    Wes,

    I just posted on this very article on my blog (although your post is much more in-depth than mine).

    https://musingsfromtheacademy.wordpress.com/2006/08/21/laptop-initiatives-and-standardized-testing/

    As a former teacher in Irving ISD and now an Instructional Technology Specialist, I think I can offer some insight. Has the laptop initiative in Irving been perfect? Of course not, but I think you address one of the main roots of the problem in your post. The teachers who are using the laptops to teach differently – to differentiate, to solve real-world problems, as tools to communicate to those outside the walls of the classroom – have great success in their classrooms. Their students are less likely to be Instant Messaging instead of doing their assignment. These are the teachers who welcome change and innovation and who encourage students to be creative and think outside of the box. The students in their classes are engaged and are immersed in the learning process, unfortunately, however; many teachers just use the laptop as a digital version of a paper and pencil – to take notes, to complete worksheets, etc. These are the teachers who seem to have the most difficulty with the laptops and classroom management.

    I must admit that I may have a somewhat skewed view of the laptop initiative because I work on a campus where technology is embraced by the majority of the teachers and administrators which is not the case on some of the other campuses in the district. I have never had to worry about my students not bringing their laptops to class because they know it is an expectation and necessity in my class and the majority of their others.

    I am proud to be a teacher in Irving ISD because we do have leaders who aren’t afraid to step out into the unknown and pioneer something they feel will benefit our students. I just hope our community will continue to support us in this journey.

    Thanks!

  2. […] Right after I published my last post on Laptop Initiatives and Standardized Testing, I came across Wesley Fryer’s post entitled Laptops should be disruptive of traditional education.  […]

  3. Lori Gracey says:

    I agree with you completely, Wes. It’s not about the technology; it’s about the teaching! Over the past three years, we have piloted and then fully implemented giving every one of our 650 fourth grade students a handheld computer. But first, we worked with each teacher to make sure he/she understood that the teaching had to change. The program has been so successful (in both test scores and authentic learning that’s taken place) that we’re getting ready to provide a computer to every fifth and sixth grade student next school year. The technology works great as a tool for these digital natives, but only when we first help the digital immigrants change their roles in the classroom.

  4. […] We not only need our students to be engaging in safe digital social networking, we also need them appropriately instant messaging at school. We need kids to be blogging respectfully and safely at school, so they’ll be well-prepared for the digital communication challenges and opportunities they’ll face in life. Laptops should be disruptive of traditional education. This is why we desperately need to work on refining the VISION our educational leaders and other educational stakeholders have for what it means to be literate in the 21st century. Teaching and learning shouldn’t be what it used to be. Thanks to David Warlick for this article reference. […]

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