Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Disrupting Class

Today’s classroom assumes that all students have access to pencil and paper, but what if all students had access to mobile technology?

Michael’s assertion that "real business is done on paper" is indeed humorous, but considering the present reality in school, he's really not far off... real schooling today is still done on paper.

The near ubiquity of mobile devices and the rise of inquiry-based learning is helping to surface questions about how schooling is currently done and is challenging educators to reflect about how technology could be used to support learning in their classrooms. But many of us (teachers, students, and parents) struggle with how to include technology in a way that enhances learning rather than distracts from learning.

Over the past year and a half, we have seen some incredible examples, like at the Calgary Science School, where technology is supporting an inquiry-based approach to learning, leading to sustained student engagement and deeper learning. But the integration of mobile technology runs up against well-established practice and requires a willingness to disrupt some of our present structures and traditions. 

Here are some of the key considerations:

While more schools are offering wireless connectivity, networks can be unreliable, inconsistent, and unable to handle the large amounts of traffic. For many this is a barrier that discourages exploration in some promising digital resources and tools.The costs associated with upgrading infrastructure or providing mobile devices for all students is prohibitive. BYOD may be a part of a strategy to reduce the costs for schools and there are districts that are exploring this avenue. At DSS, BYOD may be viable (with improvements to our network capacity) as many of our students already have access to mobile devices, yet we remain hesitant to invite students to use their devices in class. 

How We Teach
In the traditional school environment, the teacher controls the flow of knowledge. Students are expected to pay close attention to the teacher, take notes, answer questions, and participate in activities that are directed by the teacher. In these environments technology is seen as a distraction that interferes with student engagement and focus. BC principal, Cale Birk writes about the importance of reflecting on our instructional approach here. Technology rich environments best support learning that is structured around inquiry and exploration in the "big ideas." Classes that are structured around inquiry are student-centred, where the student collaborates with others (peers, experts) to solve real or simulated problems. Technology is used as a tool for research, collaboration, and for creating and sharing knowledge.

How We Assess 
Traditional assessment practice does not mesh well with a technology rich environment. In most classrooms, student learning is measured through tests, quizzes, and assignments. Results are shared with the student, parent, and other teachers who may be supporting the student (Learning Support Teachers, Counsellors, Admin). Fair and accurate grading is important because scores are used to rank the students and compare them to their peers. Detractors of mobile devices point out that the mobile device allows a student to take shortcuts and that the devices can be used to plagiarize or cheat.  Perhaps it is time for a more mindful and flexible approach to assessment that puts a greater emphasis on learning as opposed to ranking, and is more in line with how learning is assessed and knowledge is shared in real life. 

When we add concerns about bullying, safety, and threats to privacy, one can understand why it is both convenient and less risky to ban mobile devices altogether. 

But these are precisely the reasons why we need to go there. 

Reformers believe that there is a widening gap between what is happening in school and what is happening in elsewhere in the the world. In the world of work and post-secondary education access to technology is presumed. If this is true, shouldn’t we be using mobile devices in school? 

Today’s learners arrive with a new set of assumptions. Students today assume that they can access all human knowledge, and that all knowledge can be accessed through their mobile device. More and more students are seeing school as relevant only for social engagement and earning credentials. But effectively, technology has changed the game, stripping the teacher of our traditional role as the curator of knowledge; and challenging us to re-invent the role of the teacher to one which is focussed less on the delivery of content knowledge and focussed more on the needs and interests of the learner.  

Perhaps it is time that we re-consider the aims and limitations of traditional practice and develop a strategy to leverage the potential of mobile devices to support deeper learning in our classrooms.

  • Technology increases pedagogical capacity – contemporary pedagogies allow learners to engage more deeply with complex ideas. 
  • Technology allows for access to knowledge that is relevant, timely, and efficient. 
  • Technology allows learners to engage with the world and engage with real world issues.
  • Technology supports collaboration, sharing, and inquiry-driven learning. 

The promise of mobile technology in schools is enticing: meeting students where they are at; deeper learning; increased student engagement. Yet, it must be remembered that digital technology is not the silver bullet. 

Technology disrupts and transforms learning in relevance, breadth, and depth when used in ways that empower inquiry-based, self-directed, and socially constructed learning. … Bruce Dixon - Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation (

Herein lies the key, “when used in ways that empower inquiry-based, self-directed, and socially constructed learning.”

As BC begins to reshape curriculum so that it aligns with the needs of the 21st century,  I look forward to further exploration into inquiry-based, technology supported approaches to learning. 

Ericsson’s corporate interest aside, this twenty minute video on the Future of Learning provides a compelling look at how technology is changing the way students learn, as well as what it means to learn and teach and be educated in the 21st century.

Technology should not drive education, but we cannot underestimate the impact of digital technology as a means of collaboration, communication, and expression. Let's be open to maximizing the potential of mobile technology and providing our students with the guidance and skills necessary to be safe and successful in a digital world.


  1. When I first started participating in technology planning with schools, I was so energized by all that educators were telling me re: the possibilities of technology. At the same time, the teacher librarian at my kids' school was doing her masters re: information literacy. And we would talk!!

    One day, I said "Let's just do something. I'll come in and help." So we did. She covered teacher preps and had a Grade 4 class in the computer lab for an hour. We decided to start using HyperCard (yup, the lab was full of those teal colored Macs).

    There was one boy who sat, arms crossed, doing nothing. I pulled up a chair "Hey! What's up?" He gave me a sullen stare. "I can't read, so I don't have to do this."

    That moment and what followed with that project opened my eyes to what technology CAN do.

    By the end of the project, we had empowered that young man. He was re-engaged in learning. He believed in himself enough to present his creation to the rest of the class! And it was truly magical!

    Most of all, it was unexpected! We didn't plan what ended up happening. We had to be flexible. Sometimes we let the kids lead and teach each other (and us!)

    There is so much unknown and kind of scary about simply ALLOWING kids to experiment and use their devices - and yet that's where the magic shows up! It's in the "not knowing" that we create a space for shared discoveries, learning and joy.

    Was that student reading by the end of the project? No, not yet. But he was TRYING. And he was smiling. And he had tasted his own kind of success! I still tear up a little when I think about it!

    Are there other ways to engage reluctant learners? Sure there are.

    Is technology always magical in a classroom? No, of course it isn't.

    But it's worthy of the effort, even the struggle, to reach learners. To empower them. To excite them. To let them revel in the joy of learning. And to be able to give them options that paper/pencil just can't offer.

    Every child deserves to find success. And to find (or keep) their smile!

    And perhaps, every teacher needs someone who believes in THEM too. Someone who will stand, listen, help, and do it with them the first time, when they're unsure (but want to try something new).

    We're all human, after all!
    Hmmm... Something to think about...

    1. Heidi, thanks for taking the time to comment and to share a powerful story. Creating access points and connections for our most reluctant learners is indeed powerful stuff. If we can sum up the courage to forge through the rough spots and the implementation challenges, I'm sure that we will open up new worlds to a host of learners - students and teachers. Thanks for your wise and inspiring words.