Wall of Screens: Are Computer Screens Getting In The Way of Real 21st Century Learning?

Imagine that you are about to teach a dynamic lesson on the rise of Ancient Sumarian City-States to a group of 6th graders. Your lesson will ask students to think like Ancient Sumarians and respond to a series of geographic challenges that pose life threatening situations for them. The students will work in small groups to come up with solutions to the geographic problems faced by the Sumerians that ultimately led to the rise of city states. But before your students can begin grappling with these challenges they need some basic background information. So you ask them to read page 34 from their student textbook. When you look up to see if everyone is on the right page, following along, and staying on task, you notice that every student has picked up their book and is holding it in front of their face creating a barrier between you and them. When it comes time for the students to discuss the Sumerian dilemmas, they are still holding the textbooks in front of their faces creating another barrier between themselves and their group members.

This was the very situation I experienced teaching 6th grade social studies in Michigan last year. Only there were no textbooks acting as barriers but rather a classroom set of laptop computers the students used to access their student textbook online. When I first learned that the students would be doing all of their reading for the lesson on a classroom set of laptops, I was excited and I knew that the students would be engaged getting their content via a digital medium they were very comfortable with. I entered the classroom pro 1:1 computing and it took less than 4 minutes for me to realize I hated laptops in the classroom.

Now before I go any further, I want to stop and state that I am not against students reading digital content over printed text. This is not a plea for ditching computers in the classroom, quite the opposite in fact. I believe computers are an essential part of classroom instruction and I embrace the switch from print to digital content wherever possible. However what I experienced in that 6th grade classroom was a case in which technology that was purchased in order to increase student learning, actually did the opposite. It prevented it.

With so much being said in the educational world about 21st Century Skills, I am afraid that many educators are getting the wrong idea about 21st Century Learning. Many think that 21st Century Learning means doing assignments on a computer, answering questions with student responders, or even getting rid of teachers all together and delivering content via virtual learning programs. This is simply not the case. Using technology is only a small percentage of 21st Century Skills. What about Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, and problem solving? Those 21st Century Skills are just as important as using technology. Therefore one could argue that my lesson was right on par for giving students an opportunity to sharpen their 21st Century Skills. After all, my students were going to be collaborating, communicating and problem solving. But when it came time to read the text and discuss alternative courses of action, each group member was hidden behind a wall of computer screens. And I had no idea if they were even looking at the right content.

So should I just scrap digital content and go back to print books only? After all I pride myself with being a TCI Teacher where every day is a day where students think, analyze, and construct. No sit and get, mind numbing work sheets, (digital or otherwise) for me! Of course not! This year more students than ever before will have access to digital online materials. And we have come a long way since the passive PDF version most publishers have been providing as an online text. Students using online subscriptions to TCI digital content have the ability to zoom in and enlarge images from their “textbook”, double click vocabulary words to get definitions right on the same page, and highlight main ideas. Struggling readers even have the ability to have the text read to them. And teachers that want to gather information for formative assessments can assign online games that check for understanding and have the results show up instantly.

No doubt today’s online textbook is far superior to its print predecessor but if you know the pedagogy and science behind the TCI Approach then you know that sticking a classroom full of kids behind a screen for the entire class is the kiss of death. Good instruction requires a constructivist environment in which students can communicate and interact with the teacher, the content, and each other. I have been asked by many school administrators about the best way to take advantage of the wonderful new software available to them while not losing good classroom pedagogy at the same time. It is in my opinion that the answer to that question lies within the hardware. My answer, ditch the laptop and ditch the desktop!

I am not talking about bringing kids down to computer labs for project based learning experiences. I am talking about classrooms that have rows of desktop screens that create barriers against communication and collaboration. So if you are in a situation where you are getting ready to implement a 1:1 laptop program at your school or you are just simply adding more laptop carts, don’t. Before you spend thousands of dollars on hardware that is not designed to work with the software it’s going to run, take a good long look at tablets. Tablets in my opinion are the future of education and would have provided everything I was looking for in that 6th grade classroom activity. Students would still be able to get all of their content digitally without any of the negatives I associate with a desktop or laptop computer. Tablets are light weight, and were designed for the reading experience. More importantly, they can lay flat just like a text book. Imagine my 6th grade Ancient Sumer lesson on a tablet device like a Galaxy, Xoom, or iPad. Students would have their tablets right in front of them the entire time for easy reference of the text, I would be able to see what they were doing and there would be no barrier getting in the way of good collaboration and communication. I would also argue that everything the students like about working on a laptop, would not be lost on the tablet.

I am not advocating for one tablet over another, but I have tested several of them with my own TCI student materials and they work great, especially if you have a 10.1 display screen. I am however advocating for the tech people to get together with the pedagogy people before making large purchases of tech hardware. I see so many schools that think getting a kid on a computer is the most interactive experience they can give. However I often find that the experience the students are having on the computers is nothing more than an updated digitized version of the “worksheet”. Many of them take little consideration in the types of learning the students will be doing when purchasing school computers. Imagine if your social studies class was going to be up and out of their seats, moving in and out of small groups, and participating in lively classroom discussions daily. Would you want the wall of screens or a handheld tablet device that merges all of the qualities we love about print books with the free flowing digital information we get from the internet?