Certainly the title of this article is provocative, The Case for Banning Laptops in the Classroom, but it led me to think about my own evolving views about eLearning.
Last year, when I was my school’s eLearning leader, I did my utmost to make the most of all those devices in the learning space. And perhaps I overdid this because, now that I am back with the same students and we are using the devices less, the environment runs more smoothly and more learning appears to be happening. I know this is a controversial assertion, so let me unpack it for you a bit.
1. Computers are not always better.
Computers are powerful and, if you have the right device, they start up quickly. But they don’t do all things better than a pen and paper and, in many cases, they are slow to start and a certain number of them don’t work at any given time. I’m sadly not in a position to mention specific numbers, but when a sizable minority don’t have functioning devices, then it’s not actually a one-to-one environment.
Writing prose is perfectly fine on a computer, in my experience. Working out an algebraic equation on the screen, however, is slower than a pencil and paper. Computers are great for some things, perhaps even many things. But they are not the best tool for all tasks. There is a vital place for real-world and paper-based tasks. Dissecting a virtual heart is not the same rich experience that actually cutting into and experiencing a real heart is.
2. Some computers are more equal than others.
iPad start quickly and have some amazing apps. A laptop has a full-sized keyboard and is often sturdy. A Chromebook is cost-effective and makes real-time collaboration easy. And I’ve heard Microsoft reps at a conference assure the audience that Windows 8 will be ready for the educational big-time in the next two years. But each and every device has strengths and limitations. And when you lock yourself into doing all your learning on a single device, you close as many doors as you open. I have heard that some schools now have a two-to-one program where each student has an iPad and a laptop, and this certainly increases your options dramatically. But I maintain that there is a place for non-screen based learning as a significant part of the mix.
3. Screens are distracting.
It’s hard to keep your eyes off a glowing screen with a moving image. You’ll notice this whenever you walk into any room with a screen. This is hard enough for mature adults with an obvious economic imperative to stay focused, much less a person with a developing mind. But being fixed on a screen, even with people at the other end on other screens, is not always the best use of your brain cells. I am more and more convinced that eye contact, body language, tone of voice, laughter, tears, and physical contact reinforce relationships and positivity in a way that all our clever electronic tools cannot do.
So, am I suggesting that we ban computers? Not at all. I think that teachers should make the most of blogs to communicate with students, parents and other teachers. I think that we can all use blogs, podcasts, videos, and social media to share our creations with a wider audience and this brings an authenticity that is hard to beat. I also think that we can bring in all kinds of resources electronically that are just not available otherwise.
But, I am also saying that we should use them in a genuinely blended environment, where we turn off the screens for a decent amount of time and do other rich learning and interacting. Non-screen doesn’t mean medieval. It can mean all kinds of positive things, things that we should embrace just as much as we embrace eLearning.