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Tech Trends | Spotlight

The Devices of Change: What's To Come

New technologies like iPads and cloud computing are driving changes in the way students learn and the way teachers educate. But change is about much more than the device, according to Rushton Hurley, executive director of Next Vista for Learning.

"Change is both frightening and liberating," said Hurley, who delivered a session Wednesday at the FETC 2012 National Conference called "iPads, Android Tablets, Chromebooks, and What's to Come." It's frightening because it requires us to engage something new, something unknown; and it's liberating because in doing something new, we can free ourselves from any preconceived notions of what the outcomes should be. That, he said, really is powerful.

The Power of the Cloud
According to Hurley, the cloud is one of the things responsible for a recent shift in education. Cloud computing, he said, has "created opportunities to move documents and other assets off our infrastructure," freeing up time and resources. More than that, he said, it's allowing us to communicate and collaborate in ways we wouldn't have imagined just a few years ago. 

To prove his point, Hurley opened a Google spreadsheet. "I'm going to show you something about spreadsheets, and it's going to be fascinating," he said. "You'll probably never hear that sentence again."

Hurley's spreadsheet contained two columns and several rows. In one column, a set of numbers, from one to five; in the other, a list of countries, including Egypt, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and a few others. "We all know," he said, "that I can copy the numbers, and get the spreadsheet to automatically continue the pattern in numerical order; but what about the countries?" Without a logical pattern--like days of the week or months in a year--Hurley suggested the spreadsheet will just repeat what's already there. "Or will it?"

Hurley highlighted the five countries, held the control key on his laptop, and pulled the cells down a few additional rows. After a few seconds, new country names--different from those already there--appeared. The audience was amazed. "We've reached the point," he said, "where we're seeing the convergence of search, research, and productivity," allowing us to leverage data from all over the Web and use it to deliver information that's relevant to our immediate needs.

The Power of Discussion
Discussion, said Hurley, has always been a critical component of the learning environment. The problem, he said, is when you engage in classroom discussion, "before you even start the conversation, 50 percent of your students have already decided not to participate." Conversations are intimidating, he added, especially when two or three individuals dominate the rest of the group.

"The power of the Web is that it takes the social dynamics out of the equation." Kids who would never talk in a normal class setting suddenly flourish in the online environment. On top of that, he added, "the simple act of typing adds a filtering mechanism" that can make the conversations your students engage in more civil.

Tools Hurley said he  likes for facilitating online conversations include Edmodo, Google Apps, and Collaborize Classroom from Democrasoft. "The best thing about these tools," he said, "is that your students can use them anywhere."

The Power of Audience
For Hurley, audience is another powerful tool that can help effect change in the classroom. He said one of the things he's found most fascinating as a classroom teacher was the fact that "it motivates students to know that their peers will be viewing their work." When you give a homework assignment that will be viewed by the entire class, he said, "students put a lot of effort into making sure that it's good." Give them an assignment that will only ever be viewed by you, however, and "suddenly students are only concerned that it's good enough." The simple addition of audience causes a shift from just "good enough" to actually "good."

There are several tools out there, he said, that give students the opportunity to share their work with a larger audience. Among his picks are YouTube, Aviary, and "anything that allows the work to be socialized to expand the audience from peer-to-peer in a classroom, to peers around the globe."

The Power of Barriers
According to Hurley, barriers to change can be a powerful force in dictating the shape of instruction and collaboration. "The two biggies," he said, "are fear and time. Time is the most precious commodity we have," so it stands to reason that we try to protect it. "Fear," he added, "is the thing that keep us form becoming great." For Hurley, this plays itself out in education in some interesting ways. "Fear of failure," he said, "holds us back from experimentation and learning; and that prevents us from taking risks that could end up producing amazing results."

'Device' or 'Devices'
People might: "What's the one device?" But that's the wrong question, Hurley said. "One device is never going to do everything we want it to do." Instead, we should be talking about "the right devices (plural)" for any given situation.

Tablet devices, he said, provide several benefits, like long battery life, a small footprint, and a massive library of available apps. At the same time, they can be expensive, hard to provision, OS-specific, and limited in functionality.

"iPads, for instance, are great for certain demographics," like elementary school students, where the apps to support them are robust. But when it comes to secondary education, Hurley said he's "not sure they work very well at all." Tablet devices in general, he said, "are not very good for crafting text, publishing online, or working through collaborative writing assignments."

Android tablets bring similar concerns. "They're not as well understood as iPads, they don't have as many available apps, and they share the same issues when it comes to content creation." That said, "they have more free apps that the iPad, and Google does a better job fixing issues more quickly." Still, Hurley noted, it all comes down to context and what you plan to accomplish by using them.

Phones, said Hurley, create an interesting issue because they are far more readily accessible. "Using smart phones for education can help reduce costs because they're common." Many students have their own devices, he said, but you want to be sure to use them for what they're good at and not overstate their relevance.

"I'm sure many of you have seen the Google Chromebook by now," said Hurley. "These also have some interesting implications: They boot up really fast; they update automatically; they have integrated security features; and they force us into the cloud." But, he added, "they also require really good wireless, and they don't let you use any specialized software," which, he pointed out, might also be a good thing.

What's Going Away and What's to Come
In thinking about the tools that are shaping the way we think about education, Hurly ran through a list of things he sees going away:

  1. With the move to online publishing, printing--and the costs associated with it--is beginning to disappear;
  2. Voice control, speech recognition, and touch screens are moving us to a place where keyboards are no longer required;
  3. More wireless devices mean fewer and fewer wires, as well as better and more ubiquitous wireless access;
  4. Greater collaboration means fewer classrooms with desks in rows; and
  5. Online social spaces and places to share ideas and resources will lead to fewer isolated teachers. "This one," said Hurley, "is huge."

All of this adds up to Hurley's vision for the future of education; a future that, he said, isn't all that far away. "We are going to see things like teachers taking control of their own professional development, social network-like communications will become the norm, as will flipped classrooms and, in the not so distant future, game and scenario-based learning will become a reality."

To make any of this happen, said Hurley, "We have to be communicating effectively with our students. We have to find ways to connect with and encourage them. But most importantly, we need to enjoy what it means to learn."

About the Author

Chris Riedel is a freelance writer based in Illinois. He can be reached here.

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