Modern Learning (environments, practices and supporting technologies) is something that most schools I interact with have firmly on their radar. Some are just starting out, and others are well on the way. The conversations about Modern Learning Environments and Modern Learning Practices sometimes start slowly, but usually end up being vibrant, exciting discussions jam packed with possibilities, and leave me feeling thrilled to be part of the transformation of aspects of our education system.
Themes in discussions about Modern Learning
I find that discussions with school personnel about Modern Learning (ML) have many common threads. You can see a more formal definition on CORE’s website, but things that often get mentioned in conversation are:
- flexible/fluid seating and furniture arrangements
- pupils interacting with a greater variety of staff and other children
- pupils interacting with others outside of their school and school day
- mobile devices
- personalised learning
- being able to learn in a variety of mediums
- pupils being able to demonstrate their learning in a variety of media
- greater accessibility and the removal of barriers
- flipped classrooms
- a focus on process rather than outcomes
- online access to education resources.
But, what about supporting technologies in Modern Learning?
When discussions move to the supporting technology, however, it seems that ICT decisions often highlight a gap between what schools espouse and what schools do. For instance, one thing that I never hear mentioned in discussions about Modern Learning is essay writing, or in fact, any activity that binds students inextricably with a keyboard. Yet, that often becomes a must-have item for device specification.
Tablet or laptop? What are the pros and cons?
When I listen to schools talking about Modern Learning, the device I picture is often a tablet. Tablets are small, light, and have good battery life. But you could also argue that laptops have all those things as well. Indeed, if you simply compared features of tablets and laptops, you can make a long list of common features: things like SSD drives, bluetooth, wireless, touch screens, speakers, microphones, headphone jacks, video out, and so-on. In fact, in terms of features, there aren’t a lot of differences. The most notable are, perhaps, a physical keyboard on a laptop, and a rear-facing camera on a tablet.
But, I think the feature list is misleading, as it is the form of the device that really sets a tablet and a laptop apart. Some of those differences are fairly obvious, for instance, both have a camera, but it is pretty clumsy trying to take photos with a laptop. Others are subtler. For instance, it is easier to have a group of people working concurrently on a tablet, as there is no dominant position, and anyone can reach out and use the screen to add their contribution. But, a laptop’s design makes it easy for one person in a group to enter data on behalf of the group. The following table highlights what I think of as some strengths and weaknesses of both types of devices:
|ML Attribute\Device Type||Laptop||Tablet|
|flexible/fluid seating arrangements||great to use at a desk, usually needs to be supported on something||great to use anywhere, but at times will also need to be supported|
|pupils interacting with a greater variety of staff and other children||thirty laptop lids open in a class makes a lot of barriers to interacting||easy for multiple people to look at or pass around or use. Discreet when not being used|
|pupils interacting with others outside of their school||easy to do via any number of web based services||easy to do via any number of web based services|
|mobile devices||tend to be light and relatively easy to move around||tend to be even lighter and there is not even a lid to open or close|
|personalised learning||a great device for interacting with via keyboard or mouse/trackpad||a great device for interacting with in a variety of ways|
|responsiveness||can take some time to boot/switch on||always immediately on|
|being able to learn in a variety of media||a great device for interacting with via keyboard or mouse/trackpad||touch interface — intuitive|
|being able to demonstrate your learning in a variety of media||a great device for interacting with via keyboard or mouse/trackpad
Many tasks such as video and image editing and sharing require a more complex workflow
|Many tasks such as video and image editing are simple. Sharing the finished product is often a coherent part of the workflow.|
|greater accessibility and the removal of barriers||Modern operating systems have accessibility features included||Touch interface is simplified, powerful and intuitive. Accessibility features available on tablet operating systems|
|flipped classrooms||provides access to almost all websites and resources||provides access to most websites and resources, though some tablets will not display Flash content|
|collaboration online||can easily collaborate via online spaces with people on other devices||can easily collaborate via online spaces with people on other devices|
As I said earlier, I often picture a tablet when I hear schools describe to me the environment that they envision their students working in. That is not to say that I see no place for laptops. I firmly believe that the end goal is for the students to choose the device that best suits them. It is important to remember that just as environment and practice will impact how learning happens, so student device choices will in part be guided by the learning and assessment tasks that they are confronted with in their schools.
Why does having a keyboard seem so important in modern education?
Is it because teachers are still elevating the written (typed) word, either consciously or subconsciously, above a staggering array of other ways to communicate thoughts, ideas, and creativity? Keyboard-centric thinkers often also believe that tablets are good for younger students, but that older (more serious) students need permanent access to a keyboard.
Maybe we still want to assess a class set of similar answers, created in as close to the same way as possible, and that is deemed easier on a laptop. But how personalised can we really claim the learning is when what we collect to mark is 30 books, or 30 paintings, or now 30 word-processed documents? So, is convenience of teaching and assessing and our innate desire to place students on frameworks more important than allowing them to explore a subject, and then express their knowledge in the way that best suits them as students?
Or, is it not the keyboard at all? Is it simply that managing school-owned laptops (the devices with keyboards) is simpler for technical staff than managing school owned tablets? If so, have we really decided that the management of devices trumps the ways they can be used? Or, did that just happen without us noticing or thinking too hard about what we were giving up in the interest of a more convenient technical solution?
Schools may wish to consider:
- How often they check that their ICT infrastructure aligns with their vision?
- If they fully consider that device choice impacts on what happens in classrooms and therefore learning outcomes?
- If the way devices are chosen may serve as a proxy for where they would sit on something like the e-Learning Planning Framework?