Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Digital Trojan Horse: Changing the Classroom through Technology

Psst. This Blog post is a secret. Don't tell anyone.

Scalzi's Agent to the Stars
I just finished reading John Scalzi's Agent to the Stars (ok, listening to the @wilw narration -- he is good!). In this sci-fi book, a Hollywood agent must devise a way to introduce an alien race to humanity. One of the concepts that comes up early in the book (trying to avoid spoilers) is the "Trojan Horse" -- Get people thinking about one thing, and give them something even bigger at the same time.

I think that is what technology is doing to education.

One of the common questions that we get as we have announced and begun implementing the 1:1 BYOT model for Brebeuf Jesuit has been more-or-less the "Why didn't you just get them all iPads?" question.

There are a lot of reasons for this question:
  • They are the shiny pretty
  • Two of our direct competitors have announced fall iPad programs along with a number of our feeders
  • The mantra of consistency and efficiency (I have covered this previously) on the network
  • The simple story -- I have talked a lot with our marketing people. The Indianapolis Business Journal, picked up our competitor's iPad press release and left our BYOT announcement sitting in the bin.
It is easy to picture an iPad rollout. students sit in rows with a silver square on their desk where paper, pencil, and a textbook used to be. It is even easier to visualize because it has been reinforced by millions of dollars in marketing. (note: this is not how the rollout HAS to be, but how most could picture it)

BYOT is not simple.

[Interlude]
What Google and Apple put together, let no classroom put assunder
For years, students in science have been taken through the demonstrative motions of science, working with partners or in groups to perform the same experiment, using the same equipment, filling out the same lab reports. -- It's no wonder that the collective Department's of Education are ready to let robots take a stab and grading.

Now take a moment to imagine a BYOT lab...seriously, try this one out.

You still have students.
They are still working in groups.
But each group is a little different.

Let's look at one table:

  • One student takes pictures (phone), 
  • another plays back recorded video of the prep lab (another phone), 
  • student three researches some of the terminology since the numbers don't seem to be matching the predicted outcome (tablet), 
  • that outcome was measured by student four (PC laptop w/ a Vernier probe). 
  • Each student shares the results of this information (dropbox, or gdrive, or a USB key) and the group writes a report (on a Macbook).
[End Interlude]

In some ways, BYOT is exactly what we have been saying: We are shifting the tool the choice of tool from the teacher (or more likely the IT department with some input from a few teachers or administrators) to the students. This allows students to work on the tools which they are most comfortable. It frees educators to focus on the content and skills of their discipline instead of specific programs and buttons.

But, in other ways, BYOT is a Trojan Horse:

What BYOT Looks Like

  • Increased critical assessment
  • Increased problem solving in a real-world environment
  • Increased opportunity to make decisions about one's own education


Students in a BYOT environment are encouraged to be more critical consumers of applications, of information sources, of tools, and of the content they are being given. They want to know what the value of a particular program is going to be in their world, particularly if they have already mastered the method or task another way. As I write this, a fellow Jesuit CIO just posted to our forum a question about cloud storage and cloud tools -- how do we choose which one to use? -- We don't, the teachers and students do.

Students in a BYOT environment share their experiences in a way that is much more natural. They compare problem solving strategies, think through barriers, and do not hesitate to jump to another app/program/hardware if it will be more efficient or give a better experience. -- I enjoy watching Android, Mac, PC, iOS, and Chromium users discuss "how to do this" and share ideas and collaborate. It is actually more fun than teasing the iOS users about the data-sharing limitations of their operating system.

Students in a BYOT environment are forced to choose between the easy-way-out (google it, use the calc app, open the shared notes) and the more difficult route (use google to answer the facts, but reflect on the information to draw inferences; master the technique before letting the calculator solve the problem; contribute to the shared notes with unique insights drawn from your interpretation).

Classroom Impact: Here there be Monsters

Because of these changes, professional development becomes the key. It is not professional development in the push-button sense or to force teachers to develop X amount of "integrated lessons" to guarantee some arbitrary minimum of student computing seat time. It is conversation and reflection. It is returning to learning objectives. It is separating the learning from the assignment-clocking. -- It is pedagogy. It is curriculum.

It's a Trojan Horse.

With access to so many tools and so many "quick solutions", teachers have to rethink assessments and lessons to maximize this new environment. I think this happens in most 1:1 implementations, but when you are in a command-and-control environment (lock down those tablets, control which apps are deployed), it is easier to make the technology (and students) bend to the will of the educator without much change.

As we have been working with teachers on professional development (@40ishoracle's BYOT Bootcamps), the discussion with teachers have been amazing:
  • Teachers have been talking about leveraging the information at student's hands to reduce the amount of direct instruction and lecture. 
  • Other teacher's are taking advantage of the consumption capability to offload content to the "homework" time so that the classroom time can be maximized (increased collaboration, increased one-to-one time with teacher and student, increased individualization -- #flipclass)
  • Assessments are becoming more open as the teachers and students identify different ways to demonstrate student based objectives. This increased choice is influencing the types of skills that are being pursued by students -- in our Digital Citizenship class, I have one student who has spent more time, effort, and brainpower mastering motion-paths as a part of presentation technology than i could have ever required...and he is enjoying it.
  • The advantages of Digital Textbooks (ubiquitous access, quick lookup, notation) are becoming a part of the conversation in the classroom and among teachers instead of as a new thing that publishers showcase.
These conversations happen to some extent in all schools. The best schools have an environment that encourages collaboration among professionals, regular reflection on the skills and content taught, and an ability to integrate the trends of the wider world into the life of the school.

BYOT facilitates this change.

...but don't tell anybody. It's a secret.

Special thanks to John T. Spencer. His most recent blog shaped how this post developed and his posts on twitter shape how I think of education in general.