22 October 2016

1:1 - Why?

1:1 via edtechteacher.org

Every now and then I come across an article that, while on the surface level seems fairly innocuous, causes me incredible consternation, articles like this,

"Kids Who Have to Share iPads Learn Better Than Kids Who Have Their Own".

The article is not a new one, but like many articles of its ilk, it has a habit of resurfacing periodically, as it did this week, finally motivating me to put fingers to keys.

There are so many things wrong with the assumptions made by the writer of this article, that it’s hard to know where to start. So in the absence of any better course of action, I’ll start at the beginning.

Firstly can we all just assume that of course sharing is a good thing, and so by implication is learning to share, but the truth is that it's the sharing that is beneficial not the device being shared, I see kids sharing and collaborating all the time even when using their own screens; the extent to which this happens is all to do with the classroom culture carefully crafted by a caring teacher and nothing to do with the nature of the particular item.

Secondly, what is the evidence basis for the the findings of the research? Performance in “a standardized literacy test at the end of the year compared to the beginning”. Oh, that’s okay then; God forbid we should have any other metric in school for judging the efficacy of any initiative other than a test, and I hate to imagine what the nature of this test was, but something tells me it involved a lot of multiple choice questions, maybe even a few cloze passages...   I loathe the way so many of these kinds of studies assume that standardised tests as the measure for success for everything is acceptable, it's not acceptable it's completely unacceptable, not to mention completely irrelevant... Just because it's easy to measure doesn't make it valuable. There are plenty of other people who have done a better job than I could do here, starting with the magnificent Alfie Kohn.

An improvement of 28% v 24% in a study of 352 students really is not statistically significant, despite what the study's author says, another reason why we don't rely on one source for anything of any real substance. Then, if that wasn’t bad enough, the study extrapolated the results of a literacy test, to relate to their work with basic geometry?

I could possibly accept basing the efficacy of a study on a standardised test if the focus of the study was specifically related to the test, eg working on improving spelling for example, but in this case, as in most of the cases of this kind, they make no effort whatsoever to relate the standardised test to the actual nature of the use of the devices. Which tells you a great deal about the study, that they didn't feel it worthwhile to actually describe what they are using the iPads for, which would seem to be glorified textbooks, which would explain why they felt standardised test would be a valid measure. All they are concerned about is to measure the extent to which students have absorbed specific surface content, without any consideration about deep conceptual development or creativity and all those other soft skills that really do matter much more. You see a classroom where all the iPads are used for is glorified textbooks, or for educational "games" and skill drill, then sharing one iPad between five, or ten or even twenty really is not a problem. But a classroom where the teacher expects kids to actually create things that are meaningful over time is a classroom that benefits from the lowest possible ratio of student to device.

What has all this got to do with 1:1?

Whenever I encounter someone who is under the impression that providing students with their own device is a little, well, excessive, I know there is something profoundly dubious about the assumptions they make about the way we encourage students to use these devices. The truth is you can be sure that any advocate for shared devices never shares their own device 50:50. Can you imagine how far you would get in your daily work if you had to share your laptop 50:50 with a colleague in the office? You can be sure that the same person so gleefully anticipating a social nirvana where all of these students happily share their devices is suffering from a profound case of media bias, or device disorder. I’m sure the same person would never countenance asking the same students to share a pencil, or a paintbrush. How about an exercise book? You start from the front, and I’ll start from the back... These devices are all tools, very few of which were purpose built for a classroom, but all of which can be very successfully repurposed for an educational context by skilled teachers. I find teachers that are blasé about the need for students to have their own devices tells me more about the lack of importance they associate with the device than it does about the use of it.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that a 1:1 context is a prerequisite for successful learning, many teachers all over the world, do amazing things everyday with limited resources, but that doesn’t mean that this paucity of resources is something they find preferable! Anyone who thinks so, clearly has never attempted to use these devices themselves.

Allow me to illustrate with an analogy.

Cycling is good for you, it’s also much less harmful for the environment than an aeroplane. So next time you want to travel between, say London and Singapore, don’t fly, cycle!

This logic only makes sense if you never had to actually travel between London and Singapore yourself (and if you’re not in hurry). There is something to be said as well for determination, I have a good friend who shares his laptop with the 24 kids in his class, on a rota basis. Do they benefit? Yes. Is the sharing beneficial for them? Maybe. Is this his preferred arrangement? Of course not.

Back to the bicycle.

Would I ever countenance the idea of cycling from London to Singapore? No ... unless that was the only way I was ever going to visit Asia, and time was no object. Consciousness of the desirability of the goal has a direct bearing on one's determination to persevere despite the obstacles that may be present. Would it be good for me? Yes. So am I going to do it? No. I am not. Well, maybe. For many years, teachers who are profoundly aware of the value of designing experiences for their students to enhance their learning with digital tools have persevered despite many obstacles to make this a reality for their students, but would they prefer 1:1? Of course they do. How do I know? I was one, more than once. Scavenging abandoned computers, salvaging parts, and spending hours beyond number to build a rudimentary ‘lab’ for my students was a frequent experience for me when I was wrestling to enhance the learning of my students in the early days at the turn of the century when ‘TEL’ still was yet to become a ‘thing’.

1:1 works better - shall I count the ways?

When my school announced five years ago, that we were embarking on a tech enhanced learning (TEL) initiative, it was assumed that the 1:1 ratio only applied for older students, middle school and up. While the ratio of devices in the Primary School was going to be increased, from about 5:1 to more like 2:1, the intention was never to provide 1:1 in the primary school as well. So what changed their minds? I did.

Can we work with shared devices? Yes. Can we work better when we have our own device? Yes. Interestingly the main pressure to go 1:1 came from our teachers, even when we expanded to a 2:1 ratio, the more effective they became at utilising digital tech, the more ridiculous expecting the kids to share devices became.

The truth is that the benefits of 1:1 have really surprised me, I was kind of oblivious of how powerful that really is, just from a logistical standpoint. With shared devices it is all too common for students to accidentally delete each other's work which is quite soul destroying, and especially with video editing in the junior school attempting to work on a project over several weeks is impossible with a shared machine. This means that any creating on the device (the most important use) has to be confined to short simple activities that can be started and completed within one lesson, this really does diminish the power of those tools.

This means that the main reason for going 1:1 is not really about two kids needing to use the device at the same time, although that is a factor, it's about honouring and protecting the importance of the media created by each individual child. The biggest advantage I found by going 1:1 is to do with the fact that the work on that device cannot be accidentally tampered or deleted by a well-meaning (or maybe not so well-meaning) friend. If all the kids use the device for is shallow tasks like skill and drill apps, taking tests, and passively consuming media, then clearly sharing them is less of  an issue. However I think this is actually highlights a bigger problem! If we are encouraging our kids to do meaningful creative work on these devices and they will have media saved on the device that they would be upset about if it was accidentally deleted by a classmate.

Not to mention the issue of 'ownership', a child who is responsible for their own device, apart from the obvious personal social merits of having to take that responsibility, is also a child who feels like the work on there is work that is all theirs. This aspect became quickly apparent, kids really do benefit from their "ownership" of one device, including in ways we hadn’t anticipated, such as: customising it so that it operates the way they want it to; using a picture of their face for the wallpaper; being able to actually choose to share content on their iPads with their parents directly, this is the kind of thing that a one-to-one environment would make very straightforward but that they shared environment would be quite difficult. This even extends to the physical device itself—sharing ‘their’ device with their parents at parent teacher conference means there is something quite empowering about that kind of "ownership" even at such a young age. This aspect encourages a sense of responsibility that is powerful in terms of 'digital citizenship'; such as the fact that the teacher can expect the student for example to curate and manage their camera roll with their media responsibly; there is no way the student can evade responsibility by blaming other students who also use the iPad—a common issue with shared devices.

So when I encounter people who are under the impression that 1:1 is excessive (the implication in this article) I know there is an assumption behind these ideas that the digital tools are used so infrequently and so ineffectively (ie skill drill, and games) that expecting kids to share them is no big deal, but in classrooms where these tools are effectively integrated and used to record, reflect and create, they are actually very difficult to share, not because of a lack of willingness to do so, but because both kids actually need to use the device at the same time, and really value the content they are curating and collecting on their own device.  You can be sure the journalist who wrote the article wasn’t using a machine she was sharing; why?

She uses it to create