In his post “Should Teachers Ask Students To Check Their Devices At The Classroom Door?” Alva Noë, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley writes “To be human in the 21st century, at least in these parts, is to be plugged-in, enhanced, online and connected.” I agree and I applaud Mr. Noë for saying it so succinctly. We know this, we live it and we sell it every one of our digital days in 2016. We track, we tweet, we tag, we tally. Unfortunately, there is one area where the forces of progress and productivity meet real friction: education.

“To be human in the 21st century, at least in these parts, is to be plugged-in, enhanced, online and connected.”

All of this is happening at a time when the educational computing market is increasingly saturated and the scrutiny of outcomes is increasingly public, by both taxpayers and educators themselves. Mr. Noë confesses that even he’s torn, landing in a place where he is pro device, but not in any strategic way.

I think we can do better and I think students need us to.

Unless a school has a clear “No devices” policy in place, the reality is that devices are going to make their way into classrooms and lecture halls. In every other class configuration–1:1, BYOD, BYOL–students will have devices and teachers will have students who have devices. In this environment, teachers need to help students understand the power of their plugged-in, enhanced, connected selves–both in education and everywhere else. A responsible, responsive classroom environment can not be binary–off/on, check/carry, all/none, always/never.

Now, I can hear a chorus of educators saying “So now I’m supposed to monitor the devices to know what students are doing all the time?” Up to a point, yes. Based on grade level and school culture, some level of monitoring is appropriate. That is a decision school administrators need to make together with stakeholders. What I am suggesting is that educators in 2016 need to know what the devices can do, how students are using them and how they (educators) can connect their students to their discipline and other learning communities engaged in the same work. Consider this monitoring the market rather than monitoring student devices. Is this a not-insignificant shift in teacher time? Yes it is. Is this part of any teacher’s published job expectations? Likely, not. Is the success of the relationships in class, both academic and affective, improved with this shift? I’ll argue ‘yes’ here.

I think it’s best to look at this potentially polemic issue from three perspectives. First, how can we tap into the full functionality of these devices? Second, how can we recognize the drive towards distraction and help students focus? Third, if we recognize that these devices provide myriad tools for exploration and that they can, in fact, be used to focus students’ energy, where can we take students (and their devices) next?

1. How can we tap into the full functionality of these devices?

Laptops, tablets, phablets and phones are so much more than note-taking devices. We know this and we anxiously await every update so we can get more out of our machines. Today’s devices allow students to write, record, remix, access, archive, collaborate, curate and explore. They can all of these things alone in two dimensions. They can do them networked in two dimensions. Soon, they will be able to do them all–alone and networked–in three dimensions. Why, then, do metrics and media debate about the impact of devices on learning always come back to note taking? Similarly, if these tools open up such a media rich, non-linear environment, why do we measure impact with traditional, standardized scores?

Today’s devices allow students to write, record, remix, access, archive, collaborate, curate and explore…Why, then, do metrics and media debate about the impact of devices on learning always come back to note taking?

Teachers and educational leaders need support in accessing and assessing the available tools. Instructional technologists or their equivalent can help, as people who understand both the tools and the school’s culture. I referenced “monitoring the market” earlier; ITs can help research what is available, assess its usefulness and be part of the roll-out Organizations like EdTechTeacher, PBS Learning MediaEdutopiaCommon Sense MediaWe Are Teachers and more provide tools and training modules for teachers. Learn. Lurk. Explore. Ask a friend.

2. How can we recognize the drive towards distraction and help students focus?

What surely won’t work is for teachers to continue lecturing, in every sense of the term. First, lecturing as pedagogy doesn’t allow these “plugged-in, enhanced, connected” students to learn the way that works best for them. Second, lecturing as device management will only exacerbate the divide between “haves” and “don’t haves.” Time was, you could ask a student to leave his GameBoy at the door because it had no application for class. Life and lecture went on. Same was true for your motion sensors in Mandarin class. Ditto. Now, things are different. The devices students carry with them can have some significant application for every step of their day. (Remember, there are even colleges giving students trackers to count those steps. Incidentally, I’d say this is suspect from a health, edtech and business perspective, but it’s a curious test case.)

Now, no matter how well curated the resources are and how well supported the classroom areare, teachers still need to be the digital drivers.

If left alone, will students slope towards Snapchat? Yes. In a 2014 article in The New Yorker Dan Rockmore stated “[we] approach those devices as game and chat machines, rather than as learning portals.” I think it’s fair to say that this has been a common stance among educators: the device can’t possibly be used productively, either because it’s not set-up to do so or, even it it were, students could not sit distraction-free for long enough to make it happen. Students see their devices as social machines and reluctantly come to educational applications. Many teachers trace the opposite arc. Whether we have found a balance or not–I’d confess not yet–they are both: game/chat machines and learning portals. As I said, we need to understand this as educators and help students supercharge their devices.

I’m not a specialist in this area and the literature along these lines is immense, so I’ll need to tread lightly here. I’ll simply say two things. Number one, we need to create some “luddite” plans for those lessons when we don’t need tech. This is and should be binary. There are other instances when it’s red (‘no go’), yellow (‘limited flow) or green (‘have a go’). Again, an increased awareness among educators of where students are and what they are doing there–for good and for ill–is helpful.

…an increased awareness among educators of where students are and what they are doing there–for good and for ill–is helpful.

Number two, recognizing the drive towards distraction and even the myth of multitasking does not mean that teachers need to feel paralyzed. If anything, these forces can help connect teachers and students as learners in their own right–students mastering content and teachers managing platforms. Trying to do this work can help teachers help students in many ways both educationally and emotionally.

3. Where can we take students (and their devices) next?

If we can get to a place, a physical set-up and a set of policies, where devices are supported and integrated into classroom activity, where can we go? I’d say we can take teaching and learning in inspired directions, supercharging both the devices and the learning. Inspired by the 12″-ings” in Kevin Kelly’s book ‘The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future,’ I’ll offer a ten of my own.

  1. Evaluating – What is the right device for me? When am I most productive? When and when am I most prone to distraction? What is the right tool for this task? I saw an interesting piece recently about how Millennials are choosing to use Google Docs and Microsoft Word in different situations. This process is something I’d like to see replicated in other areas. Faced with a barrage of choices, students will have to improve them skills at evaluating to reach their academic and professional goals.
  2. Recording & remixing – So much of the pushback on devices turns on note taking, traditionally understood. What are other options that might serve students? Sketchnotes are an option, as are visual organizers. Both of these media have the added benefits of forcing students reflect and consider connections along the way. Audio is an option too, though as powerful the audio cue, classroom setting provide a challenge. (Can you hear me now?) Students can record and remix lectures, hyperlinking sources, wikis, videos and more. They could keep their own “notebooks” or share them to create an open, organic platform. Those that do this best will get ahead in their courses and gain essential skills along the way.
  3. Podcasting – Where the point above centers on remixing others’ content, podcasting is all about making personal connections with the content. These can take the form of interviews, reviews, debates, conversations, long or short for oral essays. Tools today make it possible to record, edit and publish podcasts in a single period. The same goes for video.
  4. Blogging – Blogging becomes a natural extension of #2 and #3 above. Students could live Tweet the lecture–filtering on the fly–or they could write something more thoughtful and publish it on an LMS, WordPress, Weebly or a wiki. Blogging these days can include any media, in fact it could be largely media-based: think vlogs or Snaps.
  5. Back-channeling  – Using a tool like Today’s Meet, students can connect to ask questions, share links and process content in real time. Though it is easy enough to do the same on Twitter;  I like Today’s Meet because it is more contained as a class-level construct and it does not require participants to have an account. Now, one could say this is yet another step to create and moderate the channel, and these link back to the questions about teacher responsibilities and oversight listed above. “Set it and forget it” or just “forget it”? I’d say it’s worth exploring.
  6. Artistically interpreting – Students can use tools like Photoshop, iMovie and Minecraft to create responses to and reinterpretations of course content. At the same time, each time a student does this he or she is learning to use a tool for future applications. I have really enjoyed seeing some of my students take tools and skills they learned with me and applying them elsewhere. I think all teachers have talents and techniques that, if leveraged, can benefit students and other teachers too. This is also a way teachers can embed design thinking and principles into their courses.
  7. Really interpreting other languages – As a language teacher I am constantly looking for ways to bring authentic content (in Spanish in my case) to my students. I see this as a two-way street: I want student to access and create content. This is natural in a language class, of course, but I’d like to see this happen in all courses so that the number of languages, voices and perspectives in multiplied. Search and translation tools (e.g. Google and Skype) make it so easy to connect beyond linguistic borders. Where can they take us, if only virtually?
  8. Connecting data sets, disciplines, dots – Kevin Kelly concluded ‘The Inevitable’ saying “We are marching inexorably toward firmly connecting all humans and all machines into a global matrix.” While I’d agree this is true, I’m not sure I can say what it means for teachers or learners. What it surely does mean is that we are going to need savvy users who understand how Big Data works and where we can build in structures to make sure there are controls in place. Tools are beginning to trickle down to users and there is enough cloud-based power for hire to let anyone with modest time and money to crunch some big numbers.
  9. Computational thinking – We are not all designers and we are not all coders. That said, they best classes will provide their students with reasons and resources to design experienced and think computationally  code. Part of this is to be an educated consumer (See “Evaluating” above). Another part of this is to give students creative ways to demonstrate what they learned. I stated above that notes and standard metrics like SATS and term-papers are not the only way for students to demonstrate their understanding. They could blog or design or create or program. If they work towards coding or apply skills learned in parallel…perfect! In what could be an amazing feedback loop for present and future learners, students could create programs to support students as they learn chemistry or Chinese or coding itself. One of our advanced programming students did just that. Code is language. While some have floated the idea of swapping programming for language study, I–recognizably with my biases–would rather weave programming into all disciplines rather than swap it one for one or the other. Now I should note that there is currently a thoughtful parsing of the difference between “programming” and “computational thinking” happening. Based on the skills of non-computer science types–students and teachers–I think computational thinking is the place to start.
  10. Curating – If we agree that students are going to be creating and collaborating as part of their course work, where will it go, how will it hang together and how will it interface with the torrents of creation elsewhere. What stays? What goes? What do I need for tomorrow? What will serve me down the line? What has meaning by itself? What has meaning when seen in the context of other works–mine or yours?

The debate about devices and outcomes, Millennials and master teachers, will continue to play out. I hope these questions and resources can contribute in some way to making the 2016-17 year a success and to informing future conversation about educational technology.