The Future of Tablets in Education: Potential Vs. Reality of Consuming Media

| May 8, 2013 | 33 Comments
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Flickr: Flickingerbrad

By Justin Reich and Beth Holland

The Someday/Monday dichotomy captures one of the core challenges in teacher professional development around education technology. On the one hand, deep integration of new learning technologies into classrooms requires substantially rethinking pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, and teacher practice (someday). For technology to make a real difference in student learning, it can’t just be an add-on. On the other hand, teachers need to start somewhere (Monday), and one of the easiest ways for teachers to get experience with emerging tools is to play and experiment in lightweight ways: to use technology as an add-on. Teachers need to imagine a new future—to build towards Someday—and teachers also need new activities and strategies to try out on Monday. Both pathways are important to teacher growth and meaningful, sustained changes in teaching and learning.

In this four-part series, we’ll use the Someday/Monday template to explore four dimensions of using tablets, such as the iPad, in educational settings, examining how teachers can take students on a journey from consumption of media to curation, creation, and connection. Here, we’ll start with consumption.

Part I: Consumption

In the apocryphal photo of the iPad, the tablet rests in the lap of Steve Jobs, sitting on the stage at the iPad release demonstration, reclined in a leather chair. This was a device made for reading and watching, for sitting back, for passively consuming media. One of the signature challenges of the surge of interest in iPads is helping educators imagine the device as more than a library of books or a rolodex of apps, but as a flexible, mobile device for creating multimedia performances of understanding. Educators using iPads should start by thinking about how the device can foster critical reading of text, images, audio, and film, but consumption should be the point of departure on a journey towards more active student engagement.

To oversimplify, there are two kinds of reading that students are asked to do in school settings: focused and connected. In the focused reading mode, we hope young people will engage deeply with a text. As Mark Ott, the chair of the English Department at Deerfield Academy recently told me, “Students used to sit at a desk with nothing but a copy of Thoreau’s Walden and experience sustained engagement with Thoreau’s ideas. We want to preserve that experience in a world where devices are constantly competing for their attention.” Whether the copy of Walden is the $4.99 paperback or the free digital copy from the iBooks library, educators still believe in the importance of focused reading.

Focused and connected modes of reading are both vital, but they require different habits, disciplines, and settings, and they serve different ends.

In the connected reading mode, we ask students to treat texts as nodes in a network of information. We ask them to quickly synthesize multiple readings and websites in research projects. To follow contemporary media narratives, like the recent violence in Boston, they trace stories across Twitter hashtags, livestreams of police scanners, blog posts, and newspaper articles. We ask them to read in communal settings, leveraging social technologies to allow users to share notes, highlighted passages, questions, and ideas. In an extreme form of this connected reading, Diana Kimball, a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, has formed a “24-hour book club” where groups sign up to read the same book in a 24-hour period, using Twitter to share reactions, favorite passages, questions, hunches, and insights.

Focused and connected modes of reading are both vital, but they require different habits, disciplines, and settings, and they serve different ends.

Someday

Most emerging technologies for the iPad support connected reading experiences rather than focused reading experiences. SubText allows teachers to place students in to reading groups, where they can share notes, highlight passages, ask questions, engage in discussions, and respond to teacher prompts. Reading becomes a shared, communal act, not just in classroom discussion but during the experience of reading. For collaborative research, Zotero’s web interface works great on tablets, and the tool helps groups and individual students organize diverse sources for research projects and manage bibliographic information.

A great summer project for literature or history teachers would be to explore some of these new tools and imagine how differentiated reading experiences in classes could be more social, how literature circles or book groups could collaborate in reading at home and then discuss their insights together in class.

Tablets already have tools to help reimagine connected reading, but features or apps that scaffold focused reading experiences seem further off. E-reading apps may eventually collect data about students as readers, providing some insights around pace, focus, and attention. For instance, eye-tracking and usage-tracking tools could provide measures of student reading engagement, allowing teachers to help students set goals around sustained reading. For Monday, however, it will be practices rather than apps that help students develop the capacity to read deeply.

Monday

To help students learn sustained concentration—there isn’t an app for that, yet. In the meanwhile, students need to learn both habits of mind for disciplined reading and how to control their technology environment to minimize distraction.

Howard Rheingold in his fine book NetSmart, praises the art of Attention, the habit of keeping at the front of one’s mind the purpose of using an online environment. If the purpose is focused reading, then students need to learn to recognize every move away from the text and into another online space as a distraction from sustained engagement. If the purpose is connected reading, students need to recognize how to strike the right balance between exploring a networked of hyperlinked texts while not wandering away from the core purpose of one’s reading. The first step in helping students developing these skills is naming “attention” as a skill: having students reflect metacognitively on their attention strategies and weaknesses and think about how best to exercise their own attention muscles.

Actually shutting down all apps before reading can be a kind of ritual of concentration, like clearing way books and papers from a desk before sitting down to read.

Students can also learn to create a digital environment conducive to concentration. For iPads, iOS 6 has a Guided Access feature designed to help people get stuck inside a particular app. Somewhat hidden under the “Accessibility” menu in the General Settings, Guided Access allows users to “lock in” to a particular app, disable all notifications, and require a password to log out. It cannot disable distraction, but it can set it a few more clicks away. (If you have a toddler, this is also a helpful way of keeping them from accidentally logging out with the Home button or swiping to a new app). Actually shutting down all apps before reading can be a kind of ritual of concentration, like clearing way books and papers from a desk before sitting down to read. It is also more slightly more difficult to jump into a game that needs to load or a web browser preloaded with interesting pages. Such are the 21st century methods of creating a clear desk for reading.

One of the central arguments of Rheingold’s book is that while digital tools can shape our cognitive experiences in undesirable ways, many of the drawbacks of technology are not inevitable. We simply need to develop new habits to make the most of our new tools. If our tools can distract us, then we need to learn more about focusing attention and managing distraction. Used wisely, we can choose to read Walden alone, in quite repose, or we can read Walden in community with peers and mentors, allowing students divided by home geography to read together as the Transcendentalists might have done in Emerson’s manse. Without these deliberate efforts to rethink reading we may find, as Thoreau said of the emerging technology of his own time, “we do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.”

B. Justin Reich is a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, as well as Director of Online Community, Practice, and Research at Facing History and co-Director of EdTechTeacher. Beth Holland is a Senior Associate with EdTechTeacher.

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