Tony Parkin: Two into One DOES Go

Sometimes educational technology babies do seem to disappear with bathwater. Effective teaching and learning strategies are lost as classroom technologies change, and new ideas like one to one (1:1) come into vogue.  The shiny, shiny and latest can distract from the lessons learned, and pedagogies shift to meet the new situation and lose some of the hidden value of the old.

Cheering news then, that for once the ‘It’s not the technology, it’s the pedagogy, stupid’ message has yet again been seen to resonate, and  new research evidence comes along that challenges an ed tech orthodoxy that I’ve questioned for years. Getting children to share technology can actually improve learning outcomes, over both no technology and 1:1 scenarios, showing the true power of education technologies to motivate collaborative learning. Let’s look back, and then forward.

For the last quarter of a century or so, there has been a major effort to sell the education technology concept of ‘1:1’ when it comes to devices and students. Apple made a big thing of this concept in its educational marketing strategy, Maine in the US became internationally famous for its massive 1:1 scheme, and despite alternative models it became virtually the norm to see the ‘steady-state condition’ as being one device: one pupil in the classroom context.

It was originally Apple Mac laptop computers that were the devices of choice over in the US. Over here, at the turn of the century, it was more often Windows laptops that were the basis for those ‘whole school ICT’ strategies. Ninestiles in Birmingham also reached international fame for its own version of the programme, which involved one of the largest educational wireless networks in Europe, and an onsite repair workshop, at the time.

Over at Essa Academy in Bolton the approach was a little different, and more affordable devices such as the iPod Touch took centre stage; though the chosen device kept shifting in the rapidly changing consumer marketplace. Latterly such programmes have been ALL about iPads, though there have been some valiant attempts to explore more affordable devices such as android tablets and Chromebooks. In this context I don’t really include the notorious iPad rollout in Los Angeles, as that was more about packaging etextbooks on a device that was blocked from even accessing the internet. I refer only to schemes that aim to empower students with technology in and out of the classroom.

A one to one nirvana has been the relentless focus for most of the time. There has even latterly been a suggestion that the reason a one to one model may be  flawed, is that many students bring their own devices, which can mean that there is a 2 or 3 device to one student reality.  The approaches that see schools switching to ‘bring your own device’ or even ‘bring your own browser’ keep up and extend these ideas, and personal ownership has been shown to be a powerful driver.

Some of my most powerful beliefs around effective learning using technology come from early days of working in classrooms in the late 80s and early 90s. One project in primary classrooms, in Tower Hamlets, where pupils were using the venerable RM Nimbus 186 computer, was particularly memorable.  Typically each classroom would have between one and fifteen computers, shared among 30 or so children.  2:1 or 3:1 was the computing norm, even in whole class teaching scenarios, and that was when I saw some of the best learning using technology that I have ever seen. As with other resources, like books and plasticene, the computer became the focus for a learning discussion between students, rather than a teaching machine, or an all-encompassing challenge to be mastered through solo struggles.

One particular memory stands out. Two 8 year old Bangladeshi pupils chatting rapidly in their native tongue, pointing at the screen, and  I gradually realised that their speech was spattered with English words I could recognise. Edit, cut, copy and paste, file and save cropped up regularly as one instructed the other. The young instructor explained to me that he was showing his new friend, from the same village in Bangladesh that his own family was from, how to use PaintSpa to generate a colourful image that exemplified the pattern work they were doing in Maths.

Afterwards I talked to the class teacher about what I had seen. She explained that her class frequently contained children newly-arrived from overseas without a word of English. Her strategy was to use a buddy system, pairing them with someone who shared their mother tongue, then give them precedence on the computer. This was hugely motivational for both children, and it was quite usual that the first words of English learned, alongside school standards like ‘toilet’ and ‘lunch queue’, were menu commands from the various programmes on the computer. The new child was so keen to learn how to master the programme that the language mastery came along as an essential way to achieve that.

As I listened to children in those Tower Hamlets classrooms I also realised just how strategic and wide-ranging were the discussions going on. Sometimes they were essentially technical in nature, but often they were about design ideas, or the maths pattern they were trying to demonstrate, or over colour selections and rationale. Children voicing their knowledge and opinions, learning to listen to the ideas of their partner, and picking up important skills like taking turns. The teachers also gained classroom management skills, observing male ‘mouse and keyboard  dominance’ at first hand,  and developing strategies to improve the effectiveness of pair and group working.

Magic times, until they were pushed aside in the relentless 1:1 drive and computer labs. Now US research at Northwestern University has again shown the importance of such strategies. Kindergartners in classes where they shared and collaborated on iPads significantly outscored their peers on achievement tests who were in classes that had no iPads, or in classes with an iPad for each student.

This was a school year (nine month) study originally looking at the impact of 1:1 iPad use on student literacy, with control groups in other schools with either no iPads, or where iPad use was shared. But researcher Courtney Blackwell found that students working  in shared iPad classrooms significantly outscored their peers in both 1:1 and non-iPad classrooms on the spring achievement test, even after controlling the results for baseline scores and student demographics. Blackwell suggests that this indicates that it must be the collaborative learning around the technology that made the difference, not just collaboration in and of itself, nor the simple use of the technology.

I have always felt since those early observations that the interaction between students using technology, not the interactions of a student with a piece of technology,  was where the exciting and enjoyable learning often happened. A 1:1 scenario, though valuable where the device is being used as a production tool, can turn into a man v machine struggle when attempting to solve problems or grasp concepts. When working with trainee teachers, though we are ina  1:1 environment,  I always encourage them to work in pairs or small groups when undertaking computing tasks, and notice that fun and improved peer learning is almost invariably the outcome. Some often prefer to fly solo, but for many the exchange of ideas and help with tasks takes a lot of the anxiety out of educational computing.

The same is often true in CPD sessions for serving teachers. Though let me be clear  here, I LOVE the idea of everyone having a device,  what I am talking about here is classroom management strategies to ensure the pedagogy and pattern of use of technology helps bring about maximum learning gains. So maybe a little less talk of 1:1, and a little more focus on learning outcomes would be beneficial throughout education technology?