What Affects Your Students Ability to Learn?

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Tonight on the way home, as I sat in traffic and reflected on the day, I had a simple yet profound epiphany about students and 1:1 computing.

Before I share it with you, let me give a little background.  My current school is a 1:1 Macbook environment.  All of the students have their own computers they carry from class to class.  Last year this school site had the same computers, but in a COW (laptop cart) format.  Teachers would check out carts each day they needed computers.  Nearly every day all of the carts were checked out and many teachers used laptops with their students on a regular basis.  For the past three years I’ve had a similar situation at my previous school.  In my classroom nearly every day students used computers to blog, podcast, and complete long-term projects, assignments, or Moodle activities (quizzes, discussion forums, etc.).

As my current school site has switched to a 1:1 format, we’ve noticed a rash of discipline problems related to the laptops.  We had to close Moodle messaging because we found it was too much of a distraction and a small handful of students were using it to threaten other kids or send profane messages.  Some students regularly managed to find an unblocked gaming or social networking site and would choose to play there rather than complete an assignment.  This became so troublesome that last week all student accounts were dropped into a “maximum security” group on the server, allowing them to access only a handful of sites.  Many teachers (including me) have also found that students are down right angry when we ask them to close their computers and complete more traditional assignments, such as taking notes or reading the textbook (even if it is for a computer project).  For example, this week we spent two days creating atomic models for the first 10 elements on the periodic table using M&M’s  Every other year I’ve taught this lab has been a hit with my students and really helps to solidify key the concepts of atomic number and average atomic mass.  This year, however, the kids were irate because I asked them to put their computers away for the lab.  The entire time I battled with them to pay attention and not touch their laptops, which normally sit off to the side on their tables plugged in and charging.  At one point, a group of students had to put their computers in the laptop cart kept in my room because they would open them up every time I turned around for two seconds.  Today at an afternoon staff meeting focused on discipline, I found that nearly every single teacher on campus is having the exact same problem!  Some have become so frustrated that students must check their computers in the laptop cart on their way in the door and they can’t have them back until the end of the period.  These same teachers previously had students use laptops during certain parts of the period to create blog posts or participate in online discussion forums, but found the students couldn’t transition from computer-based learning to traditional activities or class discussions.  When students had to close their computers they became angry and refused to work.

As I drove home and digested what I heard in the meeting and thought about what is happening in my classroom I kept asking myself these questions – Why wasn’t this a problem last year with a COW format?  What’s the dramatic change?  What makes the kids so angry about closing their laptops?  Then it dawned on me…

With a COW format teachers give students computers the days they use are using them in class.  With a 1:1 program teachers effectively take away computers they days they aren’t using them.  In either situation students react accordingly.

This difference is subtle and I am not even sure it will make much sense to everyone.  However the the more I think about it, I realize its a profound difference affecting my classroom and my student’s ability to learn from different instructional formats.  So here’s my question Where do we go from here?  Any ideas?

Joe

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