Keepin’ it Real in a Digital World
I recently had the pleasure of reading David Sax’s 2016 book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter in which he explores recent movements away from the digital realm and towards high quality, analog experiences. His premise is impossible to deny. Two decades into the digital revolution (if you start with the release of the iPod in 2001), people, especially young people, are craving high quality, analog experiences. This includes people who cannot remember a time without smart phones, digital music, and ebooks. They are not buying vinyl records and record players, film cameras, and board games because they feel sentimental about these icons of the past, but because they find the very analog experience these items offer to be more satisfying and engaging than their digital equivalents. Even people who work in the digital realm recognize that, while useful, necessary, or fun, the digital products they create or sell exist in a world that isn’t entirely real. These savvy techies have even coined the acronym IRL (in real life) to distinguish between their digital and analog realities.
I loved reading Sax’s book, but parts of it gave me pause, especially the chapter on the failure of digital initiatives to improve learning in our schools. I am in educational technology after all! But slowly I recognized that our natural desire and, dare I say, need for analog experiences was something that I was already well aware of both as a teacher and in my personal life. In my free time, I seek out analog experiences as much as possible. Whether it is gardening, cooking, visiting a museum, watching a live show, hiking, or sharing a meal with friends, I regularly make a conscious effort to put away my various screens and live and learn IRL. As an art teacher, I witnessed first hand how incredibly engaged my students were when they laid their own ideas and thoughts down on paper versus almost anything I asked them to do on a computer.
Moreover, as an educator who believes in the transformative power of technology, I have to agree with much of what Sax says is wrong with a lot of edtech implementations. It is clear that expensive hardware and access to digital tools alone are not enough to transform education and, if used thoughtlessly, these tools are simply a substitute for traditional paper-based tools. At the same time, more technology opens the classroom up to a multitude of new and more powerful distractions. If a teacher is already struggling with classroom management without technology, they are likely to see an increase in problems until they develop some sound strategies for managing when and how devices are used.
What is needed to improve technology implementations in schools is an edtech movement that embraces the need for a healthy balance between the digital and analog worlds and provides encouragement and support for classroom teachers as they use their judgement to create meaningful and engaging assignments, give formative and summative assessments, and manage their students’ behavior.
Here are a few thoughts about how to use digital tools, while also “keepin’ it real” for students:
Focus on Real Problems and Real Solutions When Using Digital Tools
The analog world is where we live and it is what we truly need students to understand, but the digital world serves a critical role in the 21st Century and offers too many opportunities to be disregarded. In the 21st Century, real experiences and real problems go hand in hand with technology and, in fact, it is digital technology that allows us to move education more towards developing 21st Century skills and away from memorizing information. Because of the World Wide Web and high quality online resources, students no longer need to memorize as many facts to be successful in a career; they will always be able to find information on an as needed basis. Even primary care doctors, who we count on for our health and well being, carry devices with them and literally look things up while consulting patients. With information readily available to them, students can focus more on understanding concepts, explaining processes, authentic inquiry and problem solving. Throughout any real world project, students can collaborate with each other or with people beyond the walls of the school through tools like Skype and Google Docs even if the project assigned involves designing an analog solution to an analog problem. In addition, digital tools allow students to create a wide variety of unique projects, such as ThingLinks, Websites, and Adobe Spark Pages, that can either show their learning or provide a solution to a real problem. As long as the problem is real, the learning will be, too!
Learn to Recognize When an Analog Experience is Needed
Though I really wanted a paperless classroom when I taught in a 1:1 school, I observed that there were times when my students were more engaged and learned more when I had them hand write, at least for a part of the assignment. So even though I posted all of their assignments online, they were regularly asked to pull out their class notebooks and write, sketch, or brainstorm. There were, of course, other advantages to pen and paper assignments. I could easily walk around and give students immediate feedback face to face, I could quickly see how much they had completed and determine whether they might need more help, and there was no hope of copying and pasting. As a teacher, I was almost always paperless in my delivery, but I sometimes felt that an assignment would be more meaningful to my students if they worked on paper.
Use Digital Tools When They Work Faster and Better
A good example of this is any kind of formative assessment or review. There are a number of online tools available that are both free and easy to use, can be used as a group or individually, and that provide the student and teacher with immediate, high quality feedback. Quizlet and Quizlet Live, Kahoot, Quizizz, and Google Forms are a few options to explore. On the SAMR Model, use of these tools is probably at the Augmentation or Modification level, but the improvements in feedback and engagement that they offer over individual students taking a paper quiz or review has an immediate and significant impact on the classroom.
Always Ask What Students are Doing to Learn the Content
While I am guilty of using it myself from time to time, I really dislike the phrase “delivering content” when applied to teaching, because it implies that our kids can be educated by passively receiving information. A student who isn’t doing something, probably isn’t learning, so planning should be focused on what they will do to learn. No matter whether students are working in the digital or the analog realm, they need to interact with the content and the more authentic the work, the better. Students might be asked to teach a certain concept to the class, to present a possible solution to a problem, or come up with a way to illustrate their vocabulary instead of writing it out. Regardless, the focus should be on what the student will be doing to learn the content, not how it will be delivered. I would occasionally used high quality how-to videos in my art classes because all of my students could work on a concept at their own pace while I assisted them as needed. However, I would use Edpuzzle to break the video up either to communicate with the students about the video or ask questions. Answering the questions about the video and reading my comments helped keep the students focused, but Edpuzzle also recorded their progress and their responses, giving me evidence that they watched and understood the video. This, along with actually watching and assisting them as they applied the new techniques IRL, helped ensure that all students learned.
Let’s Continue This Conversation!
Tapping into the best of both the analog and the digital realm is essential to educating students in the 21st Century. What are your thoughts about how to do this successfully? Do you have examples that you feel would benefit others? Please share these with us in the comments section or @Edvergent on Twitter using #iTeachDigital.