Laptops in class?

A teaching assistant that just started with me told me she was so glad to know that there are parents who were open to the idea of their children using the laptop as a part of their learning and life. Why was she glad? Because in her own experience there were more parents who were trying to keep their children away from technology and the internet than there are those who embraced it.

I guess I somewhere along the way I must’ve been pretty convincing about the need to be intimately acquainted with technology.  Gone were the days when owning a laptop is some kind of status symbol. To be able to use a computer and use it decently is the basis of being able to CREATE using technology by the time these young people reach working age. The basic equation is you need to get at least 5,000 hours in before you become comfortably familiar and functioning within a certain domain of knowledge and 10,000 hours to be able to perform well at it.

If young people spent the majority of their formative years treating technology and computers the way they were  taught to treat sex (i.e taught nothing useful until it’s too late), how fast are they going to work productively with and CREATE using the technologies that are popping up every 6 months? Technology, like the idea of sex, is Sexy. It’s desirable – simply because everywhere young people look, they are being technologized. If you’re going to talk about the amount of sexual messages young people are being exposed to or sexualized towards, think about the amount of technology messages young people are being exposed to and the social and economic consequences of feeling inadequately informed about the subject.

We know what happens when young people aren’t taught what sex is really about – they grow up to be adults who are irresponsible when it comes to it and unable to derive true meaning from it.  Would making technology and the Internet/social media/gaming a taboo to young people create the same result?

Speaking of the 5,000 basic hours theory, had I not familiarized myself enough with basic Internet functions then, would I, as an educator today, be able to understand the shifts that technology can bring to learning? If I had not taught enough hours, could I understand the dynamics of self-paced learning, the role of experience and personality in learning, what makes learners tick or not tick –  could I understand the real implications of how technology can transform learning when all those things are considered? Would I be able to connect the dots when I read all these updates about learning tech or when I sit through webinars 12 hours ahead half way across the world? Would I be able to understand the implication of what it means if Cisco is dipping its thumb in the learning pie or Microsoft hires people to find out how much user experience / interface matters in order to interest and engage a user? Would I be weaving a PLN and spending time getting good at pruning it before the information tidal wave becomes too much to make sense of? And I’m just talking about my area of interest – education with technology. I’m not talking about Education and Schooling as a whole nor Technology as a whole; I’m just focussed on the bits where the two really meet.

If I had not spent the last 15 years or so acquainting with whatever the Internet throws out at the Commons (I’m no programmer or geek) would I be shopping around for the right LMS platform, asking the right questions about compatibility and security, browsing for the right balance in picking a content authoring tool? Would I be able to find software that was produced for commercial purpose to be integrated functionally as a learning aid? Would I be able to make the connections had I not had my hours in?

The answer is of course – NO! So the same goes that young people who do not  familiarize themselves with technology at its most basic function would not be able to make up those hours to go on in their later life to make connections, problem solve and create with technology. They would not have LEVERAGE of any sort. For instance, if they had to wait until they were out of college to start learning the ethics of being part of a newly transparent “6-pixels of separation”world, that’s  way too late. Imagine being a flamer at age 25, thinking you’re really THAT anonymous. Imagine using a disqus profile and then lazily logging in automatically onto the various sites with it installed – if you contradict yourself or if you you’re spammer, you’d just have jeopardized your own integrity.

The Internet is no longer a place where shady strangers hide behind a screen – the Internet has evolved into a place which forces you to be naked and transparent, whether you like it or not.  The Internet is now a place that smokes out the sneakiest or force them to hide forever in anonymity. The Internet is now a place which rewards effort, integrity and passion.

The way we’re going to approach technology for learning is not going to be the way we’ve been approaching learning for schooling. I think it’s time we make a distinction between education, learning and schooling. Education is about being able to apply ourselves meaningfully, to fulfill our purpose and to enhance the community we live in. Learning is the unique process each individual undergoes in pursuit of their education while schooling is simply the assembly-line process of classifying workers and labeling them for Industrial Consumption.

Using laptops in class will not and should not be limited to “how many structured lessons they completed” online or using a software. Using laptops in class is about familiarizing them with the technology and letting them discover what can and can’t (or shouldn’t) be done with technology, what can be solved and created with technology. Treating laptops in the class as merely a tool to duplicate schooling (transfer the same boring stuff onto flash pages and pdf files, making some lame interactive quizzes, have some animated talking heads, making an extra copy of records on the platform while filing away the hardcopy in metal cabinets) is severely underestimating the potential of technology in learning. And we know what happens when people use technology incorrectly : they will tell you there were right that technology is all fluff and fancy and no function. Simply because they were not adept at using it.

So what do I teach with laptops in class? Firstly, for those new to this blog, I am a private entity, which gives me the complete freedom to actualize all the things working in a school would not have allowed me to do. – I keep to my principle of organic learning – to teach as what they need to learn. For complete newbies, I teach them how to check for an internet connection, to know the difference between wifi and using a LAN cable, to troubleshoot when internet connection fails (which, if you’re living in Malaysia, is more than half the time.) I teach them what a browser is and all its functions, answer their questions when they ask me what’s this and what’s that – why this works or why that doesn’t. Something like knowing how to turn on the wifi/bluetooth switch can come in pretty handy if you don’t know why you can’t connect to the Net!

They’ve learned how to set up an email account on their own, the need to remember passwords, how to retrieve it if need be, what a security question is, etc. All this requires a good amount of reading new words for students whose first language is not English. And in last week’s lesson, they’ve found the joys of sending each other messages around class – a good opportunity for me to teach them manners and the etiquette of sending electronic messages. For instance, one boy decided to be cheeky and sent a rather rude message to his friends – the perfect opportunity to teach them how others actually perceive them even when we don’t imagine their reactions because we don’t see them face to face.

My objective of using technology in the classroom is not so much about me wanting to stay ahead of my competition – there is none. Not because I’m that good but because I live on a tiny, backward island. My objective is so these kids become so comfortable with using technology responsibly that by the time they are college going kids, they can keep up with their peers from all around the world who are ready to program, create, problem solve with any given assignment. Teaching ESL is a legitimate way of earning a living but as an educator I know that changes in the world will affect ESL learners – having a proficiency in English and being trilingual, those alone are no longer an advantage when China, India and other countries  will have hundreds of millions of proficient English speakers in 10 years’ time.  Being able to communicate and have higher order thinking in English will become a given in 10 years’ time.  Then what next to leverage?

Of course, technology will solve most of the problems lower-thinking people cannot cope with. I’m sure I will hear arguments that technology will do most of the tedious, laborious work and the rest of us can just chill out and be paid to stay at home to reduce traffic and to conserve energy. So it doesn’t matter if we can’t keep up; Revolutionary Wealth will create enough surplus to sustain half the human population who are unable to contribute in a meaningful way.

But the end in mind of being a human is not to stop working, it is to be free to create.

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