July 25, 2013

How Computers Can Impede Spaces of Learning

Categories: Critical Perspectives, Educational Practice
students sitting behind computer in classroom with teacher

As a technophile, I’ll be the first to admit it: sometimes computers get in the way of learning.

Hopefully that can be something we all agree on, right?

I’ve mentioned before that one of the main composition courses I taught last year was held in our school’s computer lab. And while my class took advantage of writing and engaging using the computers, spatially they made learning a challenge. As much as I appreciated the convenience of having all of my students logged into the same Google Docs simultaneously for live editing and commenting, or to be able to quickly see updates on our TodaysMeet chatroom, I also felt frustrated by the limitations of the classroom space. By default, students were positioned with their backs to each other. The oval-shaped room was lined with computers and students. Assuming the intended use of the room, students filed into the room and silo-ed their attention to the screens in front of them.

That didn’t work for me. Much of that class was one where students turned their chairs around and sat in the same circle, now facing one another. Of course, note-taking and accessing any information was difficult, as the computers were now directly behind students, as was any desk space afforded by the room’s layout.

This isn’t unique to the university. Two years ago, I spent a year collecting qualitative field notes in a high school computer science classroom in Los Angeles. That time, the rows of desktop computers were positioned, facing forward so that the teacher commanded the front of the room, much like a “traditional” classroom setup. What this meant, however, was that students could duck behind their computers safely from the visage of the watchful instructor. The machines intended for learning impeded teacher to student interactions and also made group collaboration with anyone but a single neighbor a difficult enterprise.

So What?

I’m a big fan of powerful uses of technology to better facilitate the learning that can happen in schools. I think the flipped-classroom model generally makes sense. If students are spending significant amounts of money on tuition, I am confident that they can access lecture-like material at their leisure and that we can use classroom time to interact, discuss, and fuel creative thought. Even in writing-heavy courses like the one I taught, learning, feedback and engagement is going to happen when students are looking more at each other and less at screens.

Is this really something we even need to be talking about in 2013? We’ve got one-to-one laptop and iPad initiatives rolling out across the country. Students are getting to access computers and phones in classrooms all the time. Hasn’t the era of the computer lab ended? I don’t think so.

It’s not enough to give these devices to students and teachers and expect classroom practice to shift. The preservice teachers I work with are using technology in ways that are familiar to me. Some of the obvious examples: they not-so-discretely text in class and they occasionally get wrapped up in Facebook or online chats with friends when the class is engaged in a class wide discussion. These examples are akin to what I’ve seen in my high school experience. And if these are the students who are going to be our future teachers soon, do we really expect radical shifts in how they treat and adapt technology in schools?

I’ve seen some amazing in-service professional development regarding the implementation of 1:1 programs. I want that to be clear; there are a lot of places getting it right. However, it is necessary that we temper expectations about what computers can do when it comes to learning in schools.

Recently, Thomas Philip and I discussed the challenges with assuming technology will simply lead the way for improved teaching in the 21st century. And while our article focuses on a framework to consider implementation of technology in schools, I’m also interested in how technology can help us challenge the rooms in which we teach.

One of the biggest challenges I think classroom learning faces is equitable use of space. Even looking at the stereotypical depictions of tech start-ups as open, modular spaces with free snacks and Ping Pong tables it’s implied in popular media (like the rather dismal Google infomercial The Internship) that staring at screens is less the pathway toward innovative success than collaborating and exploring community spaces.

Over the month of June, my colleague, Cindy O’Donnell-Allen and I spent three weeks teaching a fourth grade class in Fort Collins, CO. The experience was exciting and challenging. As someone who’s gotten used to teaching afternoon classes, a classroom full of eager, boisterous students rearing to go much earlier than I was a powerful reminder of the trying expectations of teachers today.

Our three week class focused on writing as making (a theme that is being explored throughout this month’s Connected Learning TV webinars. We attempted to transform the in-school computer lab into the kind of room that encourages out-of-school learning in makerspaces across the country. Our biggest challenge wasn’t fueling excitement for lathering healthy gobs of Mod Podge to furniture or constructing a cardboard city. Instead, our challenge was the ways the physical computers got in the way. Students naturally sat at the desk stations – their backs to each other (just like my college students). They were glued to the web-based computer games that they stole minutes of class time playing during the academic year. While we used a lot of the students’ innate expertise as digital scholars, we also found we needed to limit computer time to ensure students collaborated, cut, glued, discussed, and transformed our classroom space together. It took a lot of work to eschew traditional computer laboratory practices instilled by years of classroom experience and deliberate design. It was a reminder that we have a lot of work to do in our schools still.

Banner image credit: J. Paxon Reyes http://www.flickr.com/photos/jpaxonreyes/6238548941/