The Curation of Learning

It will probably not come as any surprise that my Twitter timeline gets quite full of links to blog posts about iPads, Androids and tablets generally.

They usually have one of two takes on the issue. Either they’re the only game in town and if you haven’t got three of each type in your classroom (plus Apple TV, of course) then you are clearly a rubbish teacher who hates kids and would rather have been alive during the Reformation; or they take the view that the very existence of tablets (and for that matter, any technology more advanced than the quill) is a threat to the human genome and needs to be eradicated from the universe, and by the way is too late to try and get Voyager 1 & 2 back and smash their onboard computers as well? The former often come with a boxed-set of Sir Ken Robinson videos. The latter, of course, with a clippings file from old Daily Mail education sections.

The trouble is, all these articles are tending* to miss the point. Most of the posts (and there are a few exceptions) are geared towards the idea that a tablet is a replacement for an existing piece of technology. Usually the laptop, but sometimes the desktop. This is wrong on the technological as well as the pedagogical level.

Firstly the technological. This is the easy one. A tablet isn’t a laptop. A laptop has its own set of affordances which are different to those of a tablet. There are clear overlaps. There are things that a laptop can do that a tablet can completely replicate. There are things that a tablets can do partly and well enough, and the there are things that a tablet cannot do at all (there are not so many of these and the ones that do usually revolve around the use of high-end software that is not used that often anyway – but I digress). And vice-versa of course (just to keep the tablet-heads with me a while longer). But still, a tablet is not a laptop. It cannot replace a laptop for all purposes. For example, I have written blog posts on my tablet, but this I’m writing on the laptop because its easier. Long pieces of text are easier to write using a proper keyboard. I wouldn’t code on a tablet because, well, because that would just be stupid.

Before we get to the pedagogic reasons there is a bit in the middle where the technological and the pedagogical are linked. Question. Why do we use laptops (and desktops) in schools? Let me tell you what the answer isn’t. It isn’t because one day some brilliant teacher sat down and thought about what would be the perfect tool to assist with student learning and my teaching and then designed the laptop. No. The reason is more mundane than that. It’s because it was all that there was. We have an imperfect understanding of the idea that the use of technology improves learning and so we grabbed at the best the technology world could give (sorry, I mean sell) us at the time. There was an imperative to improve technological awareness because of the way that technology was changing the workplace** and the world generally. This then got morphed into “these machines must be able to help learning” and we ended up where we ended up.

Frankly, laptops are not great tools for the learning. They get between people. And as soon as you get an object between people you reduce the learning. They make people focus on the machine and what it is doing rather than what the person is doing. They don’t always play nicely. And as schools we keep being lumbered with applications which were designed and built for adults to use in the workplace which then have to be repurposed into learning tools. Too often what happens is that the learning gets repurposed into the tool. The tail wags the dog. Which confuses the hell out the dog.

Confused Dog
Confused Dog

There are some aspects of the above rant which tablets overcome (but before you stop reading, this is not going to say thats why they are great, or indeed that they are necessarily great at all). They get between people less. Whist the main part of this is ergonomic, that is there is less of a physical barrier, it is also something to do with the idea of touch. This creates a more human experience which more than one person can join in with. Secondly it is a little about the software. It is less, shall we say, monolithically industrial in its provenance.

It’s much more about what individuals do with a device than about what an organisation wants you to do with a device. This is one of the issues for schools who have become rather too addicted with the perceived need to control devices and how they are used. Now I know that sentence could easily be parleyed into a Daily Mail clipping along the lines of “Trendy edu-geek wants internet porn free-for-all for your kids” but I’m sure the better mannered amongst you know exactly what I mean. Tablets are harder to control in the way that schools have become used to controlling devices. Every attempt to impose layers control reduces the capability of the devices (and this includes laptops as well) and lessens their impact.

But the laptop vs tablet argument misses the point. The pluses and minuses of each device are not what will help students in their learning. The issue is not about what apps or applications each device has or hasn’t got. The key is how technology will be used and what it will be used for, that is, the pedagogical arguments for it. Up to now, the predominant use of technology in schools has been for discrete learning activities. A spreadsheet here, a powerpoint there, a quick bit of AutoCAD behind the bike sheds. There is no doubt that where these discrete activities were well planned and implemented they enhanced learning. But they happened too infrequently. And inconsistently. In the future (and I mean now really for some students in some schools), technology will be used very, very differently.

Some of the most important affordances of modern information technology are the organising and sharing of information. These also happen to be two of the most important facets of a students school life.

In my experience the best students academically are often the most organised. The less academic are often chaotic in their ability to organise their learning. This may be correlation or causation or a bit of both. But the link definitely exists. I am fully conversant with all the social and other reasons for this. I have always found that providing the more chaotic with ways of organising their learning brings dividends across all their subjects.

Learning is about sharing. Clearly the majority of this sharing occurs face-to-face, teacher to learner. But this has to be backed up by other means of information sharing. Teacher to student. Student to student. Student at school to student at home. Teacher to parent. Student to parent. Education requires a lot of information to be passed from one person to another in an organised way. And to be recalled at a later date. I call this the curation of learning. I did it with exercise books. My parents did it with paper. My great-grandparents had to rely on what they could hold in their heads. Our children have technology to help them organise and share all this information.

For me, the benefit of technology in school is not the discrete activities, its about the ability to curate the information overload that students are presented with. Its an enabling layer. And its not about the device, its about the data. The idea of one device is history. Its about the phone, the tablets, the laptop, the desktop, the games console and, yes, its about the Apple TV. Because all these devices have learning affordances. The key to properly enabling student learning comes back to how they curate all the information that these devices create for them.

But this is not to say we have to change everything and start teaching this stuff at a technical level. What it means is we have to provide the infrastructure (wireless, filtering etc), we have to explain and model why good curation is important and then we have to get the hell out of the way. Because curation in this sense is personal. Each student will do it their own way. Yes, we can help where required, but you can’t impose rigid structures. No “everyone will use this form of tagging in this way”, or “everyone will have these folders in their Dropbox”. And, whilst we’re at it, maybe even no “everyone will have Dropbox”.

My own personal mix is iPad, Macbook Air, Dell laptop, Android Phone, Dropbox, Google Docs, Evernote, iAnnotate, paper and pen (pages photographed by phone and uploaded to Evernote). That works for me. I can find everything I want. I’m sure there might be a more efficient way. But I like the way it works for me. Everyone can and will have their own personal way.

So stop arguing about which device helps/hinders learning most. Teachers help learning most and technology can be used to help students curate that learning better. And believe me. They are far better at working out how to make it help them than most of you will ever be.

* In my humble opinion

** There are still many in schools who have yet to fully understand the way that technology has completely and irrevocably changed the workplace