After billions of dollars spent, the impact on student achievement of computer use in K12 has been essentially zero. The reason is: The same textbooks, the same curriculum and the same pedagogy continue to be used, but computers have been substituted for pencil and paper. Teachers have had their students use computers to search for information instead of having them go to their school library. Direct instruction is the technical term for this teacher-centric pedagogical style, but we refer to it as "I teach."
Don't Repeat the Past
Fast-forward 10 years. Now schools are thinking about instituting BYOD—bring your own device. They essentially are swapping school-bought computers for parent-bought computers (laptops, netbooks, smartphones and, unfortunately, even "feature phones," those first generation cell phones with only a standard dial pad). Unless the "I teach" curriculum, pedagogy and classroom culture change, we can predict the outcome of BYOD, parent-bought computers will be the same as what happened with school-bought computers: no impact. A cynic might say that at least the schools didn't have to buy the computers! Ouch.
Computers Enable "We Learn"
This time, it can be different. After 30 years, we have learned the key to benefiting from computers. Indeed, the key functionalities facilitated by the computer addresses the key shortcoming of the "I teach" pedagogy. In "I teach," the teacher stands between the students and the content and skills the students need to know. While "I teach" is the established norm, increasingly we recognize that this form of instruction can, in effect, become a barrier to learning for many students. But in the "We learn" pedagogy, the teacher no longer delivers information nor mediates student access. Instead, via BYOD, each student has direct access to the entire world's information, to events, to places, to organizations, to people—in particular, to fellow students. With their computers, students can manipulate whatever they access and can create new content that they can contribute to the world's information base. In a "We learn" classroom, as the teacher mentors, guides and tutors the students, the teacher, along with the students, learns content, instructional strategies and 21st-century skills.
BYOD: You Get What You Pay For
Is BYOD necessary for a "We learn" pedagogy? Of course not. Remarkable teachers have always been able to do remarkable things with their students.
But BYOD enabling a one-to-one student-to-computer ratio makes it much easier for teachers and students to practice a "We learn" pedagogy. That's the point! When we use the functionalities that technology affords wisely and effectively, we can reap remarkable benefits from the technology. While these are still early days, the evidence is that "We learn" classrooms exhibit increased student achievement. Not only do students learn the key 21st-century skills of collaboration and self-directed learning, but they also ace standardized tests that focus primarily on content. "We learn" is a win-win.
While schools will save money with BYOD by not buying so many computers, they still will face serious challenges in using BYOD to realize "We learn." The first challenge demands leadership: Since teachers teach the way they were taught, and since teachers learned via "I teach," there will be significant resistance to moving to "We learn." If you make the move optional, you know what will happen. Second, teachers will need curriculum to support "We learn," and now there is a dearth of commercially available "We learn" resources. Thus, district funds will need to be directed toward creating those materials. Third, it is crucial that all students have at least a smartphone, even if the school has to provide some of them. Do not allow Internet-less feature phones. They will drag the rest of the class down to the lowest level of common functionality, which is insufficient texting.
BYOD is inevitable. "We learn" takes leadership.
Visit Cathleen and Elliot's Going Mobile blog.
Cathleen Norris is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas and a past ISTE president. Elliot Soloway is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan and chair of ISTE's Special Interest Group on Mobile Learning (SIGML).