Left To Their Own Devices

(To note: When I initially came up with the title for this post, I thought I was pretty clever. Then I did a Google search and found out that several other people had already used it to headline their own posts and articles. Original or not, I’m keeping it.)

A year ago I wrote and received a grant to purchase two iPad 2s. I wanted to test this technology in school and find out if they would help affect student achievement. My hypothesis: Handing iPads to students would increase engagement and improve learning.

Round 1 – Fall 2011

I was right on one of the two predicted outcomes. The two students I initially worked with in the fall were enamored with this new technology. However, the device alone did necessarily increase their achievement. Even though I preinstalled engaging academic apps such as WordWit, Solar Walk and Rocket Math on the devices, they regularly bypassed these in favor of searching for funny videos on YouTube and playing Angry Birds.

I tried not to jump in and direct their learning initially. These kids are digital natives, I thought. Who am I to interfere with their natural ability to create digital content independently? Pretty soon they will be teaching me how to use these technology tools.

But that didn’t happen. They just wanted to keep playing Angry Birds (After a while I deleted this app from the iPads). I am not against these games, but I failed to see the relevance to school. To try and guide their learning a little bit more, I found out what they were interested in and then developed some potentially engaging reading and writing projects. When I introduced the activities, I could almost see the excitement draining from their faces. Not to say they weren’t good about doing what I asked of them, which included writing a comparative essay about a topic of their choice and recording a book talk to share with the peers. At the same time, we all knew who was in charge of their learning, and it wasn’t them.

Round 2 – Spring 2012

I submitted my mid-year report to the grant providers with some thoughtful reflections and a renewed sense of purpose. I now believed that technology alone would not necessarily lead to high levels of learning itself without some form of framework in which to learn. I decided to recruit two new students, both 5th graders again, with the purpose of using Web 2.0 tools on the iPad to increase reading engagement. I was now allowing the curriculum and student interests to drive the learning instead of the technology.

I observed that when I initially kept the students limited to a few apps in the beginning, they tended to dig a little deeper into the components of each tool. For example, they used Edmodo to post interesting comments about what they were reading, respond to an interesting part of their story, ask each other questions, or just say “Hi!”. It helped that I participated with them, sharing my own thoughts about books I enjoyed. From there the students took off. Other apps were discovered and explored responsibly. They posted a profile picture on their own with little instruction.  Both were able to submit assignments with only the briefest of explanation. They even participated from home. Progress!

Round 3 – The Next Steps

Today I had a conversation with two administrative colleagues about implementing iPads into every classroom, possibly as soon as February. Teachers have received similar training in using these devices. We are being strategic about phasing this technology into our instruction. Our purpose is still to enhance learning and increase student engagement, but within the context of effective pedagogy.

We arrived at this point by trial and error. There isn’t a lot out there in terms of research and evidence to support using these tools, other than our own experiences and professional judgments. I am happy that we aren’t just throwing technology at students without lots of consideration about why we are implementing it in the first place. The only mistake I think we could make now is not continuing to pursue these innovative and exciting methods for learning. Will my thinking change even more as I continue to work with teachers and students on leveraging this technology? I hope so. I still have a lot to learn.


Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District (http://mineralpointschools.org/). Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

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