Friday, February 5, 2016

Expectations for Student Device Use in Classrooms

I was recently engaged in a conversation with other educators of my PLN about a controversial topic that continues to surface in education. With the influx of devices for student learning, there is often controversy and differences of opinions around use, restrictions, and requirements for students. The conversation I engaged in was surprisingly rich and provided a variety of different view points. As a result, I seized the opportunity to reflect on my own philosophy and thoughts about the topic. The following are not suggestions nor my agenda in regards to student device usage but rather, the ways in which I've thought about and implemented practices with students for many years.

I've been able to find success in a wide variety of environments using this philosophy and some of the strategies have been designed with the help of my students. I've always seen the inclusion of student voice and opinion as a necessary component to making any "rules" or expectations that were present in the classroom. This strategy has helped me achieve high levels of success with even what some educators would term "the most difficult students". I've always seen it quite differently but that is a conversation for another time.

In thinking about rules and expectations for student device use in classrooms, I think it's imperative that educators consider first and foremost their audience: the students. If students and their best interests are at the foundation of any decision we make as educators, it can be very difficult to travel down the wrong path. Students don't always know what is best for them in the long run but they do know what they are passionate about and what inspires learning. Inspired learning leads to engaged learning and as a result, can greatly reduce behavioral or defiance issues in any classroom.

When student devices were first introduced into my classroom many years ago as a beginning educator, I started out asking students what consequences should be in place if they were not using them for learning purposes. This gave me an opportunity to teach students about the power of technology and to learn their thoughts about what would work best for them. After many discussions, polls, and contemplating, I settled on three simple consequences:

  1. First offense = loss of technology privileges for 24 hours
  2. Second offense = loss of technology privileges for 1 week
  3. Third offense = loss of technology privileges until a parent-student-teacher conference is held to assess the situation and determine next steps.  

Before I speak about the success of this structure I think it's important to identify the few rules that were in place in my classroom about technology use. Rule number one was respect of the technology and other people. This allowed my students the power to keep each other accountable so all devices were in great working order at all times. It also gave students the power to keep each other accountable and think about their online presence. We had many discussions about online safety and cyber-bullying based on this expectation. I encourage all educators to have such conversations up front with their students prior to integrating technology into their classrooms.  

Rule number 2 stated that the technology was to be used only for learning purposes. My students and I had many conversations about what learning with technology looked like and how it differed from entertainment. We seemed to agree nearly every year that entertainment could be utilized outside school hours and there would be sufficient time for that. We also agreed that learning can be fun and may even be entertaining. This allowed us to use platforms such as video, music, YouTube, Google, and more in our learning experiences.  

The last and final rule stated that we would all keep each other accountable for learning with technology. This included myself as the teacher. I'm an avid online shopper and my students did a nice job helping me set boundaries about when it would be appropriate during school hours (i.e. purchasing classroom/project materials) and when I should wait until I was in a more private setting. I found students to be incredibly mature in holding each other and myself to high standards.  

Now that we understand the rules we can discuss the consequence structure. If a student was found to be violating the rules, the consequence structure was enforced, immediately. I very rarely found myself even needing the structure with the exception of times such as the beginning of the year or prior to a long holiday break. I also very rarely found a student who made it past the first or even second offense stages. Most students don't want to sit in a classroom and work on paper when their peers are engaged in learning experiences with technology. I had only a handful of students who made it to the third offense and found the conferences to be the nail in the coffin. Once we were able to discuss the underlying issues and determine a plan, any student who had 3 offenses seemed to become an expert in using technology responsibly. It should be noted here that the conferences opened the door to various differentiation around the rules and expectations for students who needed alternative structures.  I was always happy to make adjustments as long as they were in the best interests of the students. From here forward, we'll refer to such adjustments as "techquity".  

I don't believe that all educators have the same levels of success with student devices as I've had over the years but I also don't believe that all educators are as willing to "let go" as much I am. As a student I often struggled with authority and found myself in the midst of a consequential state. As an educator, my number one goal is to prevent any student from having the same difficult experiences in school that I had. I knew as a student if I was treated respectfully and intelligently, I would act respectfully and intelligently, however, the former wasn't always the case. I really just wanted to be treated like a responsible and mature human being and unfortunately, there were many times I was told to do something because there was an adult who said so.  As an educator, I believe that wherever we set the bar for students, they will always rise to that level and we should only ask students to do something if it is in their best interests, not ours. 

With my students, I loved starting out the year with my classroom and learning expectations on extremely high levels. They always seemed to struggle at first but eventually rose to the occasion and often times exceeded my expectations. I believe this was primarily due to my expectations which helped them realize they were fully capable of being responsible, mature human beings and great learners. As I pushed them to learn on higher levels and solve greater problems without holding their hands, the students became more engaged and self-directed. Once technology was introduced, it was like a rocket launch because they now had access to a world of resources and knowledge at their fingertips. This empowerment provided my students endless opportunities to engage in their deepest passions and dreams and ultimately share them with a larger audience other than me as their teacher.
As student devices in classrooms continues to be the norm for schools throughout the country, I think it is important for us as educators to become deeply introspective.  If we think about how we as individuals want to be treated, especially with regards to technology, and we treat others in that way, we can experience relationships and learning on levels we never imagined were possible.  It's also imperative that we remember not every student succeeds in the same way.  Some will need more of us and some less, but, with regular "techquitable" practices we can provide environments where students will thrive and leave us as educators in a state of awe with their abilities.  

I spent nearly fifteen years teaching middle and high school students mathematics and social studies and what I've seen stems from experience. I'm now working in a role coaching teachers and I continue to see the very same results with the teachers I support. The district I currently work in has a Title I rate over 80%, a second language learner rate over 40%, and represents over 180 different countries.  I'm only stating this because I know there will be skeptics who claim these strategies only work with certain student populations.  Be that as it may, I've even used these strategies when teaching students in a third world country.  

As the shifts of education continue to involve more focus on 21st century skills and technology becomes a regular tool in most classrooms, I think it is vital we as educators reflect on our practices with urgency. We are preparing students for a world that is very different from the world we grew up in as well as the one we live in now. Students are well aware of this and seeking to rise to the occasion. If we don't give them opportunities to do just that, they will continue to defy our rules, expectations, and requests. On the other hand, if we engage with our students as co-learners and seekers of passions & dreams, we will experience a softness in our students unlike any we've seen before. Our students have the potential and capabilities to challenge us in ways we never expected and it could even help us to learn about things we never thought possible.    

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