Saturday, March 23, 2013

Why 1:1 (Digital vs Analog Learning Tools)?

Analog or Digital?

I read an article recently about sound and audio. The article describes analog as being different than digital when making sound:
The clock example [explains] the differences between analog and digital audio. An analog clock is a continuously flowing representation of the time of day. The hands move smoothly around the clock providing an analogy of the time. A digital clock uses distinct or individual digits to describe the time – it is not smooth flowing, but is characterized by discrete numbers that tell the time.
Pencils, paper, books and binders are often referred to as analog tools of learning. They provide an analogy of the traditional learning process we've used for over 100 years—reading to gain knowledge, writing to express what you've learned, and storing all these learning artifacts in an organized place for later retrieval to review or submit for assessment. This learning management system has served us well for a very long time, and some think it is sufficient as a system of learning even in the 21st Century in spite of all the new tools we have at our disposal and all the hype about them. So, why should we spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on digital tools? A smooth-flowing pencil glides across paper and effortlessly produces words and pictures as an expression of the writer's or illustrator's creative thoughts and ideas.

A digital toolbox, on the other hand, usually involves a list of items topped by a personal computer. Laptop computers run on batteries, use an electronic system of storage and retrieval with an infrastructure made from groups of distinct numbers—1s and 0s. Stored knowledge is organized and retrieved in nanoseconds with a few keystrokes. Besides speed, why is this learning management system so much better than the time-honored tools of our past? These discrete numbers must be stored and retrieved in exactly the same form, or the on-screen results will only be a jumbled mess. Ask anyone whose computer refuses to boot up properly. A dead battery puts a digital learner out of business, because now he has only 0s—no 1s to fill the digital patterns and bring the laptop screen to life. There are many other digital downsides to contend with if you want to learn with digital tools. Why bother?

I've written elsewhere about the downside of either-or thinking about learning tools. There's plenty to like, and hate, about both digital and analog versions of a learning management system for students and teachers. If we're to represent and share what we know and want to teach, and students are to demonstrate what they've learned, then we are going to need some kind of system for doing this. Which one is best?

After working with kids in a 1:1 laptop environment for several school years, I've concluded that the best learning management system is the one that a kid will use consistently and efficiently to support his learning! Despite the myth that all kids these days love technology and want to learn with laptops, cell phones, iPods, iPads, and more, I've discovered more than a few who get tired of using their computer in school. Granted, many of these students are tired of school, period. I'm writing this in the Spring, when we're all just looking forward to Break. 

If I permit my students to play games on their netbooks, they're all in. But, if I ask them to open their netbook and continue their research on the in-progress research project, I get groans. Some will say that I'm not doing it correctly. We must let kids pick their own topics, explore what interests them, and then they'll explore to their heart's content. However, it's part of my job to introduce, to deliver or to help kids "discover" certain material as part of their time spent with me. I'm in the business of teaching, not making waves and trying to change an existing system. I'd rather spend my time finding ways to motivate kids to learn the prescribed material, and I'll leave the task of lobbying for change in curriculum and instruction to those who enjoy that sort of thing. So, now I'm back to my search for a learning management system that is used consistently and efficiently by most of the children in my class.

As a side note, written at the end of the school term in June, I'm reflecting on an end-of-year project my students participated in that gave them the option of working with whatever topic they wanted and sharing their topic with the class. Even when the topic was self-chosen, several students "dropped out" before they finished because they encountered obstacles and difficulties. It's a myth that kids will always work diligently when they are in control of what they're learning. At least at the end of the school year, some kids just run out of steam no matter what carrot you dangle in front of them!

I've taught many children who seem to learn more efficiently, and stick to it more consistently, if they are allowed to use primarily analog tools. Give them pencil and paper, a binder or folder to keep it all organized, and they're happy. They started with this learning management system in preschool, perfected it in kindergarten and first grade, and it's the system they know and love. They're comfortable in school, they like to organize and sort, they jump on their assignments and do them well. When it's time to turn assignments in, they're first in line. They walk in the door at 7:45 am, open their backpack, put their binder on their desk and find their "turn in" folder quickly. Out comes the half-dozen papers they worked on diligently starting yesterday during class when others were fooling around, and finished after dinner at home. They've developed habits that include putting these papers back into the "turn in" folder as soon as they finish, so they know where to find them the next day when it's time to deliver the goods. They believe in and follow the age-old adage "A place for everything, and everything in its place." Why would a teacher or a school system want to upset an applecart like this? It just works!

This May I listened to one student describe her preference for analog tools in a five-minute dissertation to the whole class. She spoke of the many benefits of analog tools, including the fact that you don't have to wait for them to boot up!

Making the Transition From Analog to Digital

When I teach fourth and fifth graders to use computers I use the analogy of pieces of paper, manila file folders, and a drawer to hold them all. I go back and forth between the "desktop" of my old wooden desk and the desktop of my Mac or Windows computer. I try to demonstrate that the things in our analog learning management system—paper, pencil, folder, binder, desk—correspond to similar things in our digital learning management system. Some kids sit through this lesson patiently for about 5 minutes, then quickly become bored because they already know this stuff. They grew up with the digital and when I pull out a manila file folder they frown at me as if to say "what's that thing?!"

Others, however, stick with me because they want to make the connections between the analog and the digital worlds. Their parents may not have given them early or easy access to a computer as they were growing up. Instead, they played outside with balls, bats, and bikes. Their TV time was limited. They talked to their family members instead of developing carpal tunnel syndrome with a mouse or computer game. Now, this teacher is demonstrating all sorts of gee-whiz toys and tools that they've certainly seen before—after all, Mom has one—but they've only had limited access to it. Many of these kids are organized users of an analog learning management system, they have been since preschool. Now they're anxious to learn a whole new system of learning management. The idea of using a laptop in school every day appeals to them. 

Once I show them where to click, where to look for this menu or that, they take to the new world of digital learning tools with ease because they're organized to begin with. They're eager to try new gee-whiz tools, and this motivates them to pay attention and do well with the new tools. Frankly, these analog-organized children are often easier to work with than the ones who seem to have grown up with a computer mouse in their hands. 

The mouse-wielding children suffer from what I call "clicker's disease". They're already familiar with the speed at which a computer normally runs. So, when their printout doesn't come popping out of the printer, they click again and again and again! It's hard to break them of this habit, which is why we usually don't print in our computer lab. Delayed gratification isn't one of the characteristics of these kids. They tend to jam up the print spooler with their multi-page documents—1 page of text and 30 blank pages caused by pressing and holding the Enter key while messing with the computer of the kid who sits next to them. So, their document is in the spooler 30 times, holding up everyone else's print jobs. Guess what the other children, waiting for their printout to magically appear too, are doing while waiting? You guessed it, they're clicking on Print, again and again. True story. We don't print anymore in a lab setting.

So, back to the question, why would an intelligent teacher or a school system choose this sort of chaos over the use of analog tools that don't jam and don't need batteries? After all, if it's not broke why fix it?

Here's why. As mentioned earlier, these new whiz-bang tools are fast. They're up-to-date. They let me look up an unknown word right within the online text I'm reading. There are so many digital tools available for free download or to purchase with minimal dollars. They all make the digital toolbox more complete. How many times have I had a kid walk up and ask me, "What does this word mean?" Previously, I would direct him to the "red book on the shelf over there"—the dictionary—or tell him the story of when I joined the Look It Up Club as a fourth grader and got all these cool doodads like a pen and a lapel pin just for joining. I was hooked on the idea of looking up words I didn't know and have been doing it ever since. Today, kids look at me like I'm from another world. Indeed, I am!

So, now I offer them a just in time mini-lesson instead on how to install Google Dictionary in their copy of the Google Chrome browser. As a Google Apps school, this is just one of the free digital tools we use on our netbooks to make our learning more efficient and fun! Now, I show a child he can double-click on a word in his browser window and like magic the definition pops up. One student recently asked me, "Can you click on a word within the definition, one that you don't know, and find the definition to that word, too?" 

"I don't know," I said. "Let's see... Wha'dya know, it works!" We all learned this together, live and in color.

I confess I'm a digital learner, but I still use analog tools. The picture above is from my home office desktop. I've used my ScanSnap scanner to reduce all the paper clutter in my office to digital files I can quickly find with a search of my Evernote account. I can do this from my Mac Mini, my Macbook Pro, my iPhone, iPad, netbook, or anywhere I can find a computer connected to the Internet. Everything is in PDF format and I run it all through OCR (optical character recognition) for easy capture, storage and retrieval. No more paper.

The same picture shows a pad of sticky notes, a mini legal pad and a pencil. I use all of these tools too, because sometimes it's just easier to grab a Bic Soft Feel Med. pen and jot down a quick note, phone number, or whatever. I may later scan the note into Evernote rather than re-writing the information on a keyboard. It's a toss-up as to which method is quicker for capturing a thought. Should I scan or type? Either way, I move analog to digital for storage and later retrieval. Why would I take the time to convert analog to digital? Here's why: I recently discovered that some of the printed receipts I've kept since 1998 to support my tax return have faded and are no longer legible. That doesn't happen with a digital representation of the same information! In addition, I can type "$1,298.48" into Evernote and find proof of purchase within seconds. I can't do that with a paper-based (and possibly faded) document.

So, analog or digital for students in the classroom? I say use both. Use them to their maximum advantage. For me, learning how to do that is a lifelong process. In my classroom I model a willingness to change how I learn, and how I manage my learning. When the old ways aren't as efficient or effective as the new ways that pop up every day, I try to use the new ways. I'll have more to say about making the transition from analog to digital later in this series.