Sunday, October 19, 2014

We can't just hand them computers...they might learn something!

I confess it...I went through a kick sometime in the past year or so where I made a bunch of snarky graphics at someecards. In the batch someplace was this one:

I had used it to illustrate my point for a blog post about the way so many 1:1 programs are structured--very similar to what Cuban (2013) argues--as if the use of educational technology is some kind of magic bullet that will suddenly cause amazing learning to happen.
Actually, as I reflect on this, I think the silly graphic here isn't telling the truth. I think we can expect that kids will learn things if we hand them a laptop connected to the Internet. The problem is, in formal educational settings, we generally want to control just what it is that they learn, and ensure that it is focused on some broader educational goals or standards or scope & sequence of prescribed learning outcomes.
And this seems to be just the opposite of what Mitra is arguing for. Mitra et al. (2005) emphasize this in their very hypothesis: "if given appropriate access and connectivity, groups of children can learn to operate and use computers with none or minimal intervention from adults" (p. 2). For me, the question remains "Is this good enough?"
I recognize my bias, as a veteran teacher, and now as a teacher educator: I am part of the entrenched system, and of course I am going to want to maintain the status quo, because my livelihood is tied to the current school structure. Here is the tension for me, then: I also see great value in learners being personally invested in their learning, in having a sense of self-direction and ownership in their learning. And, I think Mitra et al. are on to something in this regard. By placing computers literally in a hole-in-the-wall in a New Delhi slum, and watching what happened as the local kids interacted with these devices, they certainly do seem to provide evidence that kids will explore, and play, and interact, and learn by doing. They are personally involved and invested, and directing their own learning. It is outstanding to me to hear Mitra describing how a group of learners all work together--one of them operating the computer, while several others give advice and coaching, and a larger group looks on--and all of them learn in this situation. That sounds like Vygotsky's social constructivism at its finest!
But I still have questions. Many of my questions echo those raised by Arora (2010): "Is collaborative learning a natural or taught process? Is informal and public learning inherently more equitable and democratic? What kinds and depths of learning are achievable? What, if any, is the role of the teacher and/or mediators in this process? What are the benchmarks for success and failure, and how to these differ from those in conventional learning? And is this approach sustainable?" (p. 3). These kinds of questions are swirl together in my mind, particularly the ones about the role of the teacher and the comparison to conventional learning. I confess, I begin to wonder a bit about the role of the teacher in a fully learner-centered, learner-driven, collaboratively-organized learning environment. Mitra himself, in his 2007 TED Talk introducing the hole-in-the-wall project, quotes Arthur C. Clarke, saying, "A teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be." Which leaves me wondering...what is my value as a teacher? Do I provide something for my students that a computer cannot?

I return to my original question: Can I just hand a student a computer and expect them to learn something?
I think the answer is, yes. I can expect them to learn something. But to ensure learning that is comprehensive and cohesive, perhaps there still is a place for a dedicated, caring, professional teacher!
Arora, P. (2010). Hope‐in‐the‐wall? A digital promise for free learning. British Journal of Educational Technology41(5), 689-702.
Cuban, L. (2013, March 18). No end to magical thinking when it comes to high-tech schooling. Retrieved October 17, 2014, from
Mitra, S. (2007). Kids can teach themselves. Retrieved October 17, 2014 from
Mitra, S., Dangwal, R., Chatterjee, S., Jha, S., Bisht, R. S., & Kapur, P. (2005). Acquisition of computing literacy on shared public computers: Children and the“ hole in the wall.” Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 21(3), 407.

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