Maybe ‘What do you want your students to do?’ is the wrong question


Laptops. iPads (or other tablet devices). Chromebooks. Maybe even netbooks or ultrabooks… As more schools and districts move toward 1:1 computing, one of the most common questions is ‘What device should we get for our students?’ The typical response is another question: ‘Well, what do you want your students to do?’ I wonder, though, if that’s the wrong question…

Here’s a short list of what most educators want their students to be able to do with a computing device:

  • Access information on the Web
  • Make and store files
  • Stay organized
  • Read electronic books, textbooks, magazines, newspapers, etc.
  • Utilize office productivity tools (word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, etc.)
  • Use course management systems (Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas, etc.)
  • Communicate, connect, and share (email, blogs, Twitter, Edmodo, videoconferencing, etc.)
  • Look at and listen to multimedia (music, podcasts, videos, photos, screencasts, etc.)
  • Create and edit multimedia
  • Curate learning resources
  • Play learning games and engage in simulations
  • Participate in online courses
  • Use a variety of other online tools, services, social media, and cloud-based environments
  • And, perhaps, customize their learning experience with apps

I would venture to say that this brief list covers 95% or so of what educators want students to do. Guess what? All of the devices in the first paragraph let students do these. 

Now, granted, some specialized software programs might be needed for particular students and/or purposes. A few high-end laptops or desktops floating around – or perhaps a specialized computer and/or maker lab – probably will suffice in most instances. Mainstream purchasing decisions likely won’t hinge on the exceptions anyway. As more tools move to the cloud – and as the basic capabilities of computing devices overlap substantially – considerations like price and form factor (e.g., tablet v. having a keyboard; do you need a forward-facing camera?) rise closer to the fore. Some mass configuration/setup issues also may be worth considering.

Since numerous devices now satisfy the demands listed above, we’re making decisions at the margins, not the core. In this kind of environment, perhaps the better question when considering what to purchase is ‘If we buy this device for students, what will they NOT be able to do that we and they will wish they could?‘ 

Any thoughts on this?

P.S. Notice that I didn’t include here decision-making factors based on adults’ needs to monitor, filter, lock down, and/or control. That was on purpose. If those are your primary concern instead of student-focused factors, good luck with your initiative. You’re going to need it.

Image credit: Untitled

[cross-posted at Education Recoded]

12 Responses to “Maybe ‘What do you want your students to do?’ is the wrong question”

  1. I literally just got home from a district technology meeting where we basically went over this exactly. I was just happy that it wasn’t “what tool should we buy”. We made basically the same list you have before we started talking about devices.

  2. And you’re just hit my #1 knock on Apple products. It doesn’t matter how nicely they do the things that they do, it’s what they won’t let you do (load your own software, not go through the Apple store, etc.)

  3. Let me refine the question: “What will the device not do with the same ease and range (range of options, not geography) that other devices will allow?” If we ask that question, the iPad comes out at a distinct disadvantage, especially on many creative tasks.

  4. I think this is an excellent question, but I think also that we should be careful about putting too much weight behind the inevitable answers. Many answers to this question will be things that we have traditionally asked students to do with computers that they no longer NEED to do at all. Make PowerPoints, for example or touch-type at 60 wpm. Holding on to outdated tasks can prevent us from spending the time letting students engage with more meaningful tasks like cultivating and connecting with their own personal learning network, or quickly finding facts they need. Yes, a portable tablet, like the iPad, can’t do some things a laptop can, but in some cases, that’s a good thing.

    • In what world do students not need to type or present information? Tablets are excellent for content consumption, but generally poor for content creation.

      Another problem with tablets (especially the port-lacking Apple products) is that they are not able to interface with probes for data collection in Science and Mathematics classes, and that you need to purchase additional hardware to interface with projectors.

  5. Working in a school that is going 1:1 with iPads, it would have been wonderful if they would have asked themselves either question in the planning process. From my perspective (I wasn’t here for the planning), they didn’t ask any questions and just decided on iPads 🙁

  6. Is anyone going to “keyboard” in their math homework, or does the interface need to work more like paper?

    Which one would you rather read a book on?

    As a teacher, will I be able to monitor what is on the device when I walk around the room?

    Can you actually use the camera for things other than Skype? A useable camera is good for many classes from Art to Physics.

    The laptop style device has some drawbacks. My list looks easier on a tablet.

    Unless we are going past 1:1 and on to 2:1 and get everyone hooked-up with multiple devices. A keyboard for all of your writing work and something else that works for the rest of the curriculum seems a little expensive.

    That said, I do love the ports on my laptop. When I am at work on my laptop, I have two USB devices, an ethernet cable in use, a video out to the IWB, an audio line out to an amplifier and an audio mixer into the Firewire 800 port. This is a busy computer.

    There are going to be compromises in a 1:1. Make sure you look at a kid’s total day. There is a tool for every job and I have found that most of the time there is exactly one right tool for the job. Think Swiss Army knife… no one really wants to use the scissors on one unless they have to, but when it is your only choice…

    I would hope the plan is to get the kid a tool that works with most of his or her day (Swiss Army Knife) and provide access to the right tools as necessary and possible.

    Good luck!

  7. So then doesn’t it come down to what do we want our students to do MORE of on that list? And doesn’t it depend on your vision for teaching and, more importantly, LEARNING in the classroom? As Neil Postman said, technology isn’t additive; it’s transformative. So what are the transformative uses that we really, really want. (Reading books on an iPad is cool, but not necessarily transformative.)

    For me, it comes down to what can kids MAKE with the device, as in what’s best for them to use to learn, think, create, and share with the world, perhaps working with others outside their f2f spaces in the process. And right now, I’d still argue that a laptop is a more powerful Maker device than a tablet. Now I’ll admit that may just be my “I’m wedded to my laptop” personal bias. But I’ve been trying hard to see how the transformative maker stuff plays out as easily on a tablet. Not seeing it…yet.

  8. Great questions! Wish my district thought about this. We just go for the latest and greatest.

    I have in my room…two desktop computers, five IPads, and 24 ooooollllddd laptops. We use them all. Kids move easily from one to the other as their needs change throughout a project. Me? I carry my personal laptop to school each day. I leave my tablet at home. I, ancient as I am, still need a keyboard and a bigger screen.

    As for typing, my kids write all the time. They prefer the laptops or desktops for typing essays, letters, etc. but for notes, the iPad is fine.

  9. We have 2 classes of elementary 6th grade students that are using iPads for everything. Saving work to drives and teachers learning to input math work and finding apps to allow kids to fill them in and turn them in has taken some time but the kids have done a great job of teaching the teachers how. We now have to form a team of volunteer middle school teachers who will be ready for a larger team of iPad users. The trend in our district is moving bottom up. It has been fun to see how the students think of creative ways to use them. i.e. They take pictures of informational posters on the classroom walls to review for tests.
    How long will typing be necessary when audio input takes over?
    How long until affordable wireless is available in all communities?
    I want my students to be able to read, communicate, think critically, and learn 24/7. I want them to fall in love with learning.

  10. Thank you for planting the seed for lots of great sharing and thoughts! My perspective from the eyes of Director-I & T. It seems to me that if we are striving for the ***most flexible, open ended*** solutions (aka devices) we are focused in the right place. We don’t know what is coming tomorrow- change comes every day in the tablet, OS, online testing, etc. world. Content creation tools are essential to deep learning. Our students and educators need resources facilitating the creation of end products (ebooks, supplemental digital content, Web 2.0 embedded presentations, etc.) and the sharing of those creations. Every OS (Win/Mac/etc.) locks you in to some degree. Every content creation resource does as well. We need to recognize limitations and provide options, flexible learning, and the instructional staffing support needed. I would add the question: how are you assuring your educators and students have options available to them and how are you equipping them for constant change and adapting to a world full of device-variety? That is what I am seeking. If only we had the funding in education! :-{ Still, we need options.

  11. One of the most flexible options is to use Ubermix on netbooks. Ubermix is an Open Source operating system customized to be easy for schools to deploy and maintain. Because Ubermix is based on Ubuntu, you get access to tons of free applications. We have found this option to be a great solution for our 1:1 with kids from 3rd to 12th grade. I just wish there were more 11.6 inch netbooks being released.

Leave a Reply