I was fortunate to teach in a 1:1 laptop classroom for seven years. In my classes, students took daily notes on computers, did research, wrote essays, created various multimedia publications, and worked on collaborative projects.
Yet I knew that if I wasn’t watching their screens, my students would at some point be doing something they were not supposed to be doing. So, while I was thrilled with the tremendous educational content available to my students, I was concerned with the less-than-desirable elements pervasive on the Internet. Today, I stroll through many schools that are using technology extensively, and invariably I see students using computers for Facebook, IM, playing games, checking sports scores, and all manner of other “evil” things. (BTW, this is as true in middle school classrooms as it is in graduate schools.)
Many teachers I encounter have decided that they need to crack down on — if not entirely eradicate — screen distractions in their classrooms. (A minority of teachers accept it as a form of 21st century doodling.) So, I regularly get questions from teachers asking if they can lock students into apps (yes, that’s possible) or watch student laptop screens remotely (yes, that’s possible, too).
Yet, I rarely indulge in discussions of “Big Brother” tools and strategies. Instead, I ask teachers to consider the most important truism regarding screen distractions:
If the activity is engaging and challenging, there is an authentic audience, and prescribed time limits, students won’t mess around.
I see it at work regularly in my PD workshops. The more time I spend “teaching” teachers something from the front of the room, the more inclined they are to check email, Facebook, or whatever. The more time they spend learning actively in a challenging and engaging activity, the less they go off task. Add in the possibility that they they’ll have to present to the entire class, or post their creation online, and they’re even more focused.
More importantly, it happens in K-12 classrooms all the time. I know because when teachers relate stories of engaged students using technology, their students all ask the same question:
The ingredients for cooking up engaging activities vary, but certain elements are constant. For one, the activities are challenging and expectations high. There’s no “click-along-with-me-and-do-what-I-do-kids” passiveness in these classrooms. Instead, it’s more like: “This is hard. And I’m not going to show you how to do it. But I expect what you create will be excellent.”
There’s also an authentic audience. Tell students you’re going to present their work at a conference, or submit it to a state publication, and then watch the heightened focus in their eyes. Yet, the audience doesn’t necessarily need to be outside the school walls. Just tell them you’re going to show their work to other classes and teachers. As one teacher noted: “I didn’t realize how little I mattered, until I told my students that I was going to publish all their work to an audience.”
And great teachers figure out other ways to make kids care. They personalize the content — drawing connections to kids’ lives — and help students understand why what they’re doing is important.
It doesn’t mean that a lecture is no longer important or needed in our classrooms. Teacher lectures impart useful information and explanations, and they can be lively and engaging. But technology offers us wonderful opportunities for immersive, challenging, and engrossing student activity. If we focus our energies on constructing impactful pursuits, the less likely the screen in front of our students becomes an alluring distraction.