Education trends, for better or worse, will always have an impact on classrooms. My high school recently became enamored with the trendy concept of flipped learning, where instructional content is delivered online or at home, and activities based on that content are explored in the classroom. When I first heard that every student would receive a tablet, I was thrilled; these low-income, urban kids would now have the connectivity they needed to be true 21st-century learners! But education trends like flipped learning don't come without their challenges and disappointments.
Inadequate Training and Lackluster Results
Our training session was essentially a three-day advertisement for a software company. We were told we'd create videos using various software programs (some of which began to charge money after an initial free period), and the expectation was that students would watch the videos at home and come to our classroom ready to act on what they learned. However, there was little or no training on how to actually make these videos. I had to find tutorials on my own, and it took hours—days, even—to produce content.
Then no one watched my videos! Despite the insane amount of time I spent trying to create entertaining and useful videos, my 21st-century students were disinterested. "It's not the same as learning in class," they whined. I begged, I pleaded, I tied video-watching into their grades—to no avail. Almost half the class didn't watch the videos, and any lesson built around that content failed miserably.
Major Concentration Issues
Surprise: the tablets were a huge distraction. Our school blocked Facebook access, of course, but since "only old people have Facebook," according to my 15-year-old nephew, that didn't help much. If students were using their tablets in class, they were also instant messaging, group chatting, and using apps like Instagram and Snapchat. A colleague even told me she caught students watching shows on Netflix!
Further reading: Fidget Spinners in Class
It also turned out that this type of multitasking was costly in an intellectual sense. A Psychology Today article cited several studies that proved that tablets, laptops, and smartphones reduce academic performance. To test this, I did my own research. I asked students to record how many times they were interrupted in a five-minute period when using their tablet, and the average was a disturbing 14 times. When I asked a flipped-learning guru what I should do about this, he suggested standing on a chair in the back of the room so I could monitor what the students were doing, and he wasn't joking. No thanks!
Besides the distractions, my students didn't seem to retain as much information when they took notes on their tablets. Sure enough, a study published in Psychological Science found handwritten notes to be far more effective. "The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective—because you can't write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them," said Pam A. Mueller, one of the study's authors. I can certainly attest to that fact. (Plus, typing on an tablet without a keyboard was difficult. We switched from iPads to keyboard-equipped Chromebooks this year, which has definitely helped.)
Access to the Information Highway
Despite my complaints, I can't deny that there are some amazing benefits to having tablets in the classroom. Students have the world at their fingertips. If they don't know the meaning of a word, they can look it up in seconds. If they want to know our state's gender pay gap, a quick search provides the answer. If they have a question about Eli Wiesel's speech to Ronald Reagan before the former president's visit to Bergen-Belsen, they can easily find the speech and research its impact. The challenge of helping students check and evaluate sources remains, however, and with the proliferation of fake news, they need to be able to tell fact from fiction.
Extended, Organized Learning
In some classrooms, tablets can be effective. If students don't understand a math problem, they can find a similar problem online to supplement their learning. If they don't have the materials to conduct a particular science lab, they can watch the experiment performed online. In language classes, students can listen to samples of native speakers. (However, my students always tell me that videos can never take the place of a "real live" teacher.)
iPads and Chromebooks have also enabled my students to become more organized. Student work is stored in one place, and our communication platform, Schoology, allows me to post homework, readings, and discussion questions. No one can "forget" what the homework is, and leaving iPads or Chromebooks at school isn't a problem because the information can be accessed from any computer. They also make group work easier. Using Google Docs, for example, allows students to work together on a document, and it ensures that all group members can participate.
Further reading: Classroom Gamification
In the end, like many education trends, flipped learning hasn't quite been the solution that it was touted to be. But finding ways to make it work has only added tools to my teacher toolbox, and for that I'm grateful.