High school is famously a time of turmoil. Mostly, it is an excuse for kids to figure out how to dress and behave and generally enter the adult world. But between all of the emotional drama, there is also occasionally learning, and while the antics are the same, and the lessons are comparable, the ways in which students ingest information is much, much different – thanks in large part to the proliferation of personal (and institutional) technology.
For the third entry in our "How the Kids Do It Now" series, The Wire looked at three devices that are changing what it means to be "in class," how students interact with their teachers, and what it takes to learn in today's classrooms – for better and worse.
Joel, a senior at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Illinois, explained to The Wire that “Stevenson has been moving towards iPad-based classes, trying to be more environmentally friendly and use less paper.” He explained that “this year a select number of classes got them. Next year every freshman will have an iPad,” adding that the devices are handed out gratis. The program is described in a 2012 post published on the school's website:
The SMART iPad program – SMART stands for Stevenson Mobile Academic Real-Time Technology – will start with about 800 students enrolled in three courses… Students in these courses will receive iPads that provide access to applications, digital textbooks and other tools that will allow them to learn in ways not possible without the device.
Meirav, a high school senior who attends New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, also uses a tablet in class as part of an iPad pilot program. At first the school loaned out iPads for relevant classes, delivering and collecting them in a cart each day, but now students purchase or rent personal devices. Meirav says she likes using the iPad in her English class because she can download texts via iBook instead of purchasing the physical books, but that she’s not a fan of the iPad for math class. “It’s been a little rocky,” she said, “sometimes the apps don’t work, it’s hard to flip through, you don’t have a personal feel for an online math book.” Joel also thinks that the iPad is helpful in humanities classes. “My AP comparative government class is totally iPad-based and it’s a major advantage,” he says, because his documents are all in one place online, “so it’s more organized.” Joel's math classes are still paper-based.
The iPad also offers students the opportunity collaborate, especially using GoogleDocs. “We can all be working on it at the same time, it’s cool to have teachers see where we’re at,” said Joel.
All of Joel’s teachers organize material using Haiku Learning, which, per the website, offers a comprehensive array of features which allow users to “create classroom pages, add and organize content blocks, change layouts … embed content from YouTube, Google Docs, Maps, Skype and dozens of other third-party services or create your own from scratch.” Meirav’s teachers use the learning management system Canvas to post schedules and documents online. She uses an app called uPad to take notes, and one named Pages as a word processor.
The new technologies, however helpful, also bring new problems. According to Joel, the online-only classes can be frustrating because “if you don’t have WiFi you can’t do your homework.” Meirav adds that her school’s program could become a financial burden for some. “You can’t sign up” for iPad-only classes, she says, “they just [assign the class] to you and the parents have to invest. There’s definitely financial aid if you can’t afford to get one, but it doesn’t give kids the option to take a standard class.”
And the iPads, naturally, can be distracting. One student in Meirav’s junior AP English class would scroll through catalogues and online shop during class. According to Meirav, students are more likely to go off task when using the iPads like they would on a laptop – upright, with a keyboard out – than as a notepad, as they do in math class. But both Meirav and Joel think it's difficult for teachers to tell when kids are engaging in non-class related activities.
In terms of non-school related apps, students play 2048, Candy Crush and Blackbird!, check email and browse social media. Joel said that there are very few limits on the types of apps students can download: “There are kids who play games all day and don’t even pay attention to class.” Joel says you can tell when someone is playing a game by how engrossed they are in the activity.
"I think there were some people who really thought they were going to stop it and felt like we just have to have a rule and that would take care of it," Ted Leaf, a high school English teacher in Western New York said in a phone interview with The Wire.
He’s talking about cell phones, of course. Few technological advances have changed the classroom environment more than cell phones did over the past decade. "We actually had the rule that phones should be off … [but] it was more of a distraction to try to enforce that than was worth it," Leaf said.
That’s the reality of today’s classrooms: it’s more of a hassle for teachers to rage against smartphone use than it is to tolerate it. That students will have cell phones and use them in class is a given, and school districts have shifted toward a "reasonable approach," as Leaf calls it, where teachers decide cell policy on a classroom-by-classroom basis. (In the case of districts that remain headstrong in the futile fight against phones, like New York City, rather unique business opportunities arise.) For most teachers, that means bending to students’ collective will. According to Leaf, "There’s a real prevailing sense with the kids that they’re not doing anything wrong, and if a teacher says something [about their phone] then the teacher is just being a dick."
So that means students usually have phones out during class, shooting text messages to friends or checking Twitter while the teacher runs through a PowerPoint presentation. Kids are now always multitasking in schools, one eye on whatever they’re supposed to be learned and the other on their phones.
But the distraction factor isn’t the only thing at play. As cell phones grow smarter and more ubiquitous, cheating becomes easier and easier. Back in 2009, more than one third of students copped to using phones to cheat, a number that has likely grown. The prevalence of phone-enabled cheating depends on grade, it would seem. One middle school teacher we talked to reported little to no problem or suspicion of phone cheating, but Leaf said he doesn’t even risk it: "That’s one of the instructions that I now give as a standard for my students when I go to give them an assessment is that having your phone out is enough in and of itself to invalidate a test. I don’t have to prove that you were cheating, just having your phone out is enough to invalidate."
And then there’s the way cell phones have altered the student/teacher relationship.
"I never texted any of my teachers but I knew people who did. I wouldn't say it was a normal thing to text your teachers … However, I did have one friend who was really close with one of her teachers. They would text each other a lot about both academic and personal things," Emma, now a college sophomore, said. Taylor, now a graduate school student at Syracuse University, told The Wire that she herself texted with teachers in high school, and knew of others who did too, though it never veered into the personal or inappropriate.
Leaf, who said he receives texts from students "fifteen times a year," keeps the conversations very short and strictly about class. He makes it clear to students that texting him "is not intended to be cavalier" – but if a student has a problem Sunday night on a homework assignment, it’s often easier to handle through text than email, and preferable to the student not doing the assignment at all.
It doesn't always take an actual occurrences of inappropriate behavior for problems to arise, however; even the potential is enough. "Sometimes you do get a little nervous that it could be construed a certain way or whatever," Leaf said. "When I first started teaching, I was told never be alone in a classroom with a girl … That rule was an easy one to follow. Now it’s hard. Now you have all these electronic rooms that you can’t be in as well, and you might not think of them."
And there are the rare instances when cases become too personal. "There was a situation that ended badly for a teacher who was suspected of having an inappropriate relationship with a student, and as proof, text messages were condemning evidence," the aforementioned middle school teacher told The Wire.
There are ways to get around the threat of inappropriate behavior, of course. Apps like Remind 101 allow teachers to send one-way text messages to students and parents, and all numbers are kept private. Remind 101 is clear: it is "a safe way" for teachers to text students, maximizing the convenience of cell phones while eliminating the risk.
First there was the blackboard, then the whiteboard, and now there is the SMART Board. Technology kicks the at-the-board-lecture up a notch, giving teachers what is essentially an interactive computer screen to work with. The idea is to give students a lesson that is technologically enhanced, bringing in the Internet and computer apps while never leaving the front board. The only problem is that most teachers use them as glorified whiteboards.
Leaf described a “one size fits all” mentality on behalf of districts when it comes to SMART Boards. Whether a teacher wants one or not, their room is likely to be equipped with the board. More and more districts are moving to the “SMART Board in every classroom” approach, which is a flashy feather for a school to have in its cap, at least on the surface. But the boards cost thousands of dollars, and most teachers receive inadequate training in how to actually use them, which means most simply open up a blank notepad document and use it as little more than a dry-erase board. It’s another case of tech-in-the-classroom having the best intentions, with disappointing results.
Still, technology in schools hasn't reached its full potential. When asked what she carries in her backpack, Meirav gave a surprisingly old-school answer, saying she still uses a binder, subject notebooks, and a graphing calculator, which she prefers to the calculator app. Meirav sounds like she wouldn't necessarily have opted to use the iPad in class, saying “you kind of just have to go along and change with the times." Joel, on the other hand, seems to have embrace the rise of technology. "There's a lot of focus on how my generation is too plugged in," he said, adding, "I think it just gives us more responsibility, that some kids flourish and some kids fall with."
Leaf has a similar outlook on technology in the classroom. "I think a lot of people today give themselves a lot of credit for being able to multi-task," he said. The addition of these second screens in the classroom often simply means he gets students divided attention. While that might not be a new phenomenon, necessarily, it seems to be a lot easier now for kids to check out of a lesson.