Laptops present and increasingly wicked problem. It’s not that they are still here, but that they grow increasingly more capable as some teachers skills and understanding of media and media cultures is stuck in 2008.
On the one hand students need to use them: ICT skills are widely considered valuable in the future of work; many schools rely on ICTs to access information and process it; paper worksheets, copying into books is well known to be the least useful way to teach etc.,
On the other hand, screen-culture provides an array of entertaining distractions. Where ICT skills are low (students are not taught in a well organised and articulated program over time) screens present a new challenge, as between the teacher and task is an infinite wall of entertainment which can often be preferenced over using the device for scholarship. It would be easy to assert that removing the device will remove the distraction and thereby improve learning. In effect, at the surface level, it may improve the rate of completion of worksheets and note taking — but completely fail to deliver students with the necessary ICT and Digital Citizenship facets which is widely seen as necessary for modern learning and the future of work.
Recent NSW research has shown that in many cases, students who are behaviourally disengaged do not display disruptive or non-compliant behaviour, but rather, display passive or internally focused behaviours such as withdrawal from class activities and discussion, and moving off-task (Grattan Institute 2017). The ‘Matthew effect’, coined by the sociologist Robert Merton, describes the tendency for ‘those who are successful … to be given the opportunities that lead to further success, and [for] those who aren’t … to be deprived of them’. In education, the ‘Matthew effect’ has been used by Reschly (2010) to describe the cycle of increasing reading competence and engagement on one hand, and the contrasting cycle of inadequate progress/ decreasing motivation and disengagement.
I suppose there are situations where the Internet, Social Media, Games, Smart Phones and Laptops are not part of the societal make-up. Where students can live out their days in a no-technological oasis, free of distractions and enveloped in a pure environment which can be replicated using an academic theory immune to culture and other sociological axes. For the majority of students, technology cannot be reduced to a point that teachers and students use it as a flash drive, or something to help arrange documents to photocopy. Printed information is useful – reading is very useful – but the balance between this and technology is an unavoidable problem, which can’t be solved by any other means that building out effective blended environments to avoid the Matthew effect or to simply blame media entertainment for disengagement and try to remove it in some puritanical and idealistic manner.
For most students, technology is part of their daily routine but it seems for many teachers, the wicked problem still presents a personal challenge to engage with information technology as a level above that of ‘basic’ – but engaging in the digital realms beyond their personal belief zone. The necessity of digital literacy, skill and access cannot be removed by burying it under reams and reams of worksheets. It’s still there – and it’s growing.
With the current media panic over Fortnite – this post merely re-states what we know about media education, student engagement and technology: society is increasingly distant from children’s media cultures and interests. If for example, we want to give students a project of their choice – and that choice is to spend a fortnight in fortnite – it seems unlikely that this would be allowed in most schools. So when we say, let students have a choice – let them engage in their own interest-based research – I suspect that this is still centred around adult-belief and the pursuit of a non-digital solution in the majority of situations.
Wicked problems don’t get buried under worksheets … no matter how high you pile them – and engagement is not a binary choice or a matter of normalising routines. If it was, adults wouldn’t have picked up their smartphone today or flicked through Netflix – so why is Fornite freaking you out?