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February 15, 2018

You aren't getting rid of this old technology

Photo by bert sz on Unsplash

In 1801, when James Pilans created the first classroom blackboard, a new revolution started. No longer did teachers need to walk from desk to desk to write problems on their students’ slates. This was a game changer... or was it?

Teachers, equipped with this new technology were able to share information with all their students at once! It was much more effective, yes, but it also meant there was less room for personalization. Indeed, where teachers would previously naturally adapt problems to each student based on their skill or level of comprehension, it was now more difficult not to share the same problem to all students. Personalization became a less prevalent process and had to be a conscious exercise, easier to skip altogether.

As teachers shared common information, problems, important dates and upcoming homework on their magic chalkboard, student started taking notes of their own to keep track of these things and work on them. This was soon to be done on inexpensive paper notepads built for this purpose.

From teacher-led to student-led

The paper planner was born, and with it, an opportunity for students to take part in an important skill-building activity: getting organized.

This became an important part of schooling in many classrooms, with teachers taking the time to explain how to properly take note of upcoming tasks, marking tasks as completed, color coding subjects and so on.

The process was also simple for students. In elementary school, they mostly dealt with one teacher, and tracking each subject was simple enough. But even as they moved on to middle school and high school, where more teachers were interacting with them, the fact that teachers all shared information in the same way, by writing information on the chalkboard, made it simple for students to track it all in the same place. Simple that is, until computers came along.

Breaking a simple model

Computers were a wonderful new tool for teachers and as they became more sophisticated, they allowed sharing infirmation in great new ways. At first, only a group of early adopter teachers would use them to share activities, links, videos and more on their class web page. This required some technical understanding and sometimes even coding pages in HTML. But it quickly became easier and easier, first with blogs and ultimately with Learning Management Systems and specialized tools such as classroom sharing tools like Showbie or Google Classroom. Now, most teachers can post assignments to students in a few clicks. It is so much easier. No more chalkboard... or so you would think.

Before I talk about the chalkboard in today’s context, let me emphasize something. Posting work for students using any LMS-like tool is fine. And many schools insist on teachers using a common tool to avoid having students and their parents having to consult multiple sources. That is great from a student’s point of view. It makes it easier for them to track all they have to do in one place. Yet, some schools support using a variety of tools and that should also be fine. Supporting teacher individuality shouldn’t be a bad thing. It encourages technology usage by leveraging comfort. Yet this also cause issues for students and this is a difficult equilibrium between respecting teacher individuality and supporting student organization.

But there is always more than one platform in every school. Always. Whether you allow multiple technology tools or not. Indeed, the board at the front of the class is yet another technology that is not going away any time soon. Simply because it is so instant, efficient and flexible.

For example, say a math teacher is working with her class on a geometry problem. They discuss it and solve it together, yet she feels the class needs to practice the concept before next class. A few minutes before the bell rings, she might decide to improvise a variation of this and draw it on the board for the class to note down. No time to create a document and post it to the LMS, or anywhere for that matter.

Well, for students, this becomes another type of information to track outside of the LMS or Google Classroom. There are now two sources of information. How should students track all this?

Bringing back student agency

Every single tool out there, except Studyo as you will have guessed, is solely teacher focused. Only teachers have the keys to publish via the platform. Students have no such option, so they cannot add their own tasks, or subtasks. They can barely do anything with the teacher-posted work but submit an answer or perhaps have a discussion around it.

This is a full 180 degree shift from the paper planner. No more context for students to learn to organize their time and tasks, think ahead to when they will work on each task or think about splitting tasks into smaller chunks. And who wishes to enter work twice anyways? Teachers don’t, so oit makes sense that students don’t either.

The most disturbing part of this shift is the loss of an opportunity to teach students an essential skill: organization and planning. In a world where students will need to rely on self-management and build their meta cognitive capabilities to succeed, not being well organized is a handicap. And students know this. At least, college students realize it. In one study, 47% of responding college students indicated they felt high school had not taught them these skills appropriately and 87% though this had an impact on their grades and success.

More than ever, it is important to bring back ways to teach students’ ability to build proper organizational skills, and this means more than just a tool, it means a commitment from schools and teachers to actively teach them. And to nurture this, students need a tool which allows them to control their tasks, avoid double entry and combine what is shared on the the board with their digital lives.

Interested in Student Agency? This webinar recording might be of interest.