Digital Dawns: Scoping out an idea for 1:1 laptop Project Based Learning

Recently I’ve been struggling with strategies for scaffolding project-based learning (PBL), for providing a clear structure that both students and colleagues could use. Venturing into the task of building laptop wraps was what first started me thinking about the nuts and bolts needed in the new digital PBL class room. After literally tossing and turning for what seemed like half the night perhaps overly obsessed by this, I’m now taking the time to write down a few broad ideas.

Learning from The Le@rning Federation
Given my earlier experience in digital learning materials development with The Le@rning Federation, I’m drawn back to the outstanding achievements of this body, as a starting point. So it was that reading back through documents on The Le@rning Federation’s website I came across an article, by Chessler, M., Rockman, S., and, Walker, L. (1998) Powerful tools for schooling: second year study of the laptop program. San Francisco: Rockman ET AL. It was published in a TLF report, entitled “The Impact of Digital Technologies on Teaching and Learning in K-12 Education Research and Literature review“.

This won’t be new to many colleagues, but I cite it to reaffirm the well-established literatures on this subject. In 1996, Microsoft and Toshiba implemented a Laptop Pilot Program in schools across the US. The laptops were loaded with Windows and Microsoft Office software. The study pointed to “significant learning and student and teacher accomplishments in skill development, applications of technology for schoolwork, and improved critical thinking.”

Collaborative approaches to work emerged, project-based instruction increased, writing improved in quality and quantity. Wider communication skills requiring students to present to an audience emerged as an outcome. It was also noted that teachers took on different roles becoming facilitators and spending less time lecturing students. More complex tasks such as finding, organising, analysing and communicating were supported by 1:1 laptop use.

Students using laptops applied critical thinking skills with greater ease than those who weren’t using laptops. They also drew on more varied information and seemed better equipped to engage in higher-order-thinking skills and applying them to strategically.

An Australian First
Around about this time I was operating a field study program in Indonesia. One of my client schools was MLC Melbourne. Walking into the school back then was surprising. The rooftops seemed to be bristling with satellite dishes. This wasn’t so surprising of itself as it was for Australia at that time. By contrast Indonesia was dotted with satellite dishes, they were to be found even in the remotest areas. My recent experience of the ubiquity, if not take up, of the 3G Network in Indonesia is a reminder of just how fast countries can leap stages of development, unburdened by older technologies. For me this adds an ironic twist to the Australian debates about copper cable and optical fibre.

Returning to the point, MLC was a pioneering institution with 1:1 laptops in Australia and the program is still in place. First to introduce a 1:1 laptop program in Australia, they began in 1990. They were early users of the Toshiba laptop.

During the three week long program we ran in Central Java digital communications with Australia were well established. Student work was regularly posted to a web site so that those back in Australia could follow activities in Indonesia. Field experiences were extensively documented and these became valuable assets in the emerging digital approaches to teaching and learning. So, even back then some Australian schools were well on their way into the digital domain.

I’m not sure how effective MLC’s digital pedagogy was but since it’s still operating I can only assume that over the past 20 years the school has accumulated much research-based evidence on the benefits to student learning. Back then it’s something I wanted to pursue but there were other commitments on my time. Shortly after this there was an intense period of regime change in Indonesia and I returned, at first temporarily, to teaching in Australia.

15 Years On
Now 15 years on, laptops are widely used in schools here in NSW. While there is still a view that laptops actually impede learning, that they ‘dumb students down’ and encourage them to be off task and playing mindless computer games, it seems to be more widely recognised that such responses can be associated with a certain pedagogical rigidity, a lack of teacher skill in responding to the possibilities or even wider behavioural issues that might manifest in other forms in the non-digital classroom.

Clearly, 1:1 laptops require, actually precipitate changes in pedagogy. The research was right, teachers begin to take on different roles becoming facilitators and spending less time lecturing students. PBL, although often in its infancy, emerges as the new paradigm. Of course this till leaves my initial concern unaddressed. So what are the practical strategies, the ’nuts and bolts’ needed to support such process? I guess the simple answer is that these will come out of a collegiate process, not institution bound but one that is taking shape within Personal Learning Networks (PLN) and events such as the 1:1 Learning Unconference, convening at the Sydney Convention Centre, Darling Harbour, on 20-21 June.

I’d like to add just a few ideas on this and make one modest proposal for discussion and I hope refinement, perhaps even implementation.

These days we take it for granted that learning styles might include visual, symbolic, oral, verbal (written), graphic, kinaesthetic or varying mixes of these modes. When we attempt to deliver quality teaching and address these styles we actively attempt to differentiate the curriculum and our pedagogy to more directly meet student needs. Of course, this can be a little difficult in a class of 30, particularly if it’s a teacher centred class.

Teachers recognise that if we can present learning opportunities, activities and content in ways that address these different learning styles, then we might assist students to achieve the expected learning outcomes. The digital environment certainly makes this approach easier. This was certainly the strategy that informed the TLF’s production of LOs.

In the best of TLF’s LOs there was also an attempt to construct learning contexts that encouraged students to progress through a series of four steps

1. Awareness raising involving orientation and context setting
2. Exploration and experimentation
3. Production involving building or creating; and
4. A feedback process so students were able to assess their performance.

Awareness raising
In this stage learners are introduced to new input and given an opportunity to notice things. This is also an opportunity for the learner to link with existing knowledge. Authentic images, cartoons, audio or video or stories, are appropriate inn this stage. In a sense they provide a scaffolded connection with prior learning.

This stage usually involves some problem solving, classification and sorting. It can also involve definitions or simple calculations. This stage is intended to build confidence and prepares the learner for the building or production phase.

With the experimentation phase consolidated students are introduced to new more challenging material. Before they can begin to create a new product with it they might first be required to organise and analyse data or a situation before producing their final response.

Inn the closed environment of the learning object assessment and feedback are instantaneous, once the final build is submitted.

LOs are widely available through TALE. If logged into the NSW TALE site it’s possible to browse the resources of TLF.

Learning from the Laptop Wrap
The Laptop Wrap (LW) developed through the Centre for Learning Innovation (CLI), to support the Digital Education Revolution in NSW (DERNSW) has provided a robust take off point for teachers looking to work with digital technology and support a project-based pedagogy. Given the need to make LWs durable in a temporal sense, there is a basic limitation on the extent to which an individual wrap can link to online resources. Website and web addresses often change. So a prudent approach is to minimise the external links. Like LOs they tend to be kept small. Unlike the TLF products there’s not such a strong body of theory behind their development, but the best ones follow a taxonomy that’s not unlike the TLF approach, already outlined.

At the school level Laptop Wraps are both extremely useful and also limited. Carefully selected they provide excellent starting points and easily meet the awareness raising and experimentation stages in learning. The best ones also lead students on to a production phase.

After building a number of these, something that I’m committed to do in the future, I began to look for other solutions. There was a need to create a digital environment that was richer, addressed various learning styles, and was sequential but still project based. Laptop Wraps certainly help to get one on the road but the necessary limits in file size, numbers of active links and the extent to which they might connect with ancillary activities and applications, is a restriction.

Laptop Assisted Projects (LAPs)
My solution has been the LAP, not that I’ve built any yet, well perhaps one, but it’s in a Laptop Wrap format and that’s something that will need to change. Now, in some cases LAPS might be quite large, in fact divided like a 400 metres relay in to a series of stages with one person or a small group responsible for each stage within a LAP.

I envisage that courses in my learning area, Human Society and its Environment (HSIE), might consist of a number of LAPS. For example, Year 9 Stage 5 Geography might be a seven LAP course.

1. The Australian continent
2. Physical characteristics that make Australia unique
3. Natural hazards
4. Human characteristics that make Australia unique (possibly a relay LAP)
5. Types of communities
6. Factors causing change in Australian communities (possibly a relay LAP)
7. A case study of at least ONE Australian community

Internally the LAPs would follow a similar sequence to the TLF LOs, the awareness raising, exploration/experimentation,building/creating; and feedback process. As far as possible LAPs will address visual, symbolic, oral, verbal (written), graphic, and kinaesthetic learning modes. Overall facilitation and feedback will be directly from the teacher and in student to student discussion. Ongoing discussion can be direct conferencing with the teacher or other students through chat on edmodo or other appropriate systems.

Products might involve Blogs, Wikis or websites populated with audiovisual materials produced by students as they complete LAPs. An important ethos would production for the purpose of communicating with an audience.

This ideas is very much in development. I still need to work on a format, on an overall appearance. I think the outer limit of LAP size would be 20Mb with external links to more memory intensive assets. LAPs will require vigilance on the part or teacher users to ensure that links to external sites remain active. Comments, suggestions, critical feedback is essential on this one.

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