Craig Blewett, University of KwaZulu-Natal
The Collins English Dictionary unveiled a thoroughly modern concept as its word of the year for 2015: binge watching. It usually refers to consuming endless hours of movies or series on Netflix, one after the other. But binge watching is about the more fundamental issue of the world’s obsession with content consumption.
A recent report on media use reveals that teens are now spending more hours consuming media than sleeping. The average American teenager is spending about nine hours a day on entertainment media alone. Is this really the huge problem it’s made out to be? Partly, yes - because while they are engaging with a lot of information during those nine hours, they are creating barely any content of their own in this time.
This passivity is being replicated in classrooms. What will it take to replace these with engaged, active classrooms?
Consuming - but not creating
All too often, parents see their children on devices and say: “You’re wasting your time.”
There may be times when this is true. But today’s devices are not like the single function radios and televisions their parents grew up with. In the past if a child was spending lots of time in front of the TV it was obvious they were doing only one thing - watching TV. Modern devices allow for a wide range of activities from consumption to conversation to creation. Even sitting in front of a TV a child today could be doing anything from having a conversation, playing a game, watching a movie or creating a world in Minecraft.
The problem arises when children aren’t doing any of these things during their nine hours of entertainment media. The research shows that on average, kids are spending about 40% of this time on “passive consumption” compared with just 3% of their time on content creation.
It would be easy to dismiss this if it only happened at home, in children’s own time. But there ought to be concern when this trend is picked up and implemented in classrooms. This is unfortunately exactly what’s happening.
New tech, old methods
Schools are making a headlong rush to digitise the classroom. The media is awash with stories about tablets being rolled out, smartboards being installed or YouTubed classrooms. All of these technologies have great potential - yet at their core they are all about consumption. They do little to move the learner from a passive consumer to someone who is actively engaged.
The result is fuelling our students' “binge watching”, passive consumption diet. It is also leading to more and more studies suggesting that technology is not working in the classroom.
However, maybe it’s not the technology that isn’t working, but the way we’re using it. There is no doubt that our education system needs a revolution. That doesn’t mean doing what we have always done and just silicon coating it. A revolution needs new approaches to teaching and learning. It must be based on activity, not passivity.
Active classrooms are possible
What is exciting is that the seeds for an activated classroom approach are already found in children’s current media habits. All that teachers and parents need to do is harness them. Another way to look at Common Sense Media’s research is in terms of the active things children are doing with media.
While they may be spending 40% of their time on passive consumption, they are spending 3% of their time creating content, 25% on “interactive consumption” and 26% communicating. That means they’re spending more than half their time actively engaging with media. It is these activities that hold promise for the future of classrooms.
Teachers must encourage a move away from passive content consumption towards active engagement with media in their classrooms. For example, rather than providing students with prepackaged course content, students can source and curate their own content using tools like Flipboard. Rather than passively watching videos, students can be actively involved in creating their own videos about the content.
Rather than simply reading content through books or ebooks, students can rather engage in conversations around the content, with tools like Google Hangouts.
Towards an activated classroom
While the binge watching trend may signal a worrying focus on consumption, research shows that active teaching and learning approaches are good for students. The future of our classrooms relies on teachers harnessing this energy, combining it with the benefits of technology - then activating learning in the classroom. By moving students from passive readers and hearers to active curators and creators, teachers can significantly impact both students' enthusiasm in the classroom and how much they learn.
“Video killed the radio star,” laments the catchy lyrics of the old 80s song by the Buggles.
This trend, of one technology killing another has continued, as streaming media killed videos, smartphones killed cameras, and tablets killed PCs. But once more we have been surprised, this time by the technology taking over classrooms.
Schools are faced with a difficult decision - what technology would work best in the classroom? Laptops, tablets, smartphones, or something else? And, does it really matter? It turns out, contrary to what most would had predicted, the technology most used in the classroom is not what was expected, and this may have a huge impact on how our students learn.
There's little debate now. Technology will be used in our classrooms. Even schools who are resisting the move will inevitably be swept along by the biggest change to impact education since the invention of the printing press. Most schools have narrowed down their options to two contenders - iPads/tablets or laptops? However it’s still difficult for schools to decide, especially when multi-billion dollar corporations woo them with impressive presentations as they compete for a market predicted to be worth $50 billion in 2016. However, maybe its not the device that schools should be preoccupied with, but rather how students use these devices.
Lean Back vs Lean Forward
One way to look at how students use technology, and hence its potential impact on education, is called the “lean back” vs “lean forward” approach. This model, originally developed by Jakob Nielsen in 2008, considers the position we adopt when we engage with technology and the resultant impact this has on how we use technology, in other words our engagement style. For example, when I grab a laptop I naturally want to sit at a desk. This is referred to as lean forward device usage. By contrast when I use my iPhone or iPad I am more likely to use it sitting on a chair. This is called lean back device usage.
A lean forward device, like a laptop, typically sees the user more active but with shorter attention spans as they switch tasks and skim content. They are designed to be used with a mouse and keyboard, more often seated at a desk. The benefit of lean forward devices are that they lead to greater activity, with increased brain activity associated with skim reading, searching, and content creation.
By contrast a lean back device, like an iPad, sees the user more passive, but often with longer attention spans as they consume content. They are designed to be navigated with the flick of a thumb, while sitting comfortably on a couch. The benefit of lean back devices are that they lead to greater reading, and consuming of content, especially during “dead time”, such as while commuting or waiting (Whirlpool).
What goes around...
When it comes to learning, lean forward and lean back approaches have been around for centuries.
However, while elements of Lean Forward 1.0 and 2.0, and Lean Back 1.0 and 2.0 are the same , there are also elements that technology has introduced that are different. One of these is the impact on attention spans. For example, while Lean Back devices, such as TVs, are considered to have longer attention spans, the newer instantiation of smartphones and tablets has resulted in what is called “second screen” syndrome, where users simultaneously use their smartphones or tablets while watching TV.
While second screen usage allows for users to engage with others about the content they are seeing, from a learning perspective this is resulting in shorter attention spans and increased cognitive load. So, while a useful model, Nielsen’s model predates the rise of smartphones and tablets, and as such doesn't consider other potentially important aspects that need to be considered, especially when it comes to education.
What’s best for learning?
Schools are trying to select a technology that will best enable effective teaching and learning in the classroom. Craig Will, argued that its no longer as simple as lean back and lean forward, and proposed a Mind:Engagement model.
In this model he maps activity and absorption. The middle area is dominated by consumption, while the upper right quadrant, which would be considered the goal of educators - high activity and high absorption, is where students are using their devices for search, curation and communication, in other words activity. Gigaom Research, referring to marketers, suggests they “direct their advertising dollars to the upper right quadrant of the Engagement Style grid.” Educators should be doing likewise.
It’s not what device should be used in the classroom that educators should be concerned with, but rather how the device is used in the classroom. Current approaches are failing because schools are simply attempting to replicate old consumption based approaches with new technology devices. And so blackboards have become smartboards, books have become ebooks, and teachers have become YouTube videos. Approaches grounded in consumption are simply receiving a new silicon coating.
What is needed are approaches that encourage active engagement in the classroom, not passive content consumption. Lean back devices, such as tablets encourage more passive content consumption, while lean forward devices tend to encourage more active content creation. However, despite this, as Will's model points out, what is more important is how the device is used.
The rapid rise in tablets has seen reports predicting that tablets will take over the classroom, thereby making it an easy decision for many schools to make. However once more analysts have been “shocked”. A recent report has now revealed that Google’s Chromebook makes up half of US classroom devices. Unlike laptops, Chromebooks (aka Netbooks) are lightweight laptops that have little on-board storage, with most applications and data residing on the web.
"While it was clear that Chromebooks had made progress in education, this news is, frankly, shocking. Chromebooks made incredibly quick inroads in just a couple of years, leaping over Microsoft and Apple with seeming ease.” ( J.P. Gownder, Forrester)
Is this a shift arising from the failure of iPads that was widely reported in the media over the past two years? Is this a shift that signals a move by schools' from consumption-based approaches to more activated classrooms? Whatever the reasons for this shift, it seems Apple has already noticed as indicated by their recent entry of the iPad Pro into the market. This new device, which combines a larger screen size plus an optional keyboard and pen, is clearly targetted and not only content consumption but also at content production - everything from the middle to the top-right of the Mind:Engagement model. And according to early reports, its being suggested that the “shocking” swing towards Chromebooks in the classroom is already being eroded, as once more we witness another shift.
Forget the device
“Forget the device. Focus on web-based applications that best meet the needs of your students and teachers...more schools will officially embrace what has already been happening under the radar for years: BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). Students will bring in all kinds of technology ranging from smartphones to laptops.” (HuffingtonPost).
I would add, when it comes to Education Technology, focus on the education, not the technology, focus on training teachers not choosing devices. It's when we consider how we use technology more than what technology we use that our schools will have the best chance at transforming the classroom.
Dr. Craig Blewett is the author and founder of the Activated Classroom Teaching (ACT) approach. He helps schools and universities around the world towards the effective use of educational technology.
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