Whenever new technology emerges, it always takes a while for the cultural norms around the use of that tool to catch up to its facility. We are seeing that currently with the backlash against Google Glass use in public spaces. The technology emerges, and then society wrestles with what acceptable use looks like. Some of that is based on current norms. Some of it on (occasionally unwarranted) fears. Some of it on the unknown.
I remember when I first got a cell phone. Up until the emergence of the mobile phone, the telephone was a device that lived at home, and telephone conversations were things you did privately. Speaking on that device in public, beyond the privacy of a telephone booth, wasn’t an accepted cultural norm. Think about that telephone booth for a moment. A glass closet installed on street corners. That’s more privacy than we afford between urinals in a men’s room. Due to the fact that the mobile phone had emerged from being a phone installed in your car, to one that you could carry around (in a bag first, then eventually in your pocket) I remember initially treating it, even when it was portable enough, as a phone for the car. I would finish my conversations there and then put it away before I started walking. Walking and talking on the phone were not yet culturally acceptable.
“People don’t need to talk on the phone in public. It’s garish. It’s obnoxious. Who am I, Gordon Gecko?”
Talking on the phone was a private exercise, and despite the emerging ability to take this private task into the public sphere, current notions of acceptable use of a “phone” had yet to catch up to the possibilities of the new form factor. Seeing someone walking around the mall with a phone on their face wasn’t yet an accepted cultural norm.
Fast-forward to today, where we have had time to re-evaluate when it is acceptable to use a phone, and still these negotiations are an organic process: Malls but not restaurants; Fast food but not fine dining; Not at cultural events; Outdoor concerts but not theatre.
Applying that notion to computers illustrates a similar struggle. Initially, computers were big, heavy things. They had multiple components and elaborate cabling systems. When the internet emerged, it was dependent on a tether. Even with the emergence of laptops, utilizing them for long periods of time was simpler on a desk. Within classrooms, the vast majority of our laptops sit permanently attached to power due to faulty batteries. They are traditionally installed as labs, or as stations; and it is only very recently that the idea that these labs should be dispersed into classrooms is gaining momentum.
“the computer lab is the new telephone booth”
Now we have tablets. I’m sitting on the couch right now “writing” this out on an iPad mini. There is a desktop computer over in the corner, but sitting on the couch puts me squarely between the stereo speakers, streaming my favorite songs from the internet, controlled by this small device in my hands. I prefer to write this way. I like how the tablet feels in my hands as I read back the words. Now that I read books on this device, reading on this small screen feels “right” somehow, in a way that reading a novel on a laptop never has. I can’t type as quickly on this device (thank you Grade 10 keyboarding class), although I could talk to it and it would transcribe what I say. I’m not in a rush though — I like to craft sentences carefully.
So now I can take my device anywhere, and still we run through the same cultural hesitations. We grapple with what should be deemed acceptable. We scoff when people use it to take pictures out in public, rather than the more discreet camera we are accustomed to seeing. This is the cycle: first we laugh at how unnecessary the technology is, and then it becomes ubiquitous.
Prepare to look back on the present for an apology to your future self, from behind some form of wearable technology (like Google Glass) that today you dismiss as ridiculous.
In that same spirit we now postulate on the reasons why students **shouldn’t** take their tablets home. Tablets that we are going to provide them to support their learning, in the same way we provide textbooks and novels and pencils and notebooks. This device — that will substitute for the functionality of a number of those other items we let freely travel between the home and the classroom — should somehow be locked up at night within the school. We imagine theft. We imagine untethered access to the deep, inappropriate chasm of the interwebs (we are giving them a device, we aren’t taking away their parents). We fear for breakage, and for loss, and a host of other unknowns and unknown unknowns. Don’t we remember imagining a future where ever child has one of these? Have we not seen it already on the Jetsons and Star Trek? Are we not yet ready for this future we have imagined since the birth of science fiction? Because we need to be; because it is upon us, and we are still running a number of our classrooms as if not much has changed. As students become old enough to detect that disconnect, they grow further and further disengaged with the product we are pushing.
Yes, there will be hurdles. There will be mistakes made and there will be lessons learned; but that’s the point isn’t it: to learn. To be an institution that not only delivers learning but practices what it preaches. If we truly believe that technology can be a disruptive force in education: able to transform what is possible; able to connect us to a diverse, international community of co-learners; able to differentiate for various learning disabilities once thought unassailable; able to empower learners to ask hard questions, and access answers from different viewpoints and unconsidered biases; able to help develop critical skills that will guide future decisions; for all of those reasons and a host of others, we owe it to our students to ensure these imagined barriers don’t force us into half measures, when we should be making a full court press to ensure that this one chance we have with the students we have in our system right now, provides them with every opportunity to succeed.
So let’s stop talking about whether the students can take the tablets home. Let’s focus on ensuring we are brave in this new world we are guiding them to steward responsibly. Let’s give them their education “to go”.