As I viewed the recommended resources on managing laptops in the classroom, I was a bit dismayed at the ‘better watch out’ warnings given by many contributors. In 23 Things about Classroom Laptops, Dean Groom introduces his list stating, “…so I’d like to put forward 23 things teachers might consider in regard to a problem that we’ve been talking about for a very long time.” I’m not exactly sure what the problem is but it is related to laptops in the classroom. And then the first four items on his list are about how students could use computers inappropriately. Mr. Grooms does offer more positive items in his list, but at least a third is about how things could go wrong with laptops in the classroom. In the videos from the Irving Independent School District, teachers offer suggestions for monitoring students using laptops in the classroom. Several of the suggestions are about how to catch them misusing the laptop or being off-task. (One teacher says she can tell by watching their eyes.) Some also emphasize the need for severe consequences/penalties for laptop misbehavior.
Although I know all of these teachers had good intentions in sharing their suggestions and strategies regarding laptop use in the classroom, I wonder how much it reflects their ‘pre-laptop’ classroom management philosophies and strategies. I have found that over time, from computer labs to laptop carts to 1:1 iPads to BYOD, I continue to apply the same classroom management strategies I apply to non-digital tools and situations. With the recent move to 1:1 iPads with my grade 6 students and the influx of BYOD among my grade 7 & 8 students I find myself encountering new situations and issues, but still relying on the same strategies.
Have clear expectations and routines.
Just as I communicate my expectations for behavior in my classroom to my students, the same expectations apply to their use of a device in my classroom. And just like we have routines for turning in assignments and checking out books, we also develop routines regarding devices. For example, I noticed that several students were coming into the classroom with their devices out and distracted as I started class. We now have a new routine where all devices are in their bag or backpack when they come into the classroom. (The exception is laptops but they must remained closed until it is time to use them.)
Be prepared for obstacles
Who hasn’t had an activity or lesson not go as planned? Even with the best laid plans, I’ve had plenty of moments were I needed to quickly reassess how things were going and what changes might need to be made. This has happened in lessons with and without digital devices. I always need to be ready to deal with unexpected issues. This is especially true when using technology. I’ve learned to be ready with a back up plan if the internet goes down or the laptops don’t have the right plug-in for a certain program. I try to trouble shoot as much as I can before an activity, especially using digital devices, but you can’t predict every possible scenario. And when we hit those obstacles, I communicate with my students about what’s happening and often we can figure out a solution together.
Balance support and responsibility
Students are going to make choices and take actions that are not the best for themselves and others. When that happens, I do my best to provide the student with support but also making sure they take responsibility. This applies to the use of digital devices and technology as well. An example of this is students storage of digital files. Instead of getting ‘the dog ate my homework’ excuses, I was getting ‘my assignment is on my computer at home’ or ‘my assignment is on the school computer so I couldn’t finish it at home’ excuses. I would provide support by suggesting options of how to store files or emailing documents but ultimately the student was responsible for getting the assignment in on time, just as they would an assignment on paper. (Cloud storage is making this easier but students have to know about it and how it use it.) In any case of a device being misused or causing a distraction, the focus should be on the behavior of the student, not the device.
Reflect and Readjust
I learned early in my teaching career that I could make changes to expectations and routines in my classroom as long as I communicated those changes with my students. I see this happening among my colleagues as we adjust and adapt to the large amount of devices (both school issued and personal) now in our middle school. For example, we were concerned with the number of students engaged with their devices at lunch time. We were having to remind students to eat lunch and concerned about students’ decreasing social interactions. We’ve discussed and agreed to some guidelines limiting device use between classes and at lunch. As a middle school staff, we are reflecting and readjusting…and after we implement these guidelines, we’ll need to reflect and possibly readjust again. But isn’t this what we would do with a non-digital issue as well?
The success in creating a positive learning environment depends on the behaviors and actions of the people involved. It is not dependent on tools, digital or not. As teachers, we help create the classroom environment through our management practices. Digital devices are amazing tools when used properly, but tools none the less. What determines how well these tools are used in the classroom depends on the expectations and supports we create for our students to use them.