I’ve been really enjoying work with the first year Digital Literacy specialist BEd group in the past month. We’ve been conducting research into young children’s attitudes to technology in schools, exploring the learning technology available to schools, and comparing the experience of learning animation for 6 year olds and 10 year olds.
As ever, whilst I am teaching I am also learning, and I was fascinated by something I saw during our session exploring the range of hardware found in UK primary schools. We have been using the framework from Nesta’s ‘Decoding Learning’ report to structure our discussions around learning technology. I chose this because it places the quality of learning at the centre rather than the affordances of the technology, which I think is an important distinction to get across in our course right from the start. I’ve summarised the structure Nesta set out in the report here to aid our discussions.
I set up a session which was explicitly framed as ‘learning through exploring’ where students were provided with a range of hardware to try out. One group gravitated to the programmable robots, in particular a ‘Pro-Bot‘ car. Having explored its functions for a few minutes they very quickly moved on to a more focused ‘learning by inquiry’ where they attempted the ambitious task of programming the robot to parallel park in a space between two stacks of post it notes. In ‘Decoding Learning’ a distinction is made between ‘learning through exploring’ which involves unstructured playing, and ‘learning through inquiry’ where a specific outcome is defined, although the steps to reach it may not be set out. The outcome of parallel parking was achieved, to the amusement and admiration of the rest of the group. They then moved on to create a video where the car negotiated a complex obstacle course to deliver a pen to someone, showing an impressive use of its limited functions, only for the viewer to realise in the end that it had only effectively travelled a few centimeters.
What struck me was the shift from ‘exploring’ to very purposeful ‘inquiry’, mostly because it did not come from me. Traditionally it probably would have, either through having a pre-planned task or by noticing how they were progressing and concocting one to challenge them. In this case where it came from was the culture of documenting and sharing that these students are immersed in.
It was not the teacher that caused the shift in their activity but the camera, more specifically the connected camera on their phones that allowed them to post their videos straight to Facebook. The ability to publish what they did caused them to add purpose and an intended outcome to their exploration. With some perseverance and problem solving they reached this outcome, posted it online and immediately received feedback from their friends.
What struck me next was that this behaviour was so ingrained in them that it took quite a bit of discussion to unpick what had happened in terms of the effect on their learning and engagement with the seminar.
In the context of our University seminars there are no barriers to this happening. Students are not restricted in their use of personal technologies, so they bring this culture into the classroom. In this case that lead to their culture of sharing positively impacting their formal learning and bringing a purpose to it that might not otherwise have been there. There are clearly more challenges in this area when working with children than adults, but it is interesting to consider the benefits and drawbacks of blurring the divide between the cultures of formal learning institutions and people’s lives outside them .