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Appreciating the Change

Her cart is broken.  The one that totes around all of her supplies as she moves about the building working with small groups from multiple grades.  It’s that time of year.  While we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week with tokens of gratitude from kids, free food from franchises and PTA breakfasts, we also acknowledge how far we’ve come since the beginning of the year.


My school is piloting a two-fold program of one digital learning device per student and a Chromebook as a teaching tool for the educators in the room. The one-to-one device aspect is inspiring.  Our students wrestle with the right balance of content and task navigation, but we are the ones who hesitate to tap, click and swipe with confidence.  The more we are consistent with particular apps and websites, the better it is for our students and ourselves. In Designing With the Mind in Mind, Jeff Johnson points out:


“If people use an interactive system only rarely (e.g.. once every few weeks or less), it is hard for them to remember from one time to the next the details of how to use it.  However, if they use an interactive system frequently, familiarity develops quickly.”


This results, he goes on to describe, in less cognitive effort spent on the tool and more on the task.  For example, a great deal of mental energy is spent on navigating buttons and menus and submenus while a student using an interface to accomplish a task as Open the Appcomplex as explaining their thinking about a photo they took of their work.  A task analysis of the reflection piece alone breaks down into multiple steps.  We're asking them to execute so much procedural knowledge before we even get to the thinking!

Today, I was sprawled on the floor with a few first graders during their small group enrichment time.  Our end goal is Common Core Writing 1.3: “Writing narratives in which they recount two or more appropriately sequenced events” but instead of writing, they are programming robots with visual block coding to record a video with two events and overlay an avatar narrating the story.  This is a combination of several apps and since these small daily groups only meet once a week, it’s a long trek.   By practicing in a low-stakes, creative play environment in which their anxiety level is low, the students are willing to take risks to tap, click and swipe until they accomplish their short-term goal.  They ask questions because not every user interface is built with the young mind in mind.  

“How do you…?”   “Can I change the…?”

“What happens if…?”   “Where is the…?”

Sometimes I tell them where to find the button they are wondering about and sometimes I ask them “what do you see that would make sense?”  "Do you see anything familiar from other apps?"  These are questions I should be asking the adults I guide on their digital learning and teaching journey, too.  


The second aspect of our pilot program has been testing the feasibility of a Chromebook as the teaching device.  Rather than replacing our aging, warranty-less laptops with newer models, we were able to steer our funding to purchase the devices for students.  It has been a slow but steady shift towards cloud-based teaching.  Our files live on an invisible server somewhere off-campus and we have to trust when our documents say “All changes saved”.  It’s a challenge to share curricular resources with other schools that have created materials in formats that aren’t supported without software, which the Chromebooks can’t download.  It’s a struggle to turn our interactive whiteboards into fancy projector screens that can’t be written on without the software.  


So all the energy software designers spend on consumer products that should keep student minds at the forefront for usability, also should think about how that interface can operate in a web-based world.  


No download required.


While we wait for them to catch up with us (rather than the other way around), we will learn to get comfortable letting student show us how things work.  We will become comfortable with updates to interfaces and menu options, if they are worth the adjustment period for the benefit of student learning.   Google's new sign in page isn't too dissimilar to what we use now, but the question is "why?"  Again, Johnson points to the brain being built for recognition when he suggests designers take human perception into account: “Place information and controls in consistent locations.”   


The Internet of Things isn’t going to be static nor consistent.  The user experience will improve so long as instructional designers are employed to apply more scientific principles to student products, not just the consumer market.  Until then, it’s every app for himself and we need to support each other as we tap, click and swipe.  


We’ve learned a lot in this first year of our pilot program, perhaps mostly about ourselves as adult learners in the Age of Change.  We're discovering how it makes us feel.  How we deal with frustration and lack of control.  What our personal philosophies are regarding technology in society.  How we, ourselves, have been impacted by the digital divide and equity of access. 


So while some among us are hobbling down the hall with a broken cart, it’s an appropriate week to take a moment and reflect on how far that cart has traveled during the past nine months.  Using technology we never heard of in August.  Building support systems among colleagues.  Determining what the roadblocks are so we can make plans to get around them in Year 2 of the pilot.  We have made changes, some big and some small.  The children may need to take the lead at times, but we’re headed in the right direction.  We'll catch up. 


graphic created in Canva

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