In a sense what we are concerned with is the (potential) history classroom of the future. A laptop classroom means that each student ‘owns’ a portable processor that they bring to school in the morning and take home to work on in the evening. This portable is replaced and updated every 18 months and is equipped with industry standard software. In school, students are taught in classrooms where everyone has network access to high-speed internet/intranet resources and lots of personal and shared storage space. Each classroom also has a ‘beamer’ (a video/multimedia projector) and a range of essential peripherals for printing, scanning, burning etc. Digital still/video cameras are readily available for students and teachers to use. Other specialist resources are available in designated areas of the school for design, music, art or other multimedia work. Ok, so that’s the ‘laptop classroom’, now what do you do with it?
After about 6 months of working in this hi-tech environment, I wrote an article for the European Virtual School History Department about how the nature of teaching and learning was changing in my classroom. Although the article strikes me as rather wide eyed and breathless today, there are a number of conclusions I made then, which have been borne out by later experience. As I said at the time, ‘how laptops make a difference becomes obvious when we consider what laptops replace’. Doing ‘well’ in history is still largely calculated by how well the student performs within the artificial constraints of the lines of the traditional exercise book. Replace the exercise book with a laptop and you open the way to a much more flexible, multi-media, multi-intelligence based learning. Howard Gardner himself recognised this possibility when he wrote, as early as 1984, that:
'… the potential utility of computers in the process of matching individuals to modes of instruction is substantial…the computer can be a vital facilitator in the actual process of instruction, helping individuals to negotiate sequences at their preferred pace by using a variety of educational techniques…' Frames of Mind (1993) p.391
The laptop on its own does nothing but facilitate; it is the resources (software, websites etc) that the students are able to access and process that make the difference. At the moment a student relies on those things physically in the classroom with them at that time: a teacher, textbook, and other students. With a laptop, students have access to other teachers, other students, and a choice of different resources all available at times not constrained by classroom bells. Our recent experiments in the Student Forum suggest some interesting future possibilities for this type of learning. Access to web resources that teach through empathetic simulation and decision-making I find particularly valuable. My current favourite is this BBC simulation of an archaeological excavation. In addition, a laptop can help ‘scaffold’ student learning by helping them overcome difficulty with lower order skills and the tyranny of the blank page, allowing them to concentrate on the historical skills that matter. In this I have been impressed by the electronic writing frames used by Andrew Field and others (see Nazi Germany example), that allow students to produce well-ordered notes or essay plans in manageable steps. For the brightest, a hypertext curriculum will always offer extension activities and links to pursue something that may have caught the student’s interest. (See my Year 9 or GCSE examples)
But what has impressed me most over the last few years is how the laptops can be used as multimedia portfolios for the students’ as producers. This is where the advantage of the laptop over the exercise book becomes clear. An exercise book of handwritten words is a (closed) written dialogue between teacher and pupil. A student who expresses their learning through a website or multimedia presentation is no longer necessarily bound by the limitations of their linguistic intelligence and is engaged in an open dialogue with anyone in the world who cares to listen. In addition, apart from memories that soon fade, what record of their learning does a student in a traditional classroom take away with them at the end of the year? A laptop allows the student to record in a transferable format, evidence of a wide range of different learning successes; this means pretty much anything that can be produced electronically or captured on digital still/video camera: board games, role plays, speeches, debates, re-enactments, simulations, class teaching, movies or of course, websites etc.
Let me use just one example to illustrate my point. Since I started teaching in the early 90s, I have done a Nazi propaganda activity with my Y10 GCSE class. It started with students in groups producing scenarios, posters and dialogue etc. for the movie that they would then try to persuade Goebbels to fund. Last year I resurrected the activity in a laptop classroom with the students producing promotional websites. The difference in quality and student motivation was marked. Students were able to use digital video editing to actually make a scene from the film and integrate it within the website. Most interesting of all, the students who achieved the commendation awards from their peers were not my A* students. Careful editing of digital images, acting, web design and artwork are not the preserve of traditionally strong history students, but they can be used to express good historical understanding. (see work here)
There is one final important characteristic about a laptop classroom. Unlike the exercise book classroom, a laptop classroom resembles the multimedia ‘real world’ our students inhabit and will be employed by when they leave school. There is a very apt quotation in a John Simkin’s article, taken from Dale Spender’s book Nattering on the Net: Women, Power and Cyberspace, that highlights what is now the central problem of the traditional exercise book classroom:
'It's a teaching/learning model that is out of synch with the rest of the world. Many of today's students can tell you in no uncertain terms just how “unreal” (and boring, and silly) the educational context is. Traditional educational theory, practice and organisation are each day becoming more irrelevant and unworkable: just as the scribal model became obsolete after print was invented.'
International School of Toulouse, June 18, 2003.
Edited by Richard Jones-Nerzic, 18 June 2003 - 10:42 AM.