NB: This post relates to current context of most Australian schools in terms of 1:1 laptop rollouts called the Digital Education Revolution, announced in 2008 by the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Two concepts that are making my brain hurt a bit at the moment. One is about learning the other is about technology, but I think they are linked.

First, the paradox that we are – I hope – coming to terms with the fact that school education is actually about individual growth within a socio-cultural learning context. This is seemingly an obvious statement but I think sometimes we get lost in a discussion which is ‘either/or’ rather than both: we either focus heavily on individual achievement or on the environment a student learns in but rarely at the same time.

Most theorists agree that at some level we learn individually, by being exposed to new stimuli and environments, by processing it and reshaping it as memory which we then apply to new stimuli and the process continues. Learning, from the student perspective, occurs within the mind of the student and is influenced by the environment, stimuli, and others.  Depending on the effectiveness of the pedagogical power of the teacher (their choice about the methods and strategies to help students learn – whether restricted to one method or expansive, dynamic and responsive to student abilities, interests skills etc), depending on the resources available, depending on many things, the individual experience of a student may vary greatly – and often this shows very little in test scores.

At the same time, other theorists (calling all neo-Vygotskiites) argue that learning occurs mostly in a social process, rather than only within the mind of the learner. There are various streams of theory from scaffolding (very much like direct instruction) through to cognitive apprenticeships and communities of learners and communities of practice. A common thread is the understanding that even if learners are on the periphery of the ‘action’ or focus of the task being conducted, learning occurs because students observe and share and understand based on what they experience as part of the group.

So, how do schools now cope with the increasingly expansive demands of thousands of individual learners arriving at schools every day? Our current approach – for the vast majority of schools – is to do the same thing for each kid in a particular year group at a particular time. Why? I fear mostly because of compliance for the authorities rather than compassion towards who the learner is.

Second, I had a bit of an epiphany today. Many schools are in the process of deciding what to do in the post-DER world where funding is almost completely NOT guaranteed by governments for the purchase, maintenance and infrastructure to support 1:1 laptop programs (for this post I mean the process of a school purchasing or leasing batches of identical machines and giving them to students, collecting them at the end of a set period of time).

I don’t know the details, but I get the feeling that government schools are, as is so often the case, at the mercy of blanket decisions from the top and thus whatever 1:1 purchasing arrangements signed off from the top brass. Non-government schools are a little less restricted, Catholic systemic schools tending to be able to be more flexible but still clustering schools and making mass decisions for whole campuses. Independent schools are, by their nature, more able to make independent decisions that suit their student populations and their buying power.

I want to stop the analysis of DEC/CEO/Independent there because the epiphany I had was that actually what happened in 2008 was NOT that the Feds made a long-term commitment to putting the same machine in the hands of every student in Australia, but that they smashed the idea that technology was not necessary for a contemporary education. By putting ANY machines, en masse, into schools, and in the hands of students, it created a cultural shift that made students and teachers dependent on technology to truly achieve contemporary learning goals.

So the focus really isn’t the machine, it’s the cultural shift that has now happened – just try taking a laptop off a teacher who has used one in school for the last four or five years. Try banning new teachers from bringing technology into their classroom and see the look of despair.

That frustration with the wireless going down or the LMS not working did not exist before 2008 in most schools. That’s just five years ago.

Now it’s quite natural for teachers to be delivered PD as a webinar rather than in person. It’s almost passé for teachers to suggest that students upload or download files from an LMS or internet location. It’s certainly not acceptable for students that teachers are beaming with pride at their latest 40 slide PowerPoint presentation – but it has pictures!! – we’ve moved on

So, thinking ahead, how to bring together the individual-socio-cultural learning experience and the onset of a post-DER world in which there is not just demand but expectation that schools facilitate technology-supported learning and teaching?

My suggestion is that the school becomes a hub of learning – not the exclusive centre or jail of ideas – where students visit for scheduled lessons which form part of courses but these aren’t blockaded by age. Students who can learn “Year 10 Italian” – especially native speakers – can do it even if they are 12. In that classroom, yes, there will be older students and possibly younger students but the teacher will curate information to suit them. And, surely, the student will curate their own information so that they can achieve learning growth in their own way as well as that shared with their class.

Technology can facilitate this. Tablets that make hand writing as easy on the screen as on paper will both capture that writing and also turn it into text or record the lesson as it progresses via audio – all this will save to a part of the portfolio chosen by the student and accessible by the teacher and parents of the student. Learning will be a constant process, not halted by assessments and exam blocks but pushed forwards by vigorous and engaging assessments for, as as well as of learning.

The scary thing? The paragraph starting “My suggestion” is already happening in some schools. I visited one in Victoria about four years ago. The paragraph after that? You can do it with an iPad and certain apps like Evernote – or just using Siri into a Google Doc or use Microsoft OneNote.

It’s like we’re waiting for permission from someone… but the ice has been broken. Now we just have to dive in.