Recently I was lucky enough to co-lead a Global History Project with a colleague in Pennsylvania, USA, in which we asked students to collaborate on a research and communication project about a topic in 20th century history. It was a wonderful experience and we will be telling people about it at the upcoming International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Conference in Philadelphia in June.

We learned much before, during and after the project about our students and ourselves. What I didn’t expect to learn is that some of my basic assumptions about technology were wrong. It’s a pleasant experience to be genuinely surprised about a situation and yet at the same moment understand that it makes perfect sense.

Yesterday I was on Skype having a catch up with my colleague from the ‘States and he was saying that our students have kept in touch after the project. This is great as we encouraged the students to use Wikispaces messaging and Skype to engage with each other during the course of the project and it was nice to see them continuing to learn about each other. What I was surprised at – and then instantly understood – was that they were using Snapchat to do so rather than Wikispaces or Skype. This was surprising only because they were using a different medium to what I had suggested during the project (i.e. my ego was the only one in the universe to be perturbed) and it was totally understandable because our students use Snapchat for several reasons:

  • It’s a mobile app – Our students are mobile learners and mobile socialisers. This is why they are on their phones all the time. They are not doing anything dodgy (most of the time), they are simply doing a digital version of passing notes and whispering into each others ears. Wikispaces is clunky and requires the use of a web browser (which does not have an effective mobile version), Skype has a free and fantastic mobile app but that leads to the second point…
  • It’s text and picture based – Skype can be incredibly awkward for people who don’t know each other as you are confronted with a real live person speaking in real live time in real live video. I was quite proud of those students who did schedule Skype sessions, but clearly it was not a preference. Although we may scoff at how teenagers today prefer to text rather than speak to someone on the phone, it often comes down to an element of personal space: they don’t want you to hear every bit of their conversation just as they don’t want to hear yours (like when you are on the train SPEAKING VERY LOUDLY BECAUSE THE TRAIN IS LOUD BUT YOU FEEL THE NEED TO KEEP SPEAKING!) … ahem…
  • It doesn’t record data – our students do actually understand the benefit of not leaving a data trail. Our “digital immigrant” reaction is to say that there is something dodgy about this, but whilst at the same time as we are simmering our suspicions, we are outraged by the idea of data retention for our own internet use. We should not be surprised that the free market has come up with a way to combat this new imposition on personal liberties in such a simple way that must be simply tear-inducing to the supporters of multi-billion dollar government schemes.

So it was an interesting thought process I went through to understand why our students shift technologies so quickly from what we prefer to what they prefer. I know I can’t keep up with the rate of new technologies presenting themselves but I can keep my mind open to the fact that when used for good, student choice about technology can lead to excellent learning and growth.

And, a little reminder, even if you don’t want them to do something, young people tend to do it anyway. We need to create a supportive and thoughtful framework around the use of technology so we don’t put a wedge of ignorance between us.

I wonder if you’ve been surprised by student choice of topic, or task, or technology lately?