Saturday, September 24, 2011

Cell phone trial - part 2

I can't believe that it's only been two months since we started the cell phone trial in class. It's a bit like having your first child - in one sense, two months feels like FOREVER, yet at the same time, it feels like just yesterday that it was born.

The past 2 months have been very exciting, but also challenging. I think the worst part of it all has been having to go and collect the box of phones from the office before the lesson, and return them again afterwards. To be honest, it's the biggest pain in the rear. However, if that's the worst part, then I think we're doing really well!

We've had a lot of fun in the past 2 months, even though things haven't gone as planned. I'd hoped to have a 2nd projector with a laptop, to project the Twitter backchannel, but then the bulb in the projector went. Those of you with projectors will know that a replacement bulb costs almost as much as a new projector, so we only had the backchannel for about the first week. That is finally getting sorted though, as I've found a sponsor who will buy the school a dedicated projector for this purpose. We're just waiting for it to arrive so we can install it. I'm looking forward to that, because even in the short time period we had it, it was working really well.

I've found that having the phones in lesson has changed how I teach to some extent. Firstly, I've had to be much more on the ball. Using their phones, the kids can access the content much faster than I can teach it, and they have access to all sorts of other resources - experts, videos, etc. In the past, when we've done a collaborative learning activity, it might have taken them the whole lesson to get through a certain amount of content. Now it takes them 5 minutes or less! 

This has freed up a lot of time in lesson and so I've had to have a variety of other activities on hand. It's also given us space and time to talk about critical thinking skills - something we're supposed to teach as part of the critical outcomes for education, but never really have the time to do.

In the reflection I asked my class to do, many of them commented that when I'd first told them about the trial, they had been skeptical, but now that they've experienced it for themselves, they're sold on the idea. Many of them are using Evernote (or similar) apps to take notes on, rather than using their books. Others are taking voice recordings of the lesson, to review later. Depending on the type of lesson, they've also taken video recordings or photos of various parts of the lesson - from documenting dissections, to notes on the board. Video clips and photos have then been put together as a movie, which has been uploaded to the blog.

It's been interesting to see how many of the kids have never encountered blogging before, or Twitter. (They're all on MXit, which I haven't had the opportunity to explore as a tool yet - too many other things on my plate at the moment.) For some of them, it's been an uncomfortable experience being pushed to engage in this way. For many of them it still feels artificial, which it probably will do for a while yet.

While most of the kids have commented how having phones in lesson has been so helpful, there have been a few for whom it is still feels more of a distraction than a help. A few of them have been frustrated by the fact that I asked them not to use Facebook (particularly) for social interactions during lesson, but they've commented that they see the sense in that, because otherwise they'd be doing that all the time and not focussing on the lesson.

Having phones in lesson is started to feel normal - I've even had a moment where I caught myself asking a chi;d, in a rather cross voice, where his cell phone is and why it isn't in class! Six months ago, who would have dreamed I would be saying that?

Of course, the real question is, have the phones in lesson made a positive difference in the learning experience. I would say they have. The energy levels in class are higher, more kids seem to be engaging. What pleases me is that it's not just the top kids who are engaging more (although they're soaring with this!), but some of the very weak kids are engaging more too.

Having done a quick analysis comparing the class to the other classes, there does appear to be a statistically significant difference in their marks compared to the previous non-exam term. It's not a huge leap, only 4%, but then, we've only been using them for 2 months, rather than the whole term, and this is the top set, so I wouldn't expect much of an increase anyway (as my expectation is that most of them are already operating near the top of their potential).

One particular highlight was from the other class. She was off sick, yet, using the blog and Twitter, she was able to teach the class from the comfort of her bed. She posted bits of work on the blog, then the class would discuss it using Twitter. When she was confident they understood that bit, she would then post the next bit. All it required was that the substitute teacher put the projector on and put the blog up for the kids to read. The substitute teacher also commented on how much better the class worked than in classes where they would just be getting on with a worksheet, or making notes from the textbook.  

We're definitely going to continue the trial next term. One thing that I've been thinking about though, is whether this would work with a bottom set as well. This bunch of kids are self-disciplined, high achievers. They are sensible and reliable. Would the trial work with kids who are frequently absent, who are lazy, who are unreliable, and who, for whatever reason, are nowhere near reaching their academic potential? And do we take the risk of setting up a trial with such a group to see whether it might?