We Need to Make Digital Pens a Staple in Schools

Mar 18, 2022 🇳🇴


This post is based on a feature article published in a Norwegian newspaper, Dagsavisen. I’ve attempted to extract the main points, and make it valuable for anyone reading. Some sources I can only find in Norwegian, so let me know if you have questions about the sources!

The introduction of one-to-one digital devices in Norwegian schools was, and is, highly uncritical. Around the country, students and teachers has gotten devices thrown after them without a proper plan. In many places, this has led to schools not able to afford books alongside their iPads or laptops. This again has led to protests from teachers and parents. But while I agree with a lot of the critics, their answer is often «less technology», but I think the answer is «better use of technology».

Why?

First, we have to answer one critical question: Why do students need their own devices? Why do we need to digitise our schools? The answer is twofold:

1) There’s no such thing as a digital native

The fact that kids today spend a lot of their leisure time looking at screens, isn’t an argument for removing them from schools. On the contrary, this only increases the importance of teaching them to use these tools in a productive and critical manner. This competency doesn’t appear out of thin air, and has to be learned. The digital will play an important role in young people's lives, both personally and professionally, so we have to deal with it.

2) Pedagogical goals

Some people might say there’s no proof that using digital tools leads to better outcome for students. However, the point isn’t just digitising in itself, but that digital devices makes practice we know leads to better outcomes possible. By that, I mean that things like assessment for learning and better differentiation is easier with proper tools.

If we just discuss if it’s better to read on screens or paper (it’s probably paper), we reduce the potential that the digital devices holds greatly. The SAMR-model offers a method of analysing the degree of digital implementation that’s achieved. From the lowest level, to the highest and most desirable.

  1. Substitution: Perform the same task as before, but with a computer.
  2. Augmentation: Perform the same task, but with some added functionality. For instance, writing in a word processor with spellchecks and other functions.
  3. Modification: The task itself changes. For instance, letting students write text together through cloud services, or recording their essays and adding soundscapes.
  4. Redefinition: The task changes to something that would be unconceivable without the computer. For instance, making video calls to students in other countries to practice language skills.

My point with introducing this model, is that when people are arguing for less use of digital devices, they only see the first two stages. They don’t understand what we would be missing. However, it’s hard to blame them, when far too much of today’s practice only is on the first two stages!

So, to sum up my two answers: We have to digitise, so let’s do it properly.

The solution

Laptop or tablet?

Most Norwegian schools with one-to-one digital devices has one of two alternatives: Laptops, or tablets without accessories. The tablets sometimes come with a bit simplified software and a smaller screen. However, as long as the students get good keyboards, advantages like touch screen, increased portability and cameras outweigh the benefits of a laptop.

Handwriting?

Science conducted by NTNU has shown better brain activity when writing by hand compared to keyboards. The flexibility and activation of different senses are nice factors of writing by hand, but this research has been used as an argument for pen and paper. The problem with that, is that they didn’t use pen and paper at all in the research – they used digital pens. Other research has indicated that using digital pens are at least as good as pen and paper for learning, so this seems like a great middle way in my eyes.

It’s a small scandal that the focus has been on how digital devices can replace the textbook, as a consumption device, when the real potential lies in replacing writing books and pencil cases – as a production device. The students would be able to, with digital advantages, make movies and photo exhibits, illustrate lab reports, write mathematical calculations, make comics, record music, write code, perform physics simulations and a lot more! And all this without using their phones (which in my opinion should be locked safely away during class). This doesn’t mean that students should work digitally all the time, and never analog – far from it! But all students should have access to something like what’s shown in the pictures under here. It’s actually not more expensive than the laptops used today.

Pictures of students using iPads with keyboard and pen.
Bilder fra Logitech.

Part of the Norwegian debate has been on the lack of a national strategy, and I agree with this criticism. I think we should decide that all students, from year 5 to 10 for instance, should have tablets with both keyboard and pen. The first four years and year 11-13 could be flexible. If it’s iPads, Chromebooks or something Windows-based matters less, but buying tablets without keyboard and pen is like buying a new car without getting the winter tires (in Norway!). You make a large investment, but by skimping on some accessories, you greatly reduce its use. Another advantage of national guidelines would be that the people making learning resources and test know that everyone has these tools. If you want digital exams in maths, for instance, having them be digital handwriting is so much better than written on a keyboard.

However, schools need to be able to buy books as well. It just can’t be that we have to choose between access to digital tools and printed words.

To sum it up…

…, I strongly agree with those saying that the introduction of digital tools in schools has been uncritical and some times straight-up bad. What’s needed, alongside the aforementioned national guidelines, is money allocated to digital tools that don’t mix with money for teaching and learning resources. The complaints from critics need to be taken more seriously, because they are often right – even though their solutions might not be the best in my opinion. An important start would be to make digital pens the norm in school.

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