The fallacy of 24-7 learning. Part I.

“Students in blended environments use technology more frequently than their peers in more traditional classroom settings. In addition to use in the classroom, these students are also more likely to self-direct their learning outside of school by tapping into mobile apps, finding online videos to help with homework, emailing their teachers with questions and posting content they create online for comment.”

-SpeakUp: “Digital Learning 24/7: Understanding Technology

It is impossible to avoid technology in schools. It is there. It is here to stay. But just because it is a fait accompli and accepted as ubiquitous, doesn’t mean that we give it free reign, which is what many schools are doing. In the end, technology is a tool that is meant to serve, not dictate. Technology, at its best, provides a conduit to a wealth of information for students to explore the world around them. Unfortunately, technology in schools often becomes this abyss of untethered or unrelated information and a distraction for students from actual learning.

The premise for the SpeakUp study quoted above involves delving into what students “want” from technology and how they want to “leverage” the tools for themselves. The unstated assumption in this study is that students know what they want from their learning, and technology must meet their desires. No where in the study does it mention what students “need” from technology. It’s synonymous with asking a 10-year-old what they want for dinner: of course, you are going to ask for that pizza, or burrito, or hamburger. But what do you need? What does a student need from technology? Just as pizza has true nutritional limitations, so does technology when it comes to the need for learning. If you were to ask that same 10-year-old what they want from technology, chances are strong games and videos will be mentioned. But do these, like the pizza, have their limitations? What needs are missing to help promote a more complete and proverbial nutrient-rich learning experience?

One of the implied wants from technology is very much in line with the desire to be hyper-connected, at all times. Indeed, many of the proponents of 1:1 technology state that a benefit of each student having a laptop or personal device is that they can be connected 24-7 and that learning can take place anytime, anywhere. Being able to access information is obviously beneficial for learning. But just because you can access copious amounts of information doesn’t necessarily translate into more knowledge or increased understanding. In fact, it has been the experience at Launch Pad, our homework club & academic coaching program, that when students are allowed to learn independently on a particular topic, one of four things usually happen:

  1. Students will Google a topic and pick the first search item, look at it, and quickly type the content from the first paragraph on the site;
  2. In an effort to find supporting details or “three examples” (a favorite direction item of teachers for online work), students will pick three unrelated items or details, uncertain of how they all fit together;
  3. Find a fun video on YouTube or meme that is somewhat related to the topic, and choose it because they think the bells-and-whistles will get them the better grade; or
  4. Students will be required to produce an online project (e.g. Prezi or chart or PowerPoint), and get so caught up in the special effects and formatting that the actual lesson to be learned gets lost along the way.

In an unlimited world of information on, say, the water cycle, a student will be drawn to the Grumpy Cat meme. Without fail.

At this point, one key factor can help mediate this independent information-gathering overload for students: Meaning. Why are you learning this? How do all of the parts come together? How are they related and why? How does this relate to what you already know? What is quality information? How do you know?

One of the central theories that addresses this issue is that of “Meaningful Learning” by psychologist David Ausubel. In an effort to move learning away from standard rote memorization without context, Ausubel saw the need for students to incorporate new knowledge into cognitive structures. Students need explicit assistance in organizing information systematically. Not only must information be organized systematically, it must also explicitly show the connections between the information: chronologically, hierarchically, and/or deductively. These connections must be visualized for students and often take the form of Cognitive Maps with general headings and clear directions as to the direction where the learning will flow. Think of a flowchart on a whiteboard where the students fill in the boxes or bubbles with their own understanding. Students do not inherently create these Cognitive Maps; they must be intentionally taught in order to create meaning for the various information bytes.

Most of this activity should ideally take place in the classroom with the teacher helping students to organize Cognitive Maps and creating so-called Advance Organizers to help provide context for learning.

But what can parents and caregivers do to help students find meaning in the information overload? Two things:

Justify. Justify. Justify. As a graduate student in Sweden, I was required to have a “tutor”. Not a tutor in the American sense, but rather a personal one-on-one teacher who oversaw my work and tested me on my progress. Whenever I was asked a question by my tutor, I was required to cite and quote and generally know my stuff from a larger body of research. At the end of each oral response, my tutor, without missing a beat, asked me: “Why did you choose these?” That simple question forced me to evaluate the quality of my response and assign value to my answers. Was this truly the best quote I could use? Was I just using this out of expediency?

For research assignments or for free-response items gathered online, ask your student this powerful question. And don’t settle for: “It was_______ (fill in the adjective)”. Model, if necessary: “Did you choose these examples because they showed how silicone can be used in many different ways?” By having a student justify a response shows them that not all information is equal, and not all information has meaning.

Be forward thinking. Information builds and yields additional information. Yesterday’s learning should ideally be the building blocks for tomorrow’s learning. Too often in the fast-paced, quick soundbite learning environment, students forget previous learning and fail to apply it to future learning. This is all the more reason why we need to be very intentional about helping students see learning as progressive steps toward greater understanding. “How do you think you will use this in (this class, in another class, later on in X Grade)?” Of course, the student may not know right away and some modeling may be in line, but helping students to start viewing information in this way will provide context and show that the information that was gathered will have value and meaning in the future.


-by Sara Amodio, MSW, EdD – President of Launch Educational Services, LLC