Why Mish-Mash is Better Than 1:1

in our class, we write short and long form pieces on many different devices

Note: My thoughts below come mostly from an elementary homeroom teaching perspective. I would likely think differently if my vista came from teaching either a technical or specialty course.

I asked one of my students the other day, “Hey, I’ve got a laptop here you can use to write your script. Would you like to use it instead of your iPod?”

With a humble shrug of the shoulders he responded, “No thanks, Mr. Lee, I write better this way.”

“Really?!?! With your thumbs?”

“Oh ya, I’m way faster, and I concentrate better.”

So I started asking everyone in the room what their preferred tool to write with was, and, believe it or not, it was pretty much 25% smart phone/ipod, 25% tablet, 25% laptop, and 25% paper and pencil. The common threads? Most students preferred writing with the tool they had most frequent access to, and boys in particular preferred writing with small devices.

Even though I’ve been doing this technology thing for quite a while with students, they never cease to surprise me.

This has me thinking about the semi-frequent Device Wars we engage in online. Netbooks vs. iPads, Ubuntu vs. OSX, etc. With the recent release of the ‘revolutionary’ and ‘game-changing’ Amplify tablet (spoiler: no game will be changed), these conversations are hot once again. I’ve yet to be a part of a 1:1 laptop, iPad, or similar initiative, and I’ve never been compelled to either pursue one or engage in the conversations surrounding them. It’s never really interested me. In my whole teaching career, I’ve only had a mish mash of tech. Currently, we don’t have a class set of anything, but we do have small sets of different tools. Nevertheless, at any given time, it’s possible to be 1:1 on the internet in our room. I prefer teaching with the limitations of no class sets, because it means we’re constantly reflecting on the merits of each tool for the given purpose. Students in my class frequently start sentences with:

Here, you can use the <blank>, I don’t need it right now…


Can you let me use the <blank>? I need it to…

Would any of my students turn down a 1:1 MacBook Pro? Of course not. Still, I believe there is great value in the limitations of resources. When we engage in Device Wars on twitter and the blogosphere, we all seem to exercise significant bias in equating the best classroom tool with the one that we find most productive in our personal or professional lives (I touched upon that in disagreeing with folks who contend that the iPad is not a creation tool). Do I have a vision of what technology I’d like in my class in the perfect scenario? Sure I do. Do my students and I really need that state of shiny utopia, especially when it is (in my view) impossible to achieve in an equitable fashion? I don’t think so.

Which have you experienced is better: a lot of one device or small sets of multiple ones?



  1. As I try to take my school from where it is (minimal bandwidth, computer labs with small numbers of computers, no wifi, few IWBs, minimal use of BYOD, almost everything blocked), to a place where technology can be used seamlessly to enhance learning, reflections like this are very valuable. I am also an advocate of mishmash and choice. One of my main criticisms of the “lab-based” approach is that students have NO choice. Every desktop is ghosted identically. Students will use Word, PowerPoint, Excel and IE for everything they want to accomplish. So much learning around the choice of tools goes out the window with this approach.

    Unfortunately for many of us, we are trying to maximize learning with technology with minimal access to funds. I often think that having lived through the depression would be the best predictor of success as a principal in Ontario. Learning to make the most of minimal resources is a way of life when there is no provincial strategy to move our schools forward. In remote areas, where adequate internet access is prohibitively expensive, the students who most need connectivity don’t have it. For those of us driven to change this situation, your reflection brings hope that our small steps forward can make a big difference for our students.

    Once again, thank you for sharing.

    1. Yes, teaching students how to make choices between different tools IS a very important skill to learn.

      Unfortunately, too many people (including this blog post) assume that means “let the kids choose whatever they are comfortable with.” That is a major problem. Because choosing what is EASIEST does not always mean choosing what is BEST.

      We should be teaching our students not just HOW to use various technology tools, but WHY and WHEN to use them. Then we should enforce student choice — choice based on purpose/need, NOT based on personal preference or comfort level. For example, when I teach certain tools to my students — let’s say MS Word, for example — I teach them (a) what “type” of tool it is – ie. word processing; (b) what the purpose of that type of tool is; (c) there are other alternative choices to complete the same type of task (Google Docs, for example, or OpenOffice, or Pages), and each one has its own benefits and drawbacks.

      [And did you ever think of WHY the school is enforcing use of MS Office? Could it be driven by the fact that it is required knowledge at most colleges and universities? And the reason that THEY require it is because it is the most frequently-used solution employers expect job applicants to have in the real world? When teaching skills and technologies to students, I always go to a job search site like Monster.com to see which particular ones are most relevant at the moment. Why shouldn’t we expose students to the types of tools they would be expected to know and use outside of school, for a job?]

      This is how we make informed decisions, and those decisions should be based NOT on comfort zone, NOT on personal preference, NOT on brand name… but based on the best solution to meet the given needs or solve a given problem.

      But how can we expect our students to learn that when even teachers and schools aren’t learning it? I’ve seen blatant ignorance and bias from schools when choosing EdTech, statements like “We only look at Apple devices, because it’s what we have been using all along.” — despite the fact that Consumer Reports shows MacBooks as being less powerful and reliable – yet more expensive – than 10 other comparable alternatives.

      When I go to the hardware store because I need to fix a problem at my house, I don’t think “Oh, I want to get a Bosch Power Tools Brute Tough Cordless Drill”; I don’t think “What I really need is to make sure every tool I buy is made by Craftsman”… No, I go to the store looking for “a wrench” or “a saw” or “a hammer”, or whatever tool will best solve the problem at hand. Then I compare them based on functionality, build quality/durability, price, etc. and choose the best solution. The best solution for the job at hand — not whatever I have used in the past, or what brand name is most popular, but by what will get the job done well and at a reasonable price.

      If we can’t step out of our own complacent status quo comfort zones to make the best choices for tools that are most effective (and most affordable), how on earth are we going to expect the kids to start doing so?

  2. We have a mish-mash in our class too and I’m very interested in watching how it plays out. I rescued several old desktops and they often sit at the back of the class unused. Students will walk to the other side of the school to borrow a mobile device from another class rather than use these perfectly good, functional machines. Along with the mix are several BB Playbooks and sometimes students use them to blog on, something I don’t really understand. My response to all of these decisions is let students do these things. They need to find what works for them and pursue it. The bigger skill of finding out what tool works for them and how is important and I want them to learn it. Many of them have never used a tablet before and so they have no idea what the capabilities are, how hard it is to type on a small tablet, etc. I let them discover it. Besides, with the rate of change in tech, your utopia would only last 6 months to a year before it would be outdated and old, and then what?

    1. In general I agree with what you are saying here — discovery and exploration can be powerful; you don’t know what something is like until you try it.

      However, if they are exploring one thing and NOT exposed to alternatives (or directly taught by the teacher how other solutions can be better — even if it’s as simple as “let’s try a bluetooth keyboard with this device”), then they have no basis for comparison.

      They may not KNOW that typing on a tablet is slow and annoying if they have no frame of reference or basis for comparison. I know of PLENTY of people who are like this. Most of them are teachers. They go “Look at all this cool new stuff my kids can do with the iPad!” and then they show me point-and-click (or touch) math practice games, digital photography stuff, etc. etc.

      I’ve been having my kids do all of these things for 10 years now, without iPads.
      But those teachers have no frame of reference, because they didn’t use computers or other technology, so they assume it is “new” or that the iPad is the only thing that makes it possible (or even that the iPad is the “best way” to do it, despite the fact that they have never tried any other way.)

      I guess what I’m saying is: It’s great to let kids explore and try things for themselves, but the only way they are really going to be able to learn and draw conclusions about relative purpose (ie. which tool is “better than” another for a certain task) is if they are encouraged (nay, COERCED) to explore and try a wide variety of tools and techniques.

      In the vast majority of cases, this is not what is happening because it is either:
      a) BYOD/BYOT (in which case the student just gets comfortable with the one tool they are used to using), or
      b) 1:1 with a single type of device (in which case the student gets comfortable with the one tool they are forced to use, and by extension they assume “this is the best tool to use for everything”)

      1. Your comments are bringing up an interesting conversation about the pros ad cons of ‘comfort’ an what that means. Thanks so much for your contributions, Matthew.

    2. I’ve really enjoyed reading this post as well as all of the comments on it. I very much agree with you, Royan, on the benefits of having a mish-mash of devices, and this is exactly what I have in my classroom too. I also agree with Matthew though about teaching the best device to use for the given project. I’ve been attempting to do this in the classroom, but it’s not always perfect. While I have access to 4 computers, 2 laptops, 3 iPads, 4 iPod Touches, and pencils, pens, and paper on a regular basis, I also have 3-4 periods a day with an extra 6 iPads. Many of my students also bring in their own devices, and I’ve seen lately that these devices vary depending on what they’re trying to do. While most are iPod Touches, iPhones, or iPads, recently some students have been bringing in laptops. I asked them, “Why?,” and they shared that they want to create a presentation for [insert subject here], and they can do this best on a computer or laptop. I’m glad that they’re starting to see this.

      All of this being said, I agree with Matthew that having students reflect on the best tool means that we also need to understand this, and we don’t always know. A great example is that my school has purchased numerous iPads this year. Now I think that these are great creation devices, and they certainly have lots of good options for the classroom environment, but are they all we need? It’s now that we’re also talking about what other tools might work well given our needs. It was actually our principal that started this conversation when he spoke at a staff meeting about what to do with an iPad, and then questioned if an iPad is the best device to type up a project or do a Google search. Then we could really consider our classroom needs and the best tools for the job. I think that we need this conversation time, and not just those face-to-face conversations, but also these online ones.

      Royan, thanks for giving us the venue and really starting such an important discussion!

  3. I completely disagree with the entire premise of this.

    I, too, have heard the “Oh ya, I’m way faster doing it my way.” when typing documents on the computer. Usually it comes as a response to the fact that I am teaching kids (grades 3-6) touch-type keyboarding skills.

    They say “Why can’t I just do it my way? It’s faster.” (Their way being “hunt and peck” with two fingers at a time. A way which is pretty much the ONLY way you can do it on a touch-screen device.)

    The question should not be whether it is faster or not — because their statements do tend to be true. But is “faster” the same as “fast enough”? No, it is not, and if they are used to doing something inefficiently (which means they will be better at it than they will at using an efficient method), does that mean we don’t TEACH them a better way, so that they can become proficient with the most efficient methods out there?

    When students tell me they are “faster” at typing their way, it is usually true. They might be able to do 10-15 words per minute doing it “their way” (aka “the wrong way” ), whereas they can only do 3-5 wpm using touch-typing technique…

    Unless they learn it. And practice it. I have students who started out at 3 wpm and are now at 38 wpm. Why? Because I made sure that they LEARNED a more efficient technique (touch-type keyboarding). Otherwise, they would have started out “faster” doing it their way — yep, 10 wpm is faster than 3 wpm — but that speed would not have IMPROVED, because they were using an inefficient technique. Just because something is “faster” or “better” doesn’t mean it is FAST ENOUGH or GOOD ENOUGH for the future and the real world.

    When we are ensuring — or even enforcing — technology skills that the kids are using, it’s not about “let them do what they are comfortable with.” Working within our comfort zone is pretty much the antithesis of learning (see: Vygotsky). We learn by being pushed out of our comfort zone. It may actually DECREASE performance at the very beginning, but ends up turning into growth.

    Telling kids that it is okay to “choose whatever is easiest for them” means that people would never:
    * learn to ride a bike (why bike when you can just walk? It’s faster and better because falling down at first means you take more time and get lots of scrapes and bruises)
    * learn to play music instruments (it’s faster and easier just to press play on a device)
    * learn ANYTHING (when you first start walking, it certainly would be much faster and easier to keep crawling. But that doesn’t stop us. Why? Because crawling is not THE BEST way to get around…)

    And this says nothing of getting as early a start as possible in giving the kids the types of skills that will be expected/required in college and the “real world” of careers… see my post titled “Just Say NO to iPads for Education, Part 2: iPads Do NOT Meet Today’s Educational Needs” ( http://www.sanctuarymedia.com/edtechexpert/?p=45 )

    1. I should clarify: I don’t COMPLETELY disagree with the premise of Royan’s blog post, because I do agree that plurality of tools and choosing from various available options can be a great asset. Technology is always evolving, and although I can’t tell you what we will be using in 10 years I can assure you with 100% confidence that it will be different than what we are using today (ie. it will have evolved — the best of what we use today will persist, and other aspects will be improved.)

      Our students need to learn how to learn; being exposed to multiple technologies for multiple purposes can drive the point home that there is no “one size fits all” solution, and that we must constantly be assessing and thinking about our tools.

      In fact, I would like to take it one step further and teach kids to critically analyze the tools they are using, to pick the one that best fits their needs (not ease of use or comfort, but the needs/problem at hand)… and to even go one step further: if the tool does NOT perfectly address the problem, how could they innovate and invent a new solution or improve the existing one? (In fact, my students just won an international invention contest held by ePals & Smithsonian based on this premise: http://en.community.epals.com/smithsonian_on_epals/p/inventionchallenge2012winners.aspx )

      So, I agree that exposure to multiple tools and technologies can be a great thing. What I disagree with is that kids should just be allowed to make their own choices without being taught or influenced by a more knowledgeable mentor. This is like letting kids entirely decide what to eat at all times — with no prior instruction or education, just because “they know what they like” and “they know what’s best for them” — and then being surprised when their diet consists of cotton candy, Hot Cheetos, and Coke.

    2. You make some strong points throughout your comments here Matthew that those of us who champion BYOD/T would do well to heed. There are however two things in this section I’d like to push back on if you don’t mind?

      Firstly touch-typing. I’m still not convinced one way or the other by this issue and can see the arguments both for and against. Since you make a strong case ‘for,’ in the interests of balance let me offer a couple of alternatives. Elsewhere you mention how hard it is to foretell the technology (and therefore the input devices) which will prevail 10 years hence, so maybe investing too much time in learning to touch type will prove to have been a fruitless endeavour? I never learned to touch type, use only two fingers and manage around 60wpm. Now through touch typing I could indeed type faster, but here’s the rub, why would I need to? In secretarial or data input work where I might be transcribing vast quantities of text, then increased speed would unquestionably be better. But for my purposes (and I suspect I ‘write’ as much as the next person) my speed is fast enough, mainly because whilst typing what I want to say, I need thinking and reviewing time, so it’s a matter of type a little, think a little, type a little, review. Overall the gain from typing say 20% more quickly is a small factor in the time spent putting a post, essay, dissertation or thesis together I’d suggest.

      Secondly I agree that we need to encourage young people to move beyond their comfort zone, but to suggest that they would never do this of their own accord doesn’t hold water I’m afraid. You say that if we allow them ‘to choose whatever is easiest for them’ would mean ‘that people would never: learn to ride a bike, play an instrument or learn anything.’ But clearly that’s not the case; young people do *choose* to learn to ride a bike, *choose* to learn to play an instrument and often *choose* to learn, well, lots of things entirely of their own volition. I guess what we as teachers need to do is to try our best to tap into whatever the motivations are that drive young people to want to move beyond their comfort zones?

  4. When “Blueprints” and budget time comes around I’ve always said that I’d rather have a little bit of everything in my classroom rather than a lot of just one thing. Give me (and my students) choice. I often switch between iPad, MacBook Air and a Livescribe pen in my teaching practice. Throw into that mix a Zoom recorder, DSLR, iPevo document camera and Apple TV as support devices. If someone had said, “Pick just one” that would do nothing to move my practice and learning forward. I suspect the very same holds true for students. Even listening to music is a choice. Less than 50% of my class choose to do so while working independently. As illustrated in the blog, BYOD reflects this perfectly. I too have at least 25% of my class that choose paper and pencil for writing tasks, as well as a similar breakdown for keyboard and screen devices. It’s all about choice.

  5. To answer your question — “Which have you experienced is better: a lot of one device or small sets of multiple ones?” I find a number of small batches of one particular device a bit easier to manage. I have one class with about 5 to 10 different devices (in a class of 30) and it can be a challenge that’s for sure. Presentation dongles are my latest bug-a-boo. One needs to be a ninja on several different platforms. Most are using them for writing, but are stuck on the “printing thing” due to no cloud implementation as yet.

    Now, let’s dream a little bit. In public schools it comes down to money. I visited the Eastern Townships School Board in Quebec back in 2008. At the time it was Canada’s first 1:1 district using iBooks and they’d been at it for 5 years! Somehow the then Director of Education, Ron Canuel, and the decision makers in his district found a way to fund a gradual implementation and renewal of iBooks each year. And this is a public school board. There are pockets of 1:1 around in various districts and grades, but entire districts, no. Again the money.

    A question that comes to mind is: How long will parents continue to purchase devices for their children to make up for the lack of devices provided by schools?

    1. I don’t really notice many parents really buying tech for their kids because its really for school. I think the the kids with devices would have them regardless.

      Our school board is very well resourced with tech in most schools, especially speaking comparatively, but their still exists a general disdain for school/board owned tech, especially if it is imaged.

      1. Totally agree. While I have access to imaged tech, I prefer to use my own for classroom use, and many of my students do to. While I agree that most parents don’t buy with this intention, this also creates a divide in the student’s mind about what it is used for. Many of my students think of the device as entertainment, not as a tool. This is where my teaching practice has to come in and show them that the internet, a computer, an iDevice or anything does have more than one use, and that at school, we need to be able to use these tools for the purpose we need them to at that moment.

        All of which leads me to the idea that we need to help encourage parents to help position these devices as tools not just toys.

  6. Thank you for sharing. I am impressed by your positive attitude. Also, your willingness to find the real reason for the students’ device preference revealed the profoundly simple and often overlooked. What seems complicated may really be very simple. It is all about the comfort zone. One of our key responsibilities as teachers is to inspire steps then leaps out of those comfort zones. IMO, the best learning takes place within the intellectual discomfort zone!!

  7. I have experienced everything from a mish-mash of devices to 1:1 IPads, and I strongly feel that a 1:1 ratio of personal devices / tablets is ideal, as long as students have access to computers when needed. IPads allow for the differentiation of learning more than any other tool, and give students instant access to information. Computers have more limitations but are very useful for word processing. Schools need to be purposeful in how they use the (often limited) tools that they acquire, so that more students can benefit from these devices in meaningful ways.

    I started out this year with 10 IPads and 10 Netbooks to share amongst 24 students. Each group had two IPads to use for research purposes, and these devices quickly replaced dictionaries and grammar resources in our class. Students worked on group projects that allowed them to explore different ways of communicating information. With that model, however, I struggled to provide true opportunities for differentiation. Is it fair to provide a choice of device if there aren’t enough devices to go around? What do I say to the student who would like to use an IPad but there are none left? The BYOD model does not work very well with junior students whose parents aren’t comfortable allowing their child to bring their own device to school. I really wanted to go further with inquiry based learning, and provide students constant opportunities for differentiation.

    Mid-way through the school year I got my wish and acquired 1:1 IPads, in exchange for my Netbooks. Each student was assigned their own IPad, and was given “free reign” to use it as they saw fit. We had already learned about all of the basic functions of the IPads so it didn’t take long for students to use them as their own personal notebooks / research tools / creative outlets. Students take notes (including pictures and voice recordings) on a daily basis, and are given the opportunity to share their learning in any way they see fit (to a point). I can honestly say that with 1:1 IPads student engagement has been through the roof. They are extremely user-friendly and can be used with the swipe of a finger. They provide students with the opportunity to access pictures / videos / voice memos and music and assimilate these into creative projects without having to go between various devices.

    The only true limitation is that word processing is much more effective / efficient with a keyboard, and word processing skills are non-negotiable: Kids must learn them. Therefore, when writing a persuasive text, most students used their IPads to research and organize their ideas, but then we reserved the cart of Netbooks to type out the final copies and bibliographies. I find it works for students to have access to their IPads at all times. When it is time to type a document, they either do it at home or we reserve the cart of Netbooks.

    I strongly believe that students get the most out of IPads when they have 1:1 access to them, but that model is very unrealistic from a financial standpoint. On the other hand, we have to start somewhere. After looking at some data that about student engagement, I have learned that student engagement peaks in grade five, and then steadily decreases. Although all students could benefit from the use of technology and focus on differentiated learning, some students NEED it to succeed. Those are the students that would benefit most from being in the pilot program. For next year our goal is to carefully select students for the IPad classroom based on their engagement levels. If we can catch them in grade six and give them an exciting learning experience, how will that influence them moving forward? Of course, we would need to continue acquiring more IPads for our school, and the goal would be that those students have access to the technology as they move through grades seven and eight. My hope would be that those students would have moved from being disengaged with learning, to being leaders in their classrooms and experts on the IPads. They could be a resource for both their teachers and their classmates.

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