I met teacher Barbara Ubbens by chance. We were seated next to one another to watch TDChristian’s theatre production. She made a comment about being near the end of a month-long experiment with her Grade 7/8 class at Timothy Christian School in Etobicoke in their “month with tech” project. It sounded like a story idea for the OACS News Service, and a couple months later I visited her class to learn more.
The idea for the experiment stemmed from a concern that parents expressed at a conference about the amount of time their children spend on technology, without self-control. This prompted Mrs. Ubbens to ask her class, “What do you think about spending time looking at technology in our lives?” The students were enthusiastic about the idea.
Mrs. Ubbens created a Project-Based Learning (PBL) technology block, with the driving question: How can we wisely manage the technology available in our culture to keep it a positive impact in our lives? Students each had a task and topic to explore, with hosting a Tech Night for parents and community members as the culminating event.
Students needed to bring technology into the classroom for the experiment, and through class discussion there was a natural divide: boys wanted to bring in their gaming devices, while girls opted for social technology devices (smartphones or iPods), but all of them brought in music. On the first day (in early November) students brought in their technology of choice along with parental permission slips. Two students did not receive permission to bring in technology but encouraged the class to go ahead with the experiment, as they too wanted to learn about the topic.
Instead of the usual routine of placing their non-computer technology in the classroom bin during class students were encouraged to use their technology. Mrs. Ubbens used a “get wet” water metaphor: if you’re thirsty and someone puts a glass, jug or pool of water in front of you you’ll drink until you’re satisfied. From this example students started developing a scale for usages of technology relating to how wet they could get, with “drowning” being someone who is addicted.
The students in Mrs. Ubbens’ class are used to protocols, which provide a sense of stability and understanding. “It gives them a way to behave, a package to understand,” she said. She picked up a couple more protocols to use for PBL while attending last summer’s Christian Teachers Academy.
On the first day, Mrs. Ubbens asked a question to a student who was on her phone during work time. The student immediately took out her earbuds and said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.” Mrs. Ubbens asked why she took her earbuds out and the student responded because it seemed rude to talk with them in. Mrs. Ubbens asked the class, “Should we create a protocol on how to do this? Is that important?” The response and a vote on the question were both unanimous.
The first protocol, which was written on a technology board in the room, was to give your full attention to people, not your technology. Others included that music shouldn’t be so loud that it disrupts others around you, and if you’re playing a game don’t distract someone next to you trying to complete work.
As part of the unit, each student had a task to complete for the event and a topic to research and share. Students tasks included helping with the event’s planning and organization, creating questions for panels, and developing a protocol for classrooms. Some topics explored were the affects of screen time, the addiction to cell phones, whether music helps with studying, and the design and creation of games.
When I visited the Grade 7 and 8 class a few weeks ago, the students openly shared reflections on the project in a whole class conversation. It became apparent the classroom had radically changed during the month-long experiment. What I might have seen on one of those days was a student catching up on a Netflix show before class, classmates who usually socialize during lunch sitting next to each other texting one another, and two other students using Snapchat to video chat with one another across the room. One student brought in a screen that he and his friends set up in the corner of the class to play video games on. Here’s an edited and condensed sample of the students’ feedback:
For the first few days you were able to bring your phones/games into class, how was that different for you?
Julia: When we first brought them in a lot of people—including myself—were on it a lot when we weren’t supposed to, but then we sort of learned how to use it more appropriately as we had it longer.
Philip: In the first days with technology I had the ability to play games during periods. I liked the idea of taking breaks from my work and playing a game, but then I also got tempted to play too much. I got a hold of myself. If I knew I was playing too much I would tell myself to stop and actually do work.
Keyzia: In the first couple days we were learning what the boundaries of actually using the technology in school was. . . it was a learning step.
I can imagine that there was a lot of challenges in that. Once you started getting a hold of those limits, what did you like most about having that freedom to use technology during class?
Gemma: I’m a big music person, so music generally helps me focus while I’m doing work. Having the ability to put my headphones on and listen to music while I worked was helpful.
Keyzia: I feel like with the breaks—we would take a five-minute break each period or 10 minutes to play games—I think it helped a lot of people to be more productive.
I hear that some things went really well during this project. But, was there anything you didn’t like about the experiment?
Philip: I started to get addicted when I took a break and took too much time on the game and didn’t get much work done.
Madison: I would listen to music while I worked, I would find it really distracting, I could never find a good song or something good to listen to, so I’d be flipping through songs for too long and get distracted.
Naomi: When doing group work people in your group would be too distracted on their devices.
Carolyn: We would take advantage of having technology in the classroom and we would just go onto Snapchat and text people. We’d be texting people in the middle of math class and stuff, even though we should have been getting our work done.
So now that the project is done, what did you learn? Do you look at technology differently now?
Isaiah: My group studied the benefits of technology, and we learned it can help cognitive abilities and practical uses. That’s changed my view of tech because I think while I’m playing, I’m not just playing.
Evan: We researched the pros and cons of how it can affect you so learning about the negative—maybe it has helped me play less.
Danny: I learned not to abuse it. It’s easier to say the negative things of video games—you can get addicted—but we need to research more of the benefits and see how it helps. Now I have more knowledge of what I’m doing when I play video games, so I understand better how it affects me.
You’ve had a whole month with technology in class and now you’re going back to being without tech again. I’m curious, how do you feel now?
Carolyn: I kind of missed having technology, I was used to being able to put in my earbuds and listen to music while I’m doing my work and it was hard to get back into the routine.
Keyzia: It took a toll on some people, they were so used to having music or something to give them a break and without having that it was a big struggle. Some people all they wanted to do was be on their phone. I feel like the addiction part could have gotten worse because all they wanted was their phone.
Philip: I felt it was 50-50 good and bad. The entertainment got lost, which was bad . . . but it was good because the communication towards other people improved.
Gemma: I found it kind of a relief, it was great at some times and other times I was drowning. I’d have days where I wouldn’t talk to a lot of people because I had music on, there’d be times when I’d be like, ‘Oh, I haven’t watched a lot of Netflix in awhile,’ so I’d be sitting there in the morning watching Pretty Little Liars. I’d be like, ‘I could do work,’ but again, I’m a procrastinator. It was kind of nice getting back in a routine where I knew the work was always going to get done.
Megan: It didn’t affect me much because I didn’t bring my phone in. I was glad when it was over because people were more social.
Abigail: I did miss it, it was nice to check something on the Internet or go on it for a little but during class but when it left I kind of got used to it being gone again, it was still hard to get used to that.
The first time running a PBL block there are always things that could have been done differently, says Mrs. Ubbens, noting she feels her marking rubric wasn’t strong enough. As part of the learning through the unit, some students experienced fails. She doesn’t solve students’ problems but instead asks them what they are going to do about it and guides them through choosing an option. “I don’t solve their problems because then they can’t fail if I’m just going to pick up the pieces,” she said.
Three students chose to create video presentations for the Tech Night, and one failed due to poor quality of sound and light. In another case, the team that organized the event were very nervous during that evening and lacked some command, which Mrs. Ubbens attributed to running out of time to practice beforehand.
A group who worked on developing guidelines for using technology in the classroom had planned to share their protocols with another Christian school, but decided not to as it wasn’t strong enough.
“We admit failures publicly in the class, it’s a safe space,” Mrs. Ubbens said. “We say what went wrong, because a lot of them are just small pieces and we celebrate the fact that we did fail and we’re still standing.”
Through their research and experiences, students learned that they have little self-control with technology and the wisdom to gain control isn’t going to come from their parents—which becomes an argument—but from themselves. Students also realized there are great uses for technology and times to refrain using it.
At the end of the Tech Night, students stood up and made a commitment to engage in discussion about technology with their parents and follow the protocols established in the classroom at home for a week, to be followed by another discussion with parents.
“I have a lot of happy parents that were able to have conversations with their kids. Maybe not solutions yet, but the conversation has started and there’s an openness,” Mrs. Ubbens told me, noting those were her two goals. “I still have kids who are addicted to technology, I didn’t solve that. I didn’t expect to.”
Following the Tech Night event students had a whole class conversation, talking about what went well and what could be changed. The conversation resulted in a page full of changes, which Mrs. Ubbens told the class she will consider if she runs the unit again.
As to whether she’ll run the experiment again? Mrs. Ubbens notes the unit is a fair amount of work to govern and the decision to engage in it again would depend on whether the students need the conversation. In the meantime, the Grade 8 students leaving Timothy Christian School later this year for high school will go equipped with a better understanding of how technology can impact their lives.