The problem with choice…

is that it leads to commitment. The problem with commitment is that it takes away choice. I spent a day sharing with other teachers iPad apps we have discovered over the summer. Underlying the positive, energetic conversation was a feeling of unease tied to decision-making – for ourselves and our students. What’s the best app for…? Answer depends – personal preference, age group, purpose, features. Sometimes there is no clear answer because they seem so similar. We bring life choice experience and baggage to the table, which complicates things even further.

To use an old but useful analogy, people who chose Beta over VHS invested in the wrong technology even though the two performed the same operation. With entertainment technology there is a fear of investing in the next Beta. Life choices – including spouse, house, and job – involve a stronger although not irreversible commitment. Choosing one excludes all other options, and all three involve entangling alliances of a sort. Thus, these life choices can produce great anxiety and stress when we are making them. On the low end of the commitment scale is grocery shopping. I may spend some time trying to pick the right salad dressing, but if I do not like it, I can easily replace it. And, years of experience give me a pretty good idea of what I might like. Today’s tech tool choices fall into a range in between the extremes.

Many of us use Evernote. A few are still using OneNote, which was the tool of choice when we were thinking tablet pcs might be the future. To adopt Evernote was a pretty easy decision – lots of people I respect and tons of articles have shared its virtues. Maybe someday I will have the time to experiment with all of its features, but for now I am happy it does everything I need – except let me handwrite notes. Sometimes I like to do that. So, that sent me into the world of note-taking apps. I have yet to figure out why I would like Notability, Noteshelf or GoodNotes best. My basic toe-in-the-water experience is that these are pretty similar. At the same time, for organizational purposes, I want to choose one. The problem is that I do not feel strongly enough to commit, and I am not convinced that there is not some clear winner out there that I do not yet know about. My colleague introduced me to Zite, which I tried and really like; another colleague previously introduced me to Flipboard, which I also like a lot. I do not have time in my day for both, so which to choose? In this case I will probably go back and forth until I gravitate to one. Since this does not involve my own production, it is easier to stay on the fence for a while.

Add students to the mix, and there is another layer of complexity – the tension involved in training kids to be independent learners and providing enough structure and guidance. Mandating every student to use the same tech tool does not honor their personal preferences and styles, but providing too much choice can be dizzying, even paralyzing for kids who are uncertain. The higher the stakes, the harder the choice is. Picking a presentation tool for one assignment is closer to grocery shopping. It is a temporary, relatively low stakes choice that kids can make often with some background knowledge. Selecting a blogging platform is a little more complicated. Choosing a system to manage their notes and research requires greater commitment with more investment. What student wants to create a LiveBinder only to be told the class is shifting to Evernote, while he really wants to keep using GoogleDocs. I am fine with kids making their own choices in theory, but I can also appreciate how it could get out of hand. I do not know if I can provide the time necessary to have them really fully investigate options – and I do not know that it would be worth the time. My overall thinking is that seniors should have more choices than freshman and sophomores, so that is how I will operate, but I still have some thinking to do.

The tension increases even further when we talk as a faculty about the value of choice but recognize the problems involved in having students shift back and forth between too many tools. I bristle at the idea of schoolwide conformity because I like to jump in and try new things. I want to be able to shift when something better comes along. But I also know that I do not want my students spending too much of their energy figuring out what they are supposed to be doing and where they are supposed to be looking in my class.

At this point, I feel like I am understanding some of the challenges inherent in all of the new possibilities for teaching and learning with technology. The iPad pilot program we are launching started the wheels turning on this topic. I will spend this year (and beyond) thinking through the best way to navigate these challenges with the best interests of the students I mind. I think this is a new reality of my job.

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2 thoughts on “The problem with choice…

  1. My school went 1:1 iPads last year and it was a great and challenging experience. In the beginning, when the tool was new I explained to my students how certain apps worked. Towards the middle of the year (as students became more experienced) I allowed students to use whatever app they wanted – instead of saying “use EduCreations,” I told them use a screen casting app. Students then simply posted it to Edmodo (a student management system) and all was well.

    My biggest piece of advice is don’t fall in love with an app. It (and you) will change.

    Good luck!

    • Thanks for your insights here. We are just doing a pilot with two sections of kids and about twenty faculty members this year. So, we are mainly imagining what we could do. My sections will not have iPads, unless kids bring their own. We struggle with the tension of providing some uniformity for kids and also some choice. The reality is that some faculty members are more comfortable than others letting kids choose their tools. I appreciate your advice about the apps. It is easy to get hung up there.

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