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Hardware as Digital Distraction to Language Learning?

In the May 4, 2007, edition of the New York Times, Winnie Hu's article, "Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops" raises a number of interesting talking points in the debate over technology in the schools. The Liverpool Central School District outside of Syracuse, New York, has given up its ambitious program of one-laptop-per-student after a series of abuses and technical difficulties. According to the article, the laptops made absolutely no difference in academic performance. So goodbye, hardware.

Personally, I'm not against the school district's decision to repeal the digital initiative. The intent was a noble one addressing a vital question concerning the perceived "digital divide": if every student has a computer, no one gets left behind, at least technologically. But handing laptops out to every student might not be the best way to go about meeting that need. Hardware is finicky at best, and when left unchecked, can be used for purposes other than school-assigned learning. Perhaps a controlled environment is best, with kids getting equal shares of time on-line during the school-day, a lab if you will, for students to work, play and explore on managed hardware.

The laptop issue also raises the matter of "digital distractions", hardware issues that detract from the learning at hand. If kids are fussing over a wonky laptop, cannot figure out their iPods, or are geeked out about a tablet PC, the classroom content gets neglected and nothing gets learned. The all-important key here is to make the IT as transparent as possible. Make the GUI (graphical user interface) intuitive, easy to use. If people aren't ditracted by the technology that is being used to convey information, then the data assume their primary role as fodder to drive the learning process.

With eLearning in the context of Classics coursework, several instructors are integrating technology and content to produce lessons that work for their students. Both the teachers and students understand the technology and are able to effortlessly make the leap from bits and bytes to Latin grammar. Dr. Jenny Sheridan Moss uses podcasts to supplement her Latin lessons at Wayne State University. Justin Schwamm, Jr., uses SMART AirLiners (instead of Smartboards) for his high school Latin students so they can work on projects in small groups.

By sticking with what you know, and by gradually introducing new, vetted hardware and software applications, you can avoid that digital distraction while still offering students new ways of learning language. You don't have to go to the lengths of Schwamm and Moss; even placing your hand-outs and worksheets on-line for students to download at home (as is done at the University of Edinburgh) can be enough technology to make your class modern and perhaps more efficient.

Have you experienced these digital distractions, and have you been able to work around them without giving up on technology?

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