Edtech and the Audience Effect

There’s been a lot of publicity recently about education technology gadgets. Amplify’s new tablet, iPads, Chromebooks, and the like come to mind. But reading textbooks or browsing the internet on a different divice doesn’t excite me. It’s not the device that matters, it’s what you do with that device.

To that end, the latest issue of Wired magazine has a fascinating article about how the internet enables anyone to write for and connect to an authentic audience, and the power of these connections. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here’s a brief quote:

Having an audience can clarify thinking. It’s easy to win an argument inside your head. But when you face a real audience, you have to be truly convincing.

Social scientists have identified something called the audience effect—the shift in our performance when we know people are watching. It isn’t always positive. In live, face-to-face situations, like sports or concerts, the audience effect can make athletes or musicians perform better—but it can sometimes psych them out and make them choke, too.

Yet studies have found that the effort of communicating to someone else forces you to pay more attention and learn more.

The internet is the killer app of education, but not for the usual “you can look up any information” reason that you tend to hear. It’s the connections students make with others and the ability to get work visible to others that are the true potential of edtech. Dan Meyer hits on something very similar in his recent post regarding the possibilities of networked devices.

A few years ago, I read a book called An Ethic of Excellence, by Ron Berger. One of the central principles of the book is the importance of having students do real, public work. Mr. Berger describes having his sixth grade students collaborate with a local college to test basements in their town for radon gas. The concern of the students to provide accurate and helpful information to the people of the town drove them to work harder on this project because “This was not an exercise. It was real, important work that mattered to the world. Anything short of excellence would be intolerable.”

The internet offers the potential for making all work real, important, and public. Yet the persistent urge to lock down the devices students use remains (see: LAUSD “iPad hacking” uproar). How do we shift from worring about what students will do on the internet to worrying about what they can’t do without it?

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