The interview with Professors Elliot Soloway and Cathleen A. Norris
July 7, 2015
Interviewer: Yu-Ju Lan, National Taiwan Normal University
By Yu-Ju Lan and Sally Chia-Ling Kao, National Taiwan Normal University
Two professors joined the interview talk: Professor Elliot Soloway from The College of Engineering at University of Michigan, and Professor Cathleen A. Norris, Regents Professor from the Department of Learning Technologies at University of North Texas. With interviewees from such solid backgrounds in education and technologies, the conversation touched on the importance of integrating 1-on-1 technology with education.
One of the principles of designing a program for children to learn something is to understand the users. “If you don’t understand the teachers, then designing the technology that you expect them to use is very difficult,” said Norris. “The first design principle is to know your user.”
However, teachers alone cannot create a program. “We are seeing more former teachers coming into universities. They tend not to be the programmers, the software designers. They just tend not to do that, so the only way to do it is through collaboration. It is the collaboration that results in useable software,” said Soloway. But what about the programmers alone? “The programmers have the tendency to add more features just because they can, which unnecessarily complicates the software for teachers,” said Norris. Thus, it is suggested that an appropriate program should be created through collaboration.
The other design principle is to make sure that the program is all set and ready before the children use it. “Let the children do something immediately, instead of asking them to do more things to get ready. When you open the program, you need to be able to do something and be successful right away, instead of setting things up. Have the software be ready immediately,” said Soloway. This statement is also supported by Norris, “Children are very quick to explore, but when they can’t do something immediately, such as setting up the frames in a animation app, they are not patient with it, nor are the teachers. Nobody wants to read lots of documents to begin.”
When it comes to using mobiles to play games 24/7, however, the parents and teachers may not be happy about it, so what can be done to encourage children to employ their mobile devices for learning? Soloway has suggested “making the tasks the kinds of tasks that the children are interested in, then they won’t play so many games, they will do the tasks.” In addition, instead of banning the children from playing a game, “on the whiteboard, list the games that are allowed. The games should have some learning value. Point them in the direction of games that do have learning value so that it’s not just a waste of time,” said Norris. “Let’s not say “No! No!” but figure out strategies to say yes.”
In terms of the reasons why smartphones have been widely used, three main reasons have been provided. “Due to the lowering cost of technology, anybody can afford it and so I think the reason is that the cost has reduced so quickly and people want the connectivity. They want to be connected, and smartphones enable that connection,” said Soloway. In addition to the lowering cost and the function of making people connected, “the technology has also become more attractive,” said Norris.
The conversation then moved on to talking about the trend identified in Singapore and whether that trend is also in the U.S.A. It has been found that researchers who work with teachers at school in Singapore not only provide teachers with support.. “The role that the researchers can play in the school change is very important. They give feedback to the teachers; they are there to make observation. These are professional. They make suggestions and ways to make improvement,” said Soloway. On the contrary, this trend has not been observed in the U.S.A. yet. “You don’t see the researchers playing an intimate role in the school. You don’t see that. And you certainly don’t see that the researchers are based physically at the school,” said Soloway.
Over the past decade, we would like to know whether the problems mentioned and published in 2002 have been improved. Although the situations in Singapore and in the U.S.A. are considered totally different, the goals are the same: “We want to educate children,” said Soloway, “Nan Chiau Primary School did change. Over the years, you can see it. It’s a little more complicated when you go to somewhere in the United States.” Since policies in different states vary, it is not considered quite possible to implement what’s done in Singapore in the U.S.A. “But because it’s so different from state to state, I think it will be impossible to do what we have done in Singapore in the U.S. It’s just too much variance in everything,” said Norris. Having said that, both Soloway and Norris are still positive about the future because the model there at Nan Chiau has already been set up, based on which they know that schools can change.
When asked if they have also gained respect and approval from teachers from other countries, both Soloway and Norris provide a positive answer. “We continue to work because we believe in what we are doing,” said Soloway. On the other hand, they also recognize the difficulty. “It is a little bit more difficult when you are talking about synchronous collaboration. It’s important that the tool suits the tasks. If the task is too simplistic, then the tool isn’t necessary. We don’t need to collaborate if it’s something I can do easily by myself,” said Norris.
Last but not least, Soloway and Norris provide some suggestions for young scholars about finding the right way and sticking to that. As Norris said, “have someone to collaborate with.” In addition, no matter how challenging it is, “we’re all persisting. We help each other. And it is social. And we both believe in what we are doing. We believe that we’re doing something that makes a difference that matters,” said Soloway.
Thanks to Soloway and Norris, many brilliant ideas about using technology in education have been brought up and many suggestions about designing a good program have been provided.