norris_solowayExpert Interview with Cathie Norris and Elliot Soloway at ICALT 2015

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015

The Road to Social Learning—Learning With & From Others

The following is an article by Dr. Ching-Kun Hsu (Ting-Chia Hsu) on Keynote Speakers, Cathleen Norris and Elliot Soloway, for ICALT 2015.


Interviewer: Ching – Kun Hsu (Ting-Chia Hsu)

  • Assistant Professor, Department of Technology Application and Human Resource Development, National Taiwan Normal University, Taiwan

Keynote Speakers: aCathleen Norris and bElliot Soloway

  • aRegents Professor, Intergalactic Mobile Learning Center, University of North Texas
  • bArthur F. Thurnau Professor, Intergalactic Mobile Learning Center, University of Michigan

1. Background and the most significant work of the two Keynote Speakers

Professor Norris’s background shows that both Professor Norris and the interviewer were formal high school teachers for more than ten years before teaching in the university.

Professor Norris believes that her prior experience truly helps in her research because she can relate her experience to the goings on in the classroom, and she understands the problems of the teacher. Therefore, she thinks that using technology in education can help address the problems arising in teaching and learning.

Dr. Soloway originally started in artificial intelligence studies. However, early in his tenure at Yale University, he realized that, after the birth of his first child, that making children smart would be a much better use of his time than making computers smart; therefore, he stopped working on artificial intelligence and started focusing on education.

Dr. Soloway and Professor Norris started working together many years ago when the Palm Pilot computer was first released. At that time, they believed that the laptop model would never scale up because that technology was too expensive for every child to have one. However, they believed that every child should have a computing device for education. However, the devices were not networked at the time. They believed that PDAs were the future, and they began to develop applications for the Palm. They used the applications in schools, which were beloved by the children. However, the Palm then became obsolete.

Their research experience at Nan Chiau Primary School (NCPS) in Singapore was an excellent opportunity because they were able to work with the same children and teachers for about seven years. They were able to watch the children undergo changes from grades three to six and see things that were not seen in year one, year two, year three, and so on.

Cathleen Norris and Elliot Soloway have contributed many important findings related to one-to-one technology in teaching and learning, from Singapore and around the world.

2. Transfer from Web 2.0 to Social 3.0

When students sit next to each other in the classroom, they can directly discuss face-to-face with one another in a group and collaboratively write or draw on the paper directly. Therefore, a question is raised: What is the role of the smartphone in activity?

Professor Norris said that children are very comfortable with smartphones, allowing them to work with others. When the students have someone to work with, they can question others instead of a teacher because students sometimes have their own words in a conversation. They will say something that the teacher might not say.

Professor Soloway further explained that we all have had the experience that when we talk, somebody says something in a different way., While we may not truly understand what we are dealing with but in working together, we then may develop an understanding. We are only beginning to see the power of collaboration in technology.

People say, “Oh, I understand collaboration,” but they really do not. Now, with the support of technology, no one knows what the future may bring.

3. Using devices to cooperate with one another

Professor Norris said that they typically have four to six children sitting on a table in a science classroom, and every child has their own device. She considers the following activity as an example. When the students build a concept map of a typhoon originating from somewhere, they collaborate to know the way a typhoon forms, the way it ends, and the things that happen in between. The students do not have to try and look at the screen of the teacher because of their own screen. Using the collabrified apps (e.g., WeCompose, a collabrified text editing tool) everything that one student writes appears immediately on everyone’s screens. They have their own devices, and every child has a voice when working with others in a group.

Professor Soloway emphasized the conversation of the students during collaborative activities. Questions are raised based on differences of opinion. For example, a student might ask of a colleague “Why did you do that?” The colleague might respond, “Oh, this is why I did that.” The students might argue but eventually they will try to come to a mutual understanding. Professor Soloway further explained the difference between “cooperation”, where people work together independently, and “collaboration”, where people truly develop a common, shared understanding.

They indicated that the children do not necessarily know how to negotiate a conflict initially, but children learn. This indication is the goal of school and education. Students learn to negotiate conflicts. They interact, collaborate, and learn collaborative learning skills and teamwork skills, which are absolutely critical in the 21st century.

4. Social learning extends inquiry learning

Professors Norris and Soloway proposed that social learning enriches inquiry learning. Professor Norris said that social learning – where individual learn from and with each other – should be added to the classroom. The synchronous nature of the collaborative inquiry adds to the richness of the inquiry experience. Similar to when Elliot and Cathleen are talking, he says something that triggers something in her experience, making her remember some other similar times or things. Consequently, social learning happens naturally in the inquiry-learning activities.

Professor Soloway further illustrated that the typical inquiry learning involves asking questions, trying to find information, and trying to understand. In adding other sources of information to the collaboration, other sources of opinion are brought into the conversation. The key contribution of the technology is enabling this kind of conversation. When students talk, the technology helps to refine or expand the idea. You and everyone can see the ideas. An extra component is present in the conversation, and that component is not only talk. An artifact emerges because the technology supports it.

5. Teacher belief is a challenge for scaling up

When the government wants to promote one-to-one technology in the classroom, it may encounter teacher belief as a challenge.

Professor Norris thought that one of the biggest challenges is the resistance of teachers. School teachers tend to teach as they were taught. They were taught without technology, so they tend to believe that teaching without technology is also a good thing. When technology is brought to the school, the burden of using the technology is placed on the teacher. An individual teacher may be doing wonderful things with technology, but everything they did goes with them when they leave. This model is called “Teacher-center model.”

In contrast, however, the teachers in NCPS had considerable help and support as they revised the curriculum to include technology Therefore, technology was not the burden of any individual teacher. The model adopted by Nan Chiau, is more school-centered, wherein the school is providing substantial support and the burden for curriculum development is not just on an individual teacher.

Professor Soloway further elaborated on the components of a school-based model. Leadership is key, including leadership at the principal level and the head of department (i.e., HOD) level. In all the levels, leadership has to be present. At NCPS, a high level of leadership was present at all levels, Given the principal, the HOD, and the teachers, leadership was present, and it enabled the school-based or school-centered model to work instead of the teacher-centered model.

The teachers collaborate with one another, and they actually perform modeling quite often. Teachers will model, and the teacher who is comfortable with carrying out inquiry will allow the other teachers to come in and observe her teaching. The teachers feel confident enough in their ability and their relationship with one another. The teachers believe that they should not take criticism personally and that the criticisms are not personal attacks on them. They know that now their peers are watching them to help them improve their instruction with technology. In other words, they have referred to themselves as a community of practice.

Both Keynote Speakers agreed that the teachers in Nan Chiau primary school have developed this community of practice, which is truly a wonderful thing to see.

Norris and Soloway have identified 12 factors that are critical for school change. Without these factors, the technology will not be sustained and maintained over the long term. The 12 factors have been shown in the keynote speech.

6. Asking questions to promote interactions

Professor Soloway is of the opinion that teachers encourage students to ask questions and to engage in conversations that explore those questions.

Professor Norris said that a right answer is not necessary, so whatever answer that a child gives should be followed by another question; the child is asked to elaborate and clarify. The inquiry is actually difficult, which is the reason for the involvement of the teachers at National Institute of Education (NIE) for the next project in Singapore to see whether a model of strategies and processes can be developed to teach the teachers to perform inquiries. With this model, the teachers are more comfortable as they enter the classroom, and with this process, they are able to help the other teachers.

7. Barriers to technology adoption

Professors Soloway and Norris proposed 12 key factors to school change, such as vision, leadership, budget, curriculum, teacher change, student change, infrastructure, parent change, time, and assessment. All these pieces have to be in place. The right kinds of assessment have to be present because valuing the conversation in an inquiry implies valuing the exploration. However, if only the content knowledge is tested, then the inquiry processes are not tested, so the assessment must examine student inquiry processes to.

The parents have to feel very comfortable that their children are getting a good education. In addition, we saw in Nan Chiau that parents felt slightly nervous about the events in the beginning, but they learned and saw the things that their children were doing, and they understood: “Ah, this is working for my child.” Therefore, all 12 factors, which take time and years, have to be in place. They are not going to happen overnight, but perhaps the moment issue can start and has to start somewhere. Time will be required to establish all the other factors so that they will be sustained and maintained.

Parents can be a barrier because an initial reaction states that parents did not learn in the same way. Parents who do not let their children participate put a double burden on the teacher. For instance, a teacher must work with children using technology, and they may have to work with children whose parents do not want their children to work with technology. Therefore, the teacher has to provide pencil-and-paper activities to these specific children. A reason for this phenomenon is that parents do not want to accept the financial responsibility when their child loses the technology or device. Some parents are concerned about eyesight. However, these devices typically have high–resolution screens, such that they are better than reading books; for example, they can be zoomed in or out.

8. Future technology

Professor Soloway notes that better smartphones can be seen in the future. Smartphones will be more powerful, networks will be faster, and costs will go down. Professor Norris infers that BYOD will also get to the point where the screens are not necessarily operated by a finger. Voice recognition will improve so that one does not have to type and write; one only has to talk to a device. People will identify the right screen size, such that the device is still portable enough for children to pull out of their pocket, which is an essential consideration.

Professors Soloway and Norris indicate that children have been using smaller devices or smartphones in grades three and four in Nan Chiau primary school, and use 10 inch tablets in grade five. The tablets go into backpacks when the students leave school, and these tablets did not come out again until the children come back to school the next day. However, the smartphones are stored in their pockets all the time or around the necks of students. Therefore, the students would simply pull their phones out and use them when an opportunity comes for them to use their phones, such as to capture a photo, interview someone, or record an artifact that they were working on. The children would not have to stop, take their backpack off, and take their smartphones out. Therefore, the size of the mobile device is essential for future technology in education.

9. Developing 21st century skills

Professors Soloway and Norris and several scholars have pointed out many critical skills for the 21st century taken from the Singapore master plan manifesto. What is the goal? Why use technology? For the master plan, technology is a very important part of the learning process because technology is a significant part of the business world as the children grow and leave school.

Professor Norris said that in the US, statistics show that 65% of the children currently studying in elementary school will be employed in jobs that do not exist today. Therefore, learning static things today for a job that does not even exist is not going to help them.

Teachers nowadays have to make sure that the students are able to learn learning, inquire for information, and know things that are correct and things that can be done with technology.

Professor Soloway emphasized that technology is absolutely critical in learning because devices are the key to unlocking all kinds of resources, not just for information but also for people, opportunities, and events. These devices are the key to opening and allowing children to develop in the 21st century.

The curriculum needs to be restructured to support the use of technology. The students do not necessarily know how to use the technology and how to collaborate at the outset, but they can learn, and that is what school is about. In other words, the curriculum has to be formed. The teachers have to feel comfortable in using technology-infused curriculum in a way that they have not been in the past. Direct instruction is only a small part of the pedagogy. A major transformation should be applied to the curriculum for developing 21st century skills.

10. Collaboration and interests for self-directed learning

Professor Norris suggests that education needs to start with very young children. Everyone wants to do something that they are good at. If people are not good at something, then they do not want to do it. Therefore, we have to work very hard when the children are in the early grades to make them successful at learning.

For example, 50% of children in the US dropped out of school at the start or during high school. Therefore, those in high school are the successful ones. We have to start from the very beginning in the primary schools and give children a very good foundation. This goal means that everyone needs a device that can motivate them and make them successful, which is what we need to do.

Professor Soloway considers the reading program of Dr. Tak-Wai Chan as an example. The children read books quietly when they are interested. If the students are doing something they are interested in, then they will be successful. Otherwise, they will resist.

The power of the technology provides range to children. In Taiwan, children read many paper-based books early on. In addition a social network where the children are involved is included by Dr. Chan. This network is where students share the things that they have learned about their reading. Therefore, students convince other children to read their books. This phenomenon is very powerful. Therefore, when technology is used in the right way, technology can be very productive.

11. Students’ attitudes are different in eastern and western countries

Professor Norris thought that the students in Asia are significantly more dutiful learners than those in the U.S. In Singapore, from the very beginning, the children go to school with an appreciation for education, their schools, and their teachers, but this phenomenon is not necessarily true in the US.

Many research articles on mobile learning mention that it is engaging for children. This aspect was sufficient to begin with, but we now have to go beyond engagement. Working toward academic achievement and not only engaging the children should be the goal. Engagement is good, but it needs to lead to something else.

Professor Soloway considers the important role and influence of parents at home. He said that in one town near Ann Arbor “80% of the families are single-parent families.” The students do not have two parents to nurture them and support them in conversations at the dinner table. By contrast, in Singapore there is a more family-supportive environment, which affects the way children come to school and their attitudes toward school.

12. Definition of four terms: mobile-learning, seamless learning, one-to-one technology in the classroom, and bring your own device (BYOD)

Professor Norris clarifies that BYOD is a means of achieving one-to-one technology. When people want mobile learning but do not know how to obtain the technology, one-to-one learning can be achieved if children brought their own device.

However, the devices of the students may differ, which is the problem with BYOD. Therefore, browser-based games are best for teachers because the browser is the only commonality among diverse devices.

Professor Soloway said that the abovementioned reason is why today’s technologies are being developed. HTML5 is finally versatile enough for developing technologies and applications. Web-based technology works in a laptop, an Android device, an iOS device, or a Chromebook.

In the past, BYOD was very difficult for the classroom teacher to exploit. However, today, if the software truly runs in all these different devices, then the teacher does not have to worry significantly about application-related problems. Consequently, BYOD and one-to-one learning can come together.

Professor Norris indicates that the goal of seamless technology is to support all-the-time, everywhere learning. Activities can be done at home before children can go back to school. The idea is that learning does not stop when a student walks out of the school door. If everyone has a one-to-one device, then location does not matter. If a student gets into the habit of having a device and using it in every opportunity to learn, then learning becomes seamless.

Professor Soloway revealed that they do not like to describe seamless learning as learning anytime and anywhere. Instead, seamless learning should be “all the time, anywhere learning,” which changes the focus. Whether the students are at the mall, in the soccer field, or on the bus, they are learning.

13. Collabrified Apps

As Professor Norris states, “Collabrified means that the technology enables us to do synchronous work together,” similar to Google Docs Editor, which allows one and one’s colleagues to write or edit a paper together. Not only are all the group members allowed to edit a paper, but they can also talk through Hangouts, and work on a document when they are not in the same location. Therefore, they can be doing these activities at the same time. All group members can see the things that are happening.

Professor Soloway invented the term Collaborfaction, in which any application can be made to support synchronous collaboration ( For example, in a collabrified concept mapping app, two or more students can be talking together, while co-editing a concept. Accordingly, the notion of collabrified means to take an app that does not support synchronous collaboration and make it support synchronous collaboration. Moreover, the collabrification process turns out not to be that particularly complicated. Professors Norris and Soloway have predicted that in two to four years, every mobile application and web page will be collabrified. Connecting with others will occur with just a touch of a button.

For more information of WeCollabrify app, please refer to the following video.

The following figure concludes this interview sequence. These issues are useful ideas not only for mobile learning but also for any technology adopted for education.