This last Thursday I had the opportunity to pitch the idea of parents purchasing laptops (Asus EeePCs) for our current batch of 4th grade students who are participating in the SWATTEC initiative, as they will soon be heading into the 5th grade. To be sure, this wasn't the first time I'd floated the idea, however it was the first time I believe it was perceived to be "real" to the administration team (principals and leadership), as the end of the school year is rapidly approaching and the components of the potential promotion are starting to come together. There was much insight and a lively discussion, which I believe will be tremendously valuable as we work our way through the possibilities. One comment, in particular, stood out to me, which I believe could be the greatest challenge to each of us as we move away from the model of school provided technology and into one in which students bring their own (which I believe to be inevitable). That comment was: "if we make that [the EeePC I was holding at the time] a part of the curriculum, then we must provide it to the students."
This, of course, got me thinking about exactly what part of "that" was actually part of the curriculum. And perhaps more importantly, what is "that" and how can we make it so that it does not interfere with or become the curriculum, so that the focus can be on what students do with it, rather than on the technology itself. In that sense, I think we are at a tipping point at which the fundamental components of a real technology infusion in the learning environment has the potential to become a practical reality for all of us, much more so than it ever has in the past.
To understand where I am coming from on this, one must first recognize that the primary reason technology has not reached its potential in the past is largely due to its complexity. I'm sure we all agree that every student should have a personal device, yet we understand that complex implementation requirements combined with expensive equipment running complicated, unreliable, and insecure operating systems creates an environment in which things are always broken and failure is inevitable. Massive support infrastructures larger than most school districts can ever hope to afford are a requirement for such an environment to be effective, which, when left unfulfilled, leads to ultimate abandonment in the classroom, with only the most hardy souls sticking to it, trying to make it work. Tolerance for failure among teachers is generally low.
On the flip side we have the students, who are not so "native" as some would purport, yet also not afraid to try new things. They don't generally need to be taught how to use technology, primarily because they are more than willing to try, fail, try again, ask others, and generally figure things out. What is their number one technology? Cell phones. Why? Because they are inexpensive enough that all can have one, have the battery life to make it through an entire day, and are easy to use, doing just what they need, when they need it. They rarely (if ever) fail and none need to be trained to figure out how to use them. And they bring their own - we don't provide them.
So knowing this, how do we create an environment with technology as simple, affordable, and reliable as the cell phone, yet with the power to bring truly transformative change to the classroom? I believe through the fusion of three powerful technologies: netbooks, open-source software, and web 2.0.
Netbooks overcome nearly all of the hardware obstacles to students bringing technology into the classroom. They are low cost, typically less than half that of a traditional laptop. They provide incredible battery life which enables them to easily be on a students desk all day, ready to be used at a moment's notice, with no complex systems of spare batteries, charging stations, etc. to get in the way. They are also extremely durable, especially if one uses the flash-based models which have no moving parts. Cell phone durability and battery life can make the difference between seamless use and constant disruption in the classroom.
Open-source software is the obvious answer to achieving cell phone reliability and ease of use on a device. With Linux and open-source software on netbooks, all the complexities of typical proprietary operating systems can be stripped away, leaving elegant, cell-phone like interfaces of simple icons, with reliable and secure underpinnings that are not prone to failure, malware, or general instability. All the tools you would expect are there, along with dozens more that you wouldn't. Quick restore features can be used to empower users to reset their systems in seconds, should something go awry, leaving devices no longer needing to be "managed" to "save users from themselves," as many tech directors might put it. In short, you achieve interfaces that do not impede the use of the system, rather they enable it by empowering users through simplicity of design and freedom to explore without risk.
With the hardware and software in place, the final piece of the puzzle is this: leveraging our students' natural drive to create, share, and connect - to be social - through the use of web 2.0 tools. The use web 2.0 tools in the classroom creates a powerful, participatory learning environment. Not only does the mere production of content for an audience bring about a certain authenticity to common tasks, it also breaks down barriers, makes the classroom porous, and creates a sense of community among students, teachers, and parents. What does it mean when 2nd grade students can see the work of fourth grade students and decide to take on that task themselves in a self-directed, online activity? What happens to learning when students create content with the express intent of helping other students understand key concepts? What is the impact of teachers being able to connect with students at any hour, regardless of whether they are in their class or not? Concepts such as these shake the very foundations of 19th century learning models and bring powerful new ideas about teaching and learning in the 21st century.
When we combine these three, I believe we have the ingredients of transformation at our fingertips. Does it work? Absolutely yes, we've seen this success in the SWATTEC program. We've done nearly zero training on the laptops themselves, yet the students are using them for amazing things on a daily basis, and teachers have embraced them to the degree that they are regularly used all day, every day in the learning environment.
So what's the magic? How do we make these into school supplies? My thoughts are as follows:
- Set up a purchase program for parents who wish to buy a computer for their students, with the incentive being that the students would own the laptops and be able to take them home, as well as carry the same laptop through grade level changes and the like. Their low cost places them well within reach of a typical family (most have expensive cell phones, after all.)
- Make as many laptops available at school as possible for those who are unable/unwilling to purchase one.
- Install all of the same programs that the laptops have on them on every machine on campus, and give the software to parents to install on their home computers. All of the software can be installed on any machine running any operating system, be they classroom computers or those in a student's home, without restriction or expense, creating an environment of ubiquitous technology access.
The trick, of course, will be achieving critical mass of parent supplied netbooks. 60% probably isn't enough, unless the district has the wherewithal to provide enough backup equipment to accommodate the other 40%. But, if the parents provide 70-80%, and those who don't are provided with equipment to use at school and all the software for use at home, have we achieved our goal? When do the laptops become school supplies? If we no longer have to teach students how to use the laptops themselves, no longer have the burden of providing significant support for them or training on how to use them, and we make sure all of the tools are free and easily accessible no matter what device the student uses, does the laptop suddenly become like a calculator? One of many means to an end? Thoughts?
Posted by Jim Klein |