Portable Computing For Everyone

Well, no one is likely to hire me as a futurist. But it doesn’t many predictive skills to see that portable computing is the direction things are heading in education. While there are some issues to be worked out – battery life being the big one – it just makes sense to have the flexibility that comes with laptops and other portable computing/communication devices.

Some districts and states have already recognized the potential and have implemented programs giving laptops to some of their students. The governor of Massachusetts has proposed doing that for all middle and high school students in the state, possibly using the $100 laptop being developed by MIT.

Unfortunately, much of the focus, not to mention the money, in these "one-to-one computing" projects goes to the hardware. Other important factors, required to make the machines into useful tools for teaching and learning, tend to get lost and underfunded.

The result is that governors get some great photo ops and little real change in education. At least the writers of an opinion piece in the Boston Globe understand there’s more to instructional computing than just the computer.

One lesson is the necessity of professional development for teachers. Laptops can catalyze positive changes in teaching and learning only if teachers take the lead through effective use of the technology to transform classroom instruction, and if teachers and principals learn to use technology to help them make sound instructional decisions based on achievement data. This will require training and support.

Teacher training is certainly one of those vital pieces that is often minimized in these programs, although that’s getting better. But the part about making "effective use of the technology to transform classroom instruction" is the important factor here. It’s also the most difficult part and the slowest to implement.

However, this is the real bottom line for any use of computing in the classroom.

Students will recognize this initiative as a vote of confidence. They see that the world is changing rapidly and that to compete they must master the computer and the Internet with newfound information age skills. If we challenge them to excel at writing, presentation, collaboration, analysis, and logical thinking — and give them the tools to meet those challenges — they will create a prosperous future for themselves and for our Commonwealth.

"Writing, presentation, collaboration, analysis, and logical thinking" – that’s a great list of the real world skills all students should be learning in our classrooms. However, most American schools are currently set up to teach memorization and recitation skills, regardless of the type of technology used.

Putting laptops in the hands of students and teachers will not by itself produce real change. Training teachers how to use computing as part of the traditional curriculum is one step better. Using technology as a catalyst to completely reform teaching and learning should be the ultimate goal of any laptop project.

Without that, all the money, effort, and time spent on laptops will be wasted.

laptop, massachusetts, instructional computing

The $100 Plan for School Reform

Andy Carvin is attending Technology Review’s Emerging Technology Conference and reports on a presentation about the MIT Media Lab plan to develop a $100 laptop for use by schools in the developing world.

But the great thing about this project is that the director, Nicholas Negroponte, says this is not about cheap hardware.

"The idea is simple – it’s to look at education. This is an education project, not just a laptop project. If you take any world problem – peace, the environment, poverty – the solution to that problem certainly includes education. And if you have a solution that doesn’t include education, than it’s not a real solution at all."

While it may be hard to believe that it’s possible to produce a $100 laptop that will also hold up to student use, the Media Lab expects to have a prototype ready by November. Even more amazing is that they plan to have at least five million beta units deployed within one year.

Even if it takes a little longer to create and costs twice as much, an inexpensive, portable computing device designed for education has huge potential to force major changes in the way we view teaching and learning.

It’s hard to imagine how our traditional educational structure – with the teacher in control of all knowledge – can possibly remain in place when every student has instant, continuous access to information and communications tools.

Closing the Ever Widening Gap

Earlier this week, after helping a colleague with a problem, I was asked an odd question I get far too often: "How do you keep up with all of this?". It’s meant as a compliment, of course, and my response is usually some vague reference to practicing a lot.

Lately, however, the voice inside my head has its own response, something along the lines of "What do you mean ‘keep up’? I’m not ‘keeping up’! I’m falling behind!". Maybe I’m just suffering from information overload, but I continually have this feeling that the more I learn, the more I’m missing.

Those two conversations, with the colleague and myself, popped into my head as I drove home this afternoon listening to the latest podcast of Ed Tech Coast To Coast. As part of their discussion about student access to technology, Steve, Will and Tim Wilson tossed around the issue of the "digital divide".

Much has been written about the inequity of the availability of computers and communications tools between different schools. However, the digital divide between teachers exists even in technology rich schools. As Will points out, there are many teachers who have no idea of the power and potential already sitting in their own classrooms.

So, is it possible to help these teachers move faster in their understanding of how to best use what they have – maybe before the next wave of innovation hits? I agree with Will that it’s going to be difficult to impossible as the gap continually widens.

That’s not a slam on teachers. My pessimism is based on the current structure of our educational system. Nothing in most school classrooms is going to change unless there is a genuine need to change.

Right now, the prevailing opinion among those driving school reform is that we can improve learning without alterations to the framework of the system.

However, the communications tools being discussed here have the power to offer students authentic experiences in collecting, organizing and using information. Tapping that power demands major changes to our approach to teaching and learning.

Tim sums up this situation very well with a quote from a business publication: "Every system is perfectly designed for the results it achieves". Unfortunately, that defines American education perfectly.

Anyway, there is much more to their conversation and the podcast is well worth 40 minutes of your time. Now, I’m off to see if I can shake this feeling that I’ve been missing something important while writing this post.

Who Needs an Office?

Something on the order of 90% of the world uses the Office suite from the Big Monopoly. I would bet, however, that most people don’t really need all the power contained in the Word part of the package and never get past the basic functionality of the program anyway.

Which is why a web-based word processor like Writely makes so much sense. The interface is very similar to the Office package but much simpler. The system includes the ability to add tables and pictures, check spelling and many other features you’d expect from a basic editor.

You wouldn’t want to write your next best seller in Writely (for that you’d want the open source Open Office). But this system is simple to use, easily accessible, and free. A great combination for schools.

The Electricity Doesn’t Work Either

It’s pretty well known that the DC public school system is a mess – administratively, educationally, just about an -ly you can come up with. Add technologically to the list. For the second year in a row, they can’t get the computers used for class scheduling and other administrative tasks working.

Over the past few years it’s been amusing to follow the exploits of the IT folks in DC public, although it’s a little less funny when you remember that I, as a federal taxpayer, provided some of the money being wasted.

However, this warrants a good laugh anyway.

This week, the school board will vote on spending $169,125 for routers at 130 schools. The routers should help ease congestion on the computer networks and increase speed, said Barlow, adding that response times have improved because of adjustments made to a server last week.

They have no one over there with enough tech knowledge to figure out they needed routers?