“And let us also resolve that our new technologies — the Internet and the World Wide Web —will be used as tools of empowerment and democratization on a global scale.”
Source: MIT President Charles M Vest addressing the graduates at MIT’s 136th commencement on 7 June 2002

Last Friday, I found myself in the funny spot of advocating “cheap $400 wireless laptops” for schools. I found myself giving the Angus King speech–a sign I’d read the Andy Carvin’s transcript and listened to the podcast too many times–repeating the story of King’s lunch meeting with Seymour Papert about 1:1 with students. Having been a bit under the weather this weekend, I’m at home today trying to recover (better to spend that time now than drag it over the long haul later). In the spirit of Nyquil induced thinking, I haven’t really bought the concept of cheap, wireless laptops yet, so this makes it a perfect topic to explore in a blog entry. The cost of the wireless laptop is based on $400 for 3500 machines loaded with UbuntuLinux.

At the meeting, there were three options discussed:

A) Matching technology funds to campus purchases. In the past, campuses would say, “We can afford to buy 3-4 computers. Will you match our purchase?” The District would match campuses. This approach enables campuses to buy a certain portion of equipment–what they can afford–and then get a “matching grant” from the District’s technology allotment coffers. Unfortunately, as successful as this approach is, change is incremental.

One year we paved 820 miles of road, compared to 780 miles the previous year, and we treat it like a major accomplishment. We act like these are big deals but they’re just incremental.
Source: Angus King

You end up with campuses buying, at most 14 computers with half paid by the District. The ratio of computers to students rarely approaches the expected 1:4 students, much less Seymour Papert’s 1:1. And, while all teachers have a desktop computer, most would prefer a laptop…but are afraid of the laptops because they come with “Active Directory” or “Deep Freeze” and this inhibits their creativity, their ability to load whatever software they deem educationally appropriate on it. Of course, in the scenario I suggest below, they could load anything on their machines that was FOSS…and there’s a lot out there.

In other words, districts buy LOTS of equipment and no one–except the inventory people–take ownership for it. Don’t you think this is problematic?

Given the choice then, they’d rather leave the laptops in the cart, and use the scarce classroom desktops for administrative duties. In other words, little use of tech at higher levels of technology implementation. And, the budget gets spent each year making incremental change. I can’t tell you how much this reminded me of Angus King talking about the roads in Maine.

B) 1:1 Initiative with Students at Grade 6 or 7 using cheap laptops . The more I thought about this, the more excited I became. However, I’m not convinced that our K-12 school system “curriculum” in Texas–speaking generally here–is quite ready to switch over the Internet curriculum. While some have certainly made progress in regards to this issue with the minimal assistance of Technology Immersion Pilot (TIP) funds (if you’ve gone through TIP, you know that the District puts up a LOT more money). The main obstacle isn’t that students wouldn’t be able to adapt, but that their teachers and the district professional support staff just don’t have the basic knowledge and skills to teach differently yet. Of course, the logistics–including community organizing–would also be major obstacles, however, the question comes back to changing our approach to teaching and learning. In a world of high stakes test, I just don’t see the laptops being used that much in the classroom. And, teachers always feel left out when the students get something, but they do not…sad but true.

So…this brings me to this third option:

C) 1:1 Initiative with Core Content area teachers (including PE teachers). This would be an initiative to really sink one’s teeth into. Consider that we could do lots of staff development, generate “unconditional positive regard” for laptops in schools. Teachers would be able to use these computers to meet 21st Century Skills FOR THEMSELVES. These skills just aren’t ubiquitous among teachers. Consider what the 21st Century Skills are (these are adapted from Judy Salpeter’s article at TechLearning.com):

  1. Core Subjects: Expanded beyond basic competency to understanding core academic content at higher levels. Aren’t we really talking about manipulating and working with content as producers rather than consumers? And, does any more need to be written in support of the power Read/Write Web tools to accomplish reflection–whether on content or about application to real life–and collaborative development of content? What more could we expect teachers to do than craft their own instructional materials so as to “reactivate” their ability to be creative and change how they teach, rather than following a scripted approach to teaching and learning?
  2. Learning Skills: Teachers need to know how to use their knowledge and skills-by thinking critically, applying knowledge to new situations, analyzing information, comprehending new ideas, communicating, collaborating, solving problems, and making decisions. Isn’t this kind of work what SHOULD be happening in 21st Century schools among faculty? Instead of people locked up in their offices (higher ed) or classrooms with an occasional meeting at lunch, we’re looking for opportunities for teachers to analyze student data, apply that knowledge to new situations (isn’t every kid a new creation under the sun?), and make decisions in a collaborative environment. Read/Write Web tools are ideal for such an endeavour and restructuring.
  3. 21st Century Tools: Recognizing that “technology is, and will continue to be, a driving force in workplaces, communities, and personal lives in the 21st century,” Learning for the 21st Century emphasizes the importance of incorporating information and communication technologies into education from the elementary grades up.
    How can it be incorporated if teachers lack the skills, confidence, and time to do this?
  4. 21st Century Context: Experiences that are relevant to teachers’ lives, connected with the world beyond the classroom, and based on authentic projects are exactly what being a teacher was once about…by reveling in these experiences outside the classroom, teachers can bring real, relevant experiences INTO the classroom. Now that there is a greater network to tap into, every teacher has access to a host of experts that s/he can rely on and being in almost hourly communication with.
  5. New Assessments that Measure 21st Century Skills: “Balancing traditional tests with classroom assessments to measure the full range of students’ skills; and using technology-based assessments to deliver immediate feedback.” For teachers, this involves having instant, web-based access to student assessment data…of course, not all districts have a great web-based interface to their student data warehouse.

Why a $400 laptop running Linux and FOSS?

1) When we buy laptops in education, we tend to shoot for top of the line.
Is this really what we should be doing? If one’s goal is to provide every teacher with the tool that they need to get the job done a la 21st Century Skills, wouldn’t a $400 laptop with Celeron processor running Linux, the usual suite of productivity tools, and web browser get the job done? Rather than spend $1200+ on a laptop, or even more on a laptop cart that may not be used January through May because of the emphasis on high stakes test prep and administration, let’s spend it on a classroom package that looks like this:

  • One $400 laptop per core content area teacher (and include PE teachers in that)
  • One digital projector per classroom

Now, a fair question is, “Why would *I* want a cheap laptop that provides me with web (includes online gradebook, browsing, email, blogging and access to the classroom page managed by a content management system, the web-based GUI for student assessment info) browser, other productivity tools?” Well, a school district doesn’t have to provide top of the line. While top of the line is nice, it’s too expensive…especially if the teacher decides not to use it. Consider how much equipment is sitting out there in schools, un-used. Yet, if we consider buying anything less than the best, we worry that some new software program will come out tomorrow that will make it obsolete. WAIT! That’s the beauty of the web. If your focus is on web-based applications, you don’t need to worry about the next version of Macromedia Studio that is going to make your hardware obsolete (I won’t even mention Windows Vista or Office 12).

I also have to mention the “We’re not giving them the best tools to educate our children” feeling when we buy less than the best we can afford.

2) When we buy a laptop, we immediately buy the most expensive software for it, like MS Office ($74), Norton Antivirus (or whatever you get), Inspiration Graphic Organizer software, AntiSpyware/Malware tools. This is what we did in the past.
Again, is this really what we need to do? In watching teachers use technology, and especially when you consider their level of technology implementation (LOTI), is it really fiscally wise to spend that much money on software that will only be used to craft a brief memo, documentation for student discipline, amateurish, seldom-updated class web site or newsletter? Oh oh, I feel a usability study coming on. What do teachers REALLY use technology for? How does that compare to how they should use it or are mandated to use it?

Wouldn’t other FOSS tools certainly do the job? (That’s a rhetorical question…the answer is YES). And, if a teacher needed a higher-end machine, wouldn’t having them complete an assessment that demonstrated the investment would be well-spent be wise? Or, make a lab of these more expensive machines available. This is not new stuff. This is what the K12LTSP guru shared on The SavvyTechnologist podcast.

I have to tell you that when we showed off the power of a content management system to a group of folks last week, they were suitably impressed. The question that we came back to several times was, “ Did we really need to buy Macromedia Studio MX 2004 with this CMS now empowering us?‘ And, the answer, in case you didn’t guess, was a clear NO. There were lots of other questions like, “Can we embed Flash?” (Yes). “Can we do this or that?” (Yes to all). A cheap laptop running Linux enables people to do more things online, and since more things are online, a cheap laptop is all that’s needed.

Finally, I have to ask and answer this question: “Miguel, if you had a cheap laptop to get the job done, would/could you?” The answer is YES. After all, I used an Apple //e. While I might like to have a more expensive, top of the line machine with awesome video card, etc., if I can get 95% of the work done on a cheap laptop, why not use that? If my Apple //e could do the Internet with Read/Write Web, hey, hey, that would have been awesome!

3) In any large laptop deployment, equipment is lost or stolen.
While paying off a $400 piece of equipment isn’t fun, it’s more likely to be done quickly than paying off a $1200 piece of equipment. And, I may be more likely to take on a $400 obligation–that I can buy at the end of its term–than a $1200 one. We need a survey to check this.

4) There’s a shift to open learning, open source. Why can’t we help it along in K-12?
We’re seeing a shift to making curriculum available online, easy for anyone to investigate and apply in their own situations, as well as adapt. Consider Clarence Fisher’s writing on the differences between proprietary vs open learning:

The first is prohibitionist, where the intellectual property (or knowledge, or content) is locked down because the creators are afraid that new users will depreciate the value of the content through using it. The other model of knowledge is collaborative and based upon the idea that through empowering the audience and user community, the knowledge will grow through the creation of new relationships and interactions, appreciating the value of the intellectual property.
Source: Remote Access

And, how does this idea (below) translate to K-12 education?

If all systems do all their functionality in exactly the same way, what reason is there to choose one over the other? User-led development under open source licences means that vendors are forced to give standards support higher priority.
Source: CETIS

Could we imagine that the standards referred to here were really academic standards? Could teachers, students, and parents step up and develop the content they want kids to learn? Or is this impossible because grown-ups CAN’T agree on what to teach, therefore have to have it mandated, resulting in a mess of icebergs that no one ever drills to the core? I’m reminded of iceberg learning because of my background in Problem-based (NOT Project-based) Learning:

PBL includes 3 main charactericstics:
1-Engages students as stakeholders in a problem situation.
2-Organizes curriculum around a given holistic problem, enabling student learning in relevant and connected ways
3-Creates a learning environment in which teachers coach student thinking and guide student inquiry, facilitating deeper levels of understanding.

Ok, that’s all that comes to mind. What other ideas?

Back to MIT for parting thoughts….

“The computer industry learned the hard way that closed software systems—based on a framework of proprietary knowledge—did not fit the world they themselves had created. The organic world of open software and open systems was the true wave of the future. Higher education must learn from this.We must create open knowledge systems as the new framework for teaching and learning. “In this spirit, MIT has asked itself, in the words of T. S. Eliot, ‘Do I dare…Disturb the universe?‘ “Our answer is yes. We call this project MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW). We see it as opening a new door to the powerful, democratizing, and transforming power of education.”
Read More

So, what’s the K-12 equivalent? And, how can we get teachers involved? Give them a cheap laptop, develop a framework that allows them to create their own world…and do for themselves what the computer industry did. If we don’t give them the cheap laptop, what we’re really doing is wasting money on existing technology expenditures in schools. If the teachers DON’T get it, how will the administrators? After all, site-based management has to work to some degree…doesn’t it? doesn’t it?

Finally, how can we take advantage of the phenomenon?

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