The IT in the Classroom Imperative

I was recently having what has become a very frequent conversation for me.  The conversation surrounds the different ways of ensuring students get the IT skills they need, through IT classes or IT in the classroom, through IT lessons or integrated IT in the classroom, through IT teachers or classroom teachers, in computer labs or in classrooms with laptops, on a schedule or as needed.

I found myself saying something I have grown fond of and that is “Computer teachers, or integration specialists if you like, are charged with helping teachers integrate IT into their lessons.  We expect that from them.  But classroom teachers are not formally charged with getting help.” (I am long-winded apparently)  Classroom teachers are not expected to integrate IT in a formalized way, like in their job description or through performance evaluation criteria (at least not in the schools I have worked at).  Even when you have a whiz-bang IT specialist who gets out there and plans with teachers, it too often is an uphill battle and that person can become very tired of making folks do things they don’t want to do and change when they are happy doing what they are doing.  If integration doesn’t happen, the IT specialist is seen as ineffectual but classroom teachers are rarely seen as complicit in that failure, at least not openly and individually.  “They” may be seen as such, as a grade level or team, if they act as such as a grade level or team, but classroom teachers are rarely fired because they did not integrate technology into their curriculum (at least not in the schools I have worked at).

What makes teachers learn new methods, integrate technology and change their practice?  What makes them embrace tech tools in their teaching?  What would make them go to the IT specialist spontaneously and say “Hey I want to learn about podcasting because my students need to know how to do that to improve their learning.”

And then it hit me (I am slow on the uptake apparently). That is exactly what would make them say such a thing: if it were true and they knew it and believed it to be so.  If a teacher knew that the students in their classroom would learn better, more, and with greater effect, because of an IT tool, they would want to use it.

Teachers will do what is best for kids or what they believe is best for kids.  That is the IT imperative.  Professional educators will change their practice and learn new skills if it will benefit the kids.  PD, therefore, must make that case.  Not the case that IT is easy or makes teaching or learning easier.  It doesn’t. IT often makes things take longer and is actually harder.  But the benefits, the long term learning benefits, outweigh that.  PD must show that, convincingly and repeatedly.

Teens and Intellectual Property Rights

I read an article today on Ars Technica that talked about teens and how they do not understand copyright law.  Not surprisingly, students do not understand that downloading and copying songs and images from the Internet is illegal.  Interestingly though one of the findings of the study revealed that most teens credit their own parents with anything they do actually know about copyright.  This made me wonder what exactly we are teaching in schools about intellectual property rights.  Do we assume that students know already that copying other people’s work is wrong?  Do we assume that students can extrapolate from the fact that stealing someone’s lunch would be wrong, therefore stealing their ideas or their electronic work would also be wrong?  Is all our “reminding” them about citing sources and crediting authors based on an incorrect assumption, that they already know that they should not copy things from the web?  I imagine myself nagging my students about copying from the web, and putting things in their own words and the blank looks I get back lead me to believe that I have become Charlie Brown’s parents.

While this is clearly a serious issue, I also wonder if we will be kicking ourselves i the future that we wasted our time on all this.  Information and ideas want to be free.  Intellectual property is an illusion.  Once an idea is shared it becomes part of the collective intelligence.  To repeat it, build on it and rework it should be everyone’s right.  Citing the origin of the idea remains important, but paying for the idea is ludicrous.  Can I then extrapolate that, if a song is in the public domain I should be able to copy it, share it, remix it and improve on it, as long as I let everyone know the original work belongs to David Grohl?  I think so.

I think that, one day, likely soon, all information and intellectual property will be free.  Free to use and share.  Corporations and the RIAA are the ones that are resisting this evolution of information.  They do not know how they will still make money.  That is their problem.  Information wants to be free and the democratic web will bring that about.

Original Microsoft Research paper

When will someone produce a learning tool for today’s students?

Why can’t Alphasmart, Apple, Dell, Intel, or even Leapfrog, create a portable learning tool for students?  Really.  This does not strike me as terribly difficult.  Surely there is a willing market of schools and students who would want such a device.  So why did we not see the perfect device appear at Macworld yesterday?

If I have not made it clear in some of my previous posts, I believe ubiquitous computing is a must in schools today.  Anytime anywhere learning is crucial for both students and teachers to truly integrate technology into their day.  One of the main problems with one-to-one laptop programs is the question of cost-effectiveness: does it really make financial sense to give a student a $1000+ laptop?  Some of the fallout from doing so is often a culture of fear of not using such an expensive device.  If the school has paid so much for a computer, the students better be using it 24/7.

It would be preferable, in my opinion, to buy a $300 device that was smaller perhaps than a full laptop and yet did all the things a student might need to do.  While several devices have emerged very recently I am still not convinced anyone is taking this very seriously.  Apple would have been my bet, with their history of serving education, but they seem to be getting away from that.  Switching to Intel processors and abandoning OS9 has rendered hundreds of excellent educational software titles in our school’s library completely useless.   Now, I happen to think that OSX and the bundled iLife suite currently offer students the best learning tools for education today, but even a basic Macbook is around $1000.  Why not, Apple?

The OLPC, Intel’s Classmate, the Asus EEE PC and the Everex Cloudbook are all entering this market, though the first two are for emerging markets and the latter seem more for cheapskates than students.  I have nothing against emerging markets nor Linux but I do not see any of these as a perfect device.  I guess I think we need to depart from the “laptop” idea.  Something that is part iPhone, part tablet PC, part EEE PC, part OLPC and part Amazon Kindle.  Touch display, pen interaction, built-in camera, webcam and video cam, web browser, small form factor, rugged and lightweight.  All for $300.  Is that too much to ask?

Clearly, yes.

But someday soon.  If not Apple, then maybe Alphasmart, or Leapfrog or some new company.  I think perhaps the big guys are too married to the laptop form factor.

The Macbook Air is nice though.  I wouldn’t say no to one myself.