I am often asked about the adoption of Chromebooks and have spent months agonizing how to respond. This article offers food for thought to teachers, administrators, school board members, and policy makers who might find themself swept up in Chromebook mania.

What should a student computer do?

In addition to being portable, reliable, lightweight, affordable, and with a good battery life, a student computer should capable of doing everything our unimaginative adult reptilian brains think a kid should be able to do with a computer and powerful enough to do a great many things we cannot imagine.

The Chromebook might be sufficient if you believe that the primary purpose of school to be taking notes, looking stuff up, completing forms, and communication. I find this to be an impoverished view of both learning and computing. Children need and deserve more. If you find such uses compelling, kids already own cellphones capable of performing such tasks.

Powerful learning is a bargain at any price

Thirty years ago, my friend and mentor Dr. Cynthia Solomon taught me that sound education decisions are never based on price. Providing children with underpowered technology insults kids, treats them like 2nd class citizens, and signals that schools should get scraps. The more schools settle for less, the less the public will provide.

One of the most peculiar terms to enter the education lexicon is “device.” What was the last time you walked into an electronics or computer store and said to a salesperson, “I would like to buy a device please?” This never happens. You buy yourself a computer.

A device is an object you buy on the cheap for other people’s children to create an illusion of modernity. A Chromebook might be swell for a traveling salesman or UPS driver. It is, in my humble opinion, insufficient for school students in 2017.

Providing students with a Chromebook rather than a proper laptop computer is akin to replacing your school orchestra instruments with kazoos. We live in one of the richest nations in all of history. We can afford a cello and multimedia-capable computer for every child.

My best friend’s son attends a middle school where every student was issued a Chromebook. The kids use them primarily to charge their iPhones.

If someday, Chromebooks are sufficiently robust, reliable, and flexible at a good price, I will embrace them with great enthusiasm. That day has yet to arrive.

Chromebooks represent an impoverished view of computing

Read Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon’s 1971 paper, “Twenty Things to Do with a Computer,” (Go ahead. Google it on a Chromebook if you wish) and see how many of things they demonstrated that kids were doing with computers more than 45 years ago are possible on your “device.”

Australian schools in 1989-90 embraced personal laptop computing as a vehicle for programming across the curriculum and created a renaissance of learning with computers that too many educators remain ignorant of or have chosen to forget. Look at the capabilities of the XO computer, aka the $100 laptop, created by the One Laptop Per Child foundation. It was more powerful than today’s Chromebook. We do not to use classroom technology that dooms learners to secretarial roles. They need computers to invent, create, compose, control microcontrollers, program robots, run external machines, build simulations, and write their own software.

Where is S.T.E.M? Or the Arts in the examples of classroom Chromebook use? To those who say that you can compose music, make movies, or edit large audio files on a Chromebook, I suggest, “You first!” The ability to connect things like microcontrollers, robotics, 3D printers, laser cutters may indeed become possible on a Chromebook in the near future, but we already have all sorts of personal computers capable of doing all of those things well today. Why gamble?

When geniuses like Alan Kay, Seymour Papert, Cynthia Solomon, and Nicholas Negroponte spoke of “the children’s machine,” they meant a better computer than what their father used at the office. Today, “student devices” take on an air of condescension and paternalism that disempower young people.

Schools continuously invent that which already exists; each time with diminished expectations.

They love them!

The only time you hear teachers or administrators claim that kids love something is when those very same adults are desperate to justify a bad decision. Telling me that teachers are finally “using technology” since you procured Chromebooks is just an example of setting low expectations for the professionals you entrust with educating children. Making it easy to do school in a slightly more efficient manner should not be the goal. Making the impossible possible should be. Celebrating the fact that a teacher can use a Chromebook is an example of the soft bigotry of low expectations.

How low can you go?

I truly respect and appreciate that public schools are underfunded, but underpowered Chromebooks are not the answer. How cheap is cheap enough for a student “device?”

I recently purchased a 15-inch HP laptop with a touchscreen, extended keyboard, 12 GB of RAM, a 2 TB hard drive, and Windows 10 at Costco for $350. I routinely find real PC laptops capable of meeting the standards I outlined above in the $250 – $350 price range in retail stores. Imagine what the price would be if schools wished to buy millions of them!

If $250 – $350 is too expensive (it’s cheaper than playing soccer for one season), how about $35 for a Raspberry Pi, the powerful computer students can run real software on, including Mathematica, which comes free, on the Pi. A Raspberry Pi 3 computer has greater flexibility, power, and available software than a Chromebook and it costs less than my typical Dominos Pizza order.

If you’re feeling extra flush with cash, add a Raspberry Pi Zero computer to your order for the price of that delicious chocolate chip brownie concoction Dominos offers upon checkout.

The Cloud is not free and it still sucks!

One of the great misconceptions driving the adoption of “devices,” such as the Chromebook, is the promise of cloud computing. Doesn’t that just sound heavenly? The cloud….

How is the Internet access in your school? Painful? Slow? Unreliable? Have hundreds of children do all of their computing in the cloud and you may find the school network completely unusable. The future may indeed be “in the cloud,” but today works really well on personal hard drives.

The cost of upgrading your network infrastructure and then employing a high school dropout named Lenny and all of his mates to maintain the network (ie… lock, block, and tell teachers what they can and cannot do online) is much more expensive than trusting kids to save their files on their own laptop.

The Vision thing

Perhaps I missed something, but I am unaware of the educational vision supporting widespread Chromebook adoption. Google has not even faked an educational philosophy like “Think Different.”

Screwing Microsoft might be fun, even laudable, but it is not a compelling educational vision.

The Google problem

Did you hear that Google has a free salad bar and dry cleaning? How cool is that? I wish our staff room had a barista! The successful penetration of Chromebooks into schools is due in no small part to our culture’s lust for unlimited employer provided vegan smoothies. However, it would be irresponsible for educators to surrender pedagogical practice and the potential of our students to the whims of 23 year-old smartasses at any technology company. Silicon Valley could make its greatest positive impact on education by learning the lessons of history, consulting education experts, and most importantly, paying their fair share of taxes.

There are also legitimate privacy concerns about trusting a benevolent corporation with our intellectual property, correspondence, and student data. Google clearly has a lot to gain from hooking kids and their teachers on “The Google” while turning their customers into product.

The pyramid scheme known as the Google Certified Educator program turns innocent well-meaning teachers into street corner hustlers armed with a participation trophy for heroically mastering “the Google.”

Again, I do not understand why any of this reliance on Google is necessary. The average school could spend well under $100/month on its own email and web servers either on-site or co-located. Best of all, no one is reading your email and you are ultimately responsible for your own files. Let a 5th grader manage the entire operation!

The miracle of Google’s YouTube is that a company makes billions of dollars per year by delivering ad-supported stolen content to users. Any teacher who does not believe that they too are in the intellectual property business should be prepared to be replaced by a YouTube video.

Google envy makes bad education policy.

Unicorn Computing

School decision makers responsible for purchasing Chromebooks have been heard to say the following in justification of their actions.

“I had to get Chromebooks!”

The school up the street got them.

“The latest batch is so much better than the other ones we bought.”         

Why are you investing in unreliable technology and then congratulating yourself for doing it again?

“I know that the Chromebooks don’t do everything we need or want them to do, but they should soon.”

Then why did you buy Chromebooks now?

I call the actions justified by such statements unicorn computing. Peer pressure, hoping, and praying are insufficient justification for saddling teachers and children with underpowered powered unreliable devices – especially when cost-effective options exist.

In Closing…

It doesn’t matter to me if a new kind of computer captures the heart and wallets of consumers. All that matters is that scarce educational resources are used to provide students with maximum potential. If Chromebooks were the first computer ever invented and other options did not exist, I might embrace the Chromebook as a classroom option. If Chromebooks were sufficiently powerful, durable, and reliable, I’d endorse their use. When better computers are available at approximately the same price, disempowering kids and confusing teachers seems an imprudent option.

My life’s work has been dedicated to expanding rich learning opportunities for all students by helping educators embrace the tools of modernity. Much of this work has involved personal computing. From 1990, I led professional development in the world’s first two laptop schools and then countless others inspired by this work. I worked with the father of educational computing, Dr. Seymour Papert, for twenty years and was a member of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation’s Learning Group. Professionally, I have taught children to program computers across the curriculum since 1982. I learned to program in the mid-1970s, an experience that liberated my creativity and opened a window into a world of powerful ideas ever since.

I view computers as personal intellectual laboratories, ateliers, and vehicles for self-expression. The act of computing gives children agency over an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world. When every child owns a personal portable computer, they are able to construct knowledge “anytime anywhere,” learn-by-doing, and share their knowledge with a global audience. Computing bestows agency upon learners and allows them to embrace complexity while exploring domains of knowledge and demonstrating ways of knowing unavailable to adults just a few years ago.

There is no greater advocate for computers and computing in education than me. However, the purchasing decisions made by adults, for students, can either amplify human potential or impede learning.

Smaller cheaper computers are an attractive proposition, especially for cash-strapped schools, but I am alarmed by the widespread and too often thoughtless adoption of Google Chromebooks in education. Simply stated, the Chromebook turns back the clock on what we have learned children can do with computers in search of an immature technology.

Dr. Gary Stager was invited to write a profile of his friend, colleague, and mentor Dr. Seymour Papert for the premiere issue of Hello World!, an impressive new magazine for educators from The Raspberry Pi Foundation. This new print magazine is also available online under a Creative Commons license.

I suggest you explore the entire new magazine for inspiration and practical classroom ideas around the Raspberry Pi platform, “coding,” problem solving, physical computing, and computational thinking.

Gary’s article was cut due to space limitations. However, the good news, for anyone interested, is that the full text of the article appears below (with its original title).

See page 25 of the Hello World! Magazine

Seymour Papert Would have Loved the Raspberry Pi!

When Dr. Seymour Papert died in July 2016, the world lost one of the great philosophers and change-agents of the past half-century. Papert was not only a recognized mathematician, artificial intelligence pioneer, computer scientist, and the person Jean Piaget hired to help him understand how children construct mathematical knowledge; he was also the father of educational computing and the maker movement.

By the late 1960s, Papert was advocating for every child to have its own computer. At a time when few people had ever seen a computer, Papert wasn’t just dreaming of children using computers to play games or be asked quiz questions. He believed that children should program the computer.  They should be in charge of the system; learning while programming and debugging. He posed a fundamental question still relevant today, “Does the child program the computer or does the computer program the child?”  Along with colleagues Cynthia Solomon and Wally Feurzig, Papert created Logo, the first programming language designed specifically for children and learning.  MicroWorlds, Scratch, and SNAP! are but a few of the Logo dialects in use fifty years later.

Papert’s legacy extends beyond children programming, despite how rare and radical that practice remains today. In 1968, Alan Kay was so impressed by the mathematics he witnessed children doing in Logo that he sketched the Dynabook, the prototype for the modern personal computer on his flight home from visiting Papert at MIT.  In the mid-1980s, Papert designed the first programmable robotics construction kit for children, LEGO TC Logo. LEGO’s current line of robotics gear is named for Papert’s seminal book, Mindstorms. In 1993, Papert conjured up images of a knowledge machine that children could use to answer their questions, just like the new Amazon Echo or Google Home. littleBits and MaKey Makey are modern descendants of Papert’s vision.

Prior to the availability of CRTs (video displays), the Logo turtle was a cybernetic creature tethered to a timeshare terminal. As students expressed formal mathematical ideas for how they wished the turtle to move about in space, it would drag a pen (or lift it up) and move about in space as a surrogate for the child’s body, all the while learning not only powerful ideas from computer science, but constructing mathematical knowledge by “teaching” the turtle. From the beginning, Papert’s vision included physical computing and using the computer to make things that lived on the screen and in the real world. This vision is clear in a paper Cynthia Solomon and Seymour Papert co-authored in 1970-71, “Twenty Things to Do with a Computer.”

“In our image of a school computation laboratory, an important role is played by numerous “controller ports” which allow any student to plug any device into the computer… The laboratory will have a supply of motors, solenoids, relays, sense devices of various kids, etc. Using them, the students will be able to invent and build an endless variety of cybernetic systems. “ (Papert & Solomon, 1971)

This document made the case for the maker movement more than forty-five years ago. Two decades later, Papert spoke of the computer as mudpie or material with which one could not only create ideas, art, or theories, but also build intelligent machines and control their world.

From his early days as an anti-apartheid dissident in 1940s South Africa to his work with children in underserved communities and neglected settings around the world, social justice and equity was a current running through all of Papert’s activities. If children were to engage with powerful ideas and construct knowledge, then they would require agency over the learning process and ownership of the technology used to construct knowledge.

“If you can make things with technology, then you can make a lot more interesting things. And learn a lot more by making them.” – Seymour Papert (Stager, 2006)

Programming computers and building robots are a couple examples of how critical student agency was to Papert.  He inspired 1:1 computing, Maine becoming the first state on earth to give a laptop to every  7th & 8th grader, and the One Laptop Per Child initiative.

 “…Only inertia and prejudice, not economics or lack of good educational ideas stand in the way of providing every child in the world with the kinds of experience of which we have tried to give you some glimpses. If every child were to be given access to a computer, computers would be cheap enough for every child to be given access to a computer.” (Papert & Solomon, 1971)

It made Papert crazy that kids could not build their own computers. When we worked together (1999-2002) to create an alternative project-based learning environment inside a troubled teen prison, we bought PCs hoping that the kids could not only maintain them, but also eventually build their own. Despite kids building guitars, gliders, robots, films, computer programs, cameras, telescopes, and countless other personally meaningful projects uninterrupted for five hours per day – a “makerspace” as school. Back then, it was too much trouble to source parts and build “personal” computers.

In 1995, Papert caused a commotion in a US Congressional hearing on the future of education when an infuriated venture capitalist scolded him while saying that it was irresponsible to assert that computers could cost $100, have a lifespan of a decade, and be maintained by children themselves.  (CSPAN, 1995) Later Papert would be fond of demonstrating how any child anywhere in the world could repair the $100 OLPC laptop with a single screwdriver. Before Congress, he asserted that computers only seem expensive when accounting tricks compare them to the price of pencils. If used in the expansive ways his projects demonstrated, Papert predicted that “kid power” could change the world.

The Raspberry Pi finally offers children a low-cost programmable computer that they may build, maintain, expand, and use to control cyberspace and the world around them. Its functionality, flexibility, and affordability hold the promise of leveraging kid power to put the last piece in the Papert puzzle.

References:
CSPAN (Producer). (1995, 12/1/16). Technology In Education [Video] Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?67583-1/technology-education&whence=

Papert, S., & Solomon, C. (1971). Twenty things to do with a computer. Retrieved from Cambridge, MA:

Stager, G. S. (2006). An Investigation of Constructionism in the Maine Youth Center. (Ph.D.), The University of Melbourne, Melbourne.

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Bungling the World’s Easiest Sale

Forty years ago Seymour Papert began talking about a computer for every learner. In 1968, Alan Kay sketched the first personal computer as a tool for children. In 1989, Steve Costa began teaching entire classes of fifth grade girls each equipped with a laptop. In 1994, Cobb County Congressman Newt Gingrich advocated a laptop per student. Nearly a decade ago hundreds of kids at Harlem’s Mott Hall schools began taking laptops to and from school. Several years ago Maine passed a law providing a laptop for every 7th and 8th grader. Books like Bob Johnstone’s exhaustive history, “Never Mind the Laptops,” have been published and countless research studies have been concluded.

And yet in 2005, the notion of a laptop for every student appears to be more controversial than ever. In fact, the proverbial laptop has hit the fan across the country. Shame on us!

The Cobb County, Georgia schools were well on their way to purchasing 63,000 iBooks for teachers and students when a cranky politician sued and got a judge to order an end to the initiative. The cause of the judicial intervention was an accusation of fraud. Voters approved a tax levy designed to “upgrade obsolete computer workstations,” yet the judge seems to think that purchasing laptops does not represent an upgrade. This is a distinction without difference.

My experience suggests that parents eagerly embrace sincere efforts to revolutionize education.

The Atlanta Journal and Constitution and Marietta Daily Journal have featured hysterical reports on the laptop initiative for months. They smell blood and are going after district personnel for among other crimes, having been involved in the planning process and funding teacher professional development. The local press was outraged that Cobb County decided to purchase Apple iBooks instead of the Dell laptops that Henrico County, Virginia just bought for $50 less per unit.

If your educational goals consist of students making four slide PowerPoint slides about frogs to disinterested audiences or using the web to find five interesting facts about Spiro Agnew, then sure, go to Wal-Mart and buy the cheapest laptops. You might even ask kids to bring their PSPs to class and use those instead.

Fiscal prudence with the public purse is noble, but it is irresponsible to make computer purchases based solely on price. Not all computers are created equally. A public agency should be able to make the case that the bundled iLife creativity suite and operating system that Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal says, “leaves Windows XP in the dust,” is worth a few extra dollars per unit. A legitimate educational rationale should be able to be made for purchasing Macs if a district so chooses.

Henrico County, VA made a great contribution to educational computing five years ago when they found a way to purchase more than 20,000 iBooks without raising taxes. Since then their missteps and public pronouncements have made it more difficult for other schools to embrace 1:1 computing. As the Governor of Maine fought for his laptop legislation, Henrico was in the news for inappropriate web use and an overreaction to isolated student mischief. This led Maine and other jurisdictions to accept crippled operating systems that calm the public’s fears, but create unintended consequences down the road. Disabling iTunes means no Tupac, but it also means no Martin Luther King, no Garageband music composition, no podcasting and no videoconferences with NASA scientists.

Just as Cobb County’s laptop plans were hitting their stride, Henrico struck again. Their school board loudly “dumped” Apple and signed a contract with Dell for their next round of laptops. Henrico officials explained that iBooks don’t have Microsoft Office on them. That’s funny. Lots of other schools run Office on their iBooks? Why are school districts issuing press releases announcing their purchases? Why does anyone care? I have no idea which brand of school bus or tater-tots Henrico purchases, why are laptops different?

To complete the Apple exorcism, Henrico decided to sell the dreaded iBooks to the public for $50 each. This led to what is now known as the “iRiot” in which 17 people were trampled and four were hospitalized. CNN reported a woman soiled herself and a guy used a folding chair to beat off other shoppers. Rather than apologize, a district official suggested that the event had “entertainment value.”

Whatever it says on your business card, you’re in sales.

When the legislature opposed his laptop plan, Maine Governor King traveled the state leading creative laptop-based history lessons and generating popular support. He spoke of the democratization of knowledge and opportunity. When the Governor proposed that Maine become “the learning state” with a reenergized economy, he demanded that politicians support the initiative.

Whatever level of public support Cobb County’s plans enjoyed, it was insufficient to ward off the opposition. The public was offered incremental gains in teacher use of computers, a modest gain in students looking up stuff on the Internet at least once a day from 20-50% and a promise that 60% of students will occasionally use brainstorming software. Textbook content would be delivered via the laptop. Woo hoo! I’ve got goose bumps! Where do I send my check?

Worst of all, the district lacked the courage to say that every student would be expected to use the laptop. How can someone opt-out of using the principal instrument for intellectual work, knowledge acquisition and creative expression? Can a student opt-out of using books? Express a moral objection to lectures?

Amidst the unambitious benchmarks and narrow vision, the district’s FAQ just makes stuff up, such as in the case of literature instruction, “software and Internet access can provide access to nearly every published title.”

I’ve worked with many 1:1 schools over the past fifteen years and have found it remarkably easy to justify the investment to auditoriums full of parents. It’s an easy sale when you offer a vision of children learning in unprecedented ways. I share examples of at-risk students increasing attendance and engaging in sophisticated projects, sophisticated concepts being learned in ways impossible just a few years ago, enhanced creativity, more work-related social interactions and learning 24/7, not just between the bells. Images of children participating in the construction of modern knowledge as mathematicians, composers, artists, engineers, poets and scientists appeal to the hopes and dreams of parents.

We need to do a much better job of selling the dream of what computers can bring to the learning process, but first we need to create some compelling models for citizens to embrace. We’ll have plenty of time to do so while we clean up the public relations mess created by the recent ham-fisted laptop implementations.

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iste-charter

Dear Dr. Williams:

Thank you so much for being the first ISTE executive or board member to address the sad state of affairs expressed by my old friend and mentor David Thornburg. It is disappointing that David’s proposal was rejected. Dr. Thornburg is a pillar of educational computing.

I am grateful to David for bringing attention to ISTE’s non-existent response to the life and death of Seymour Papert. It is worth noting that the father of our field, Dr. Papert, was never invited to keynote ISTE or NECC; not after the publication of his three seminal books, not after the invention of robotics construction kits for children, not after 1:1 computing was borne in his image in Australia, not after Maine provided laptops statewide, not when One Laptop Per Child changed the world. This lack of grace implies a rejection of the ideas Papert advocated and the educators who had to fight even harder to bring them to life against the tacit hostility of our premiere membership organization.

One would imagine that a conference dedicated to linoleum installation would eventually have the inventor of linoleum to address its annual gathering. Last year (2015), ISTE rejected my proposal to lead a session commemorating the 35th anniversary of Papert’s book Mindstorms and the 45th anniversary of the paper he co-authored with Cynthia Solomon, “Twenty Things To Do with a Computer.” See the blog post I wrote at the time.

Such indifference was maddening, but the failure of the ISTE leadership to recognize the death of Dr. Papert this past July, even with a tweet, is frankly disgraceful. After Papert’s death, I was interviewed by NPR, the New York Times and countless other news outlets around the world. I was commissioned to write Papert’s official obituary for the prestigious international science journal Nature. Remarkably, unless I missed it, ISTE has failed to honor Dr. Papert in any way, shape, or form. I have begged your organization to do so in order to bring his powerful ideas to life for a new generation of educators. These actions should not be viewed as a grievance or form of attention seeking. ISTE’s respect for history and desire to provide a forum for the free exchange of disparate ideas are critical to its relevance and survival.

Dr. Papert himself might suggest that ISTE is idea averse. In its quest to feature new wares and checklists, it neglects to remind our community that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Earlier this year, I was successful in convincing NCWIT to honor Papert’s colleague, Dr. Cynthia Solomon, with its Pioneer Award. If only I could be so persuasive as to convince ISTE to honor the “mother of educational computing” before it’s too late. As we assert in our book, Invent To Learn, without Papert and Solomon there is no 1:1 computing, no Code.org, no CS4All, no school robotics, no maker movement.

In light of Papert’s recent passing, and the remarkable 50th anniversary of the Logo programming language in 2017, I submitted two relevant proposals for inclusion on the 2017 ISTE Conference Program.

You guessed it. Both were rejected.

Anniversaries and deaths are critical milestones. They cause us to, pause, reflect, and take stock. In 2017, there are several major conferences, including one I am organizing, focused on commemorating Papert and the 50th birthday of Logo. Sadly, ISTE seems to be standing on the sidelines.

It is not that I have nothing to offer on these subjects or do not know how to 1) write conference proposals or 2) fill an auditorium. As someone who has worked to bring Papert’s powerful ideas to life in classrooms around the world for 35 years and who worked with Papert for more than two decades, I have standing. I edited ISTE’s journal dedicated to the work he began, was the principal investigator on Papert’s last major institutional project, gave a TEDx talk in India on his contributions, and am the curator of the Seymour Papert archives at dailypapert.com. I worked in classrooms alongside Seymour Papert. Last year, 30 accepted ISTE presentations cited my work in their bibliographies.

logo-exchange-its-alive-cover

I am often asked why I don’t just give up on ISTE. The answer is because educational computing is my life’s work. I signed the ISTE charter and have spoken at 30 NECC/ISTE Conferences. It is quite possible that no one has presented more sessions than I. For several years, I was editor of ISTE’s Logo Exchange journal and founded ISTE’s SIGLogo before it was killed by the organization. I have been a critical friend for 25 years, not to harm ISTE, but to help it live up to its potential.

For decades, David Thornburg and I have spoken at ISTE/NECC at our own expense. This is just one way in which I know that we are both committed to what ISTE can and should be. I have also written for ISTE’s Learning and Leading with Technology.

It would be my pleasure to discuss constructive ways to move forward.

Happy holidays,

Gary

Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
CEO: Constructing Modern Knowledge
Co-author: Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom

PS: Might I humbly suggest that ISTE hire or appoint a historian?

When it comes to technology, teachers are too often treated as imbeciles or felons!

In 1990, I was hired to teach public school 4th grade. By that time, I had already been engaging children in collaborative online projects for several years and sbsing a telephone for most of my twenty-seven years on earth. Two days into the school year I rebelled against the absurdity of not having a working telephone in my classroom, went to Radio Shack, purchased a $3 phone splitter, found a barely used telephone sitting in an abandoned office, connected the splitter, and began pulling a spool of phone cable down the school corridor. A custodian noticed my efforts and asked if I would like him to drill a few holes to make the job tidier. A few minutes later, I had a computer connected to the Internet via modem so that my students could work on National Geographic Kids Network science projects. (I could send and receive email too.)

Then as now, I could not understand why other teachers would suffer the indignities associated with not being trusted to use a telephone, 114 years after Bell yelled, “Watson! Come here! I need you!” Yet, the powerlessness continued. For at least another decade, teachers were forced to call their gynecologist from a payphone outside the cafetorium at lunch time.

Schools did not change policies, teachers bought their own damned cellphones and now could join the billions of other people around the world with phone access.

Kid confused by payphone (from http://abc7news.com/technology/video-little-boy-has-no-idea-what-a-pay-phone-is/723174/)

Kid confused by payphone (from http://abc7news.com/technology/video-little-boy-has-no-idea-what-a-pay-phone-is/723174/)

In 2016, educators are sent to workshops I lead with school-supplied laptops incapable of installing an “app,” playing a YouTube video, surfing to a .edu domain, or sending email with an attachment. Some have their USB ports disabled. This is not only a source of embarrassment for seemingly “professional” educators, but wastes precious learning time when those teachers are on the phone to the district IT fascist begging for access to their own “personal computer.” I need to abandon teaching to console grown educators frustrated that they cannot participate in sound educational experiences.

Irrational schools and school district policies quickly turn $1,200 teacher laptops into $100 pieces of sculpture.

Each spring, I receive email messages from educators attending Constructing Modern Knowledge. These messages say, “our school IT paraprofessional would like a list of all the software I will need this summer so he (always a HE) can install it for me.” Aside from this remarkable act of disempowerment and dependency, it misses the entire idea that computers are extensible. You never know which features and functionality that may emerge. I cannot and will not provide a list of software to be installed because that decision is based on the needs of the specific project that institute participants choose to work on.

Ten years ago, I was hired by a university to be a Visiting Professor. As part of my contract negotiations, I was promised a new laptop. When the university reneged, I spent a few grand on my own computer. Despite being a bit poorer, I had a key to the building, an office, and place to park my car. I was trusted to write curricula, teach, and award grades. One day, my laptop would no longer print to the university printers. When I interrupted the slumber of the tech “support” staff to troubleshoot, they informed me that faculty was no longer allowed to print from their personal (that word again) computers from their offices, even if the university didn’t provide computers. So, I bought a printer for $50 and put it in my office next to where my computer would sit.

In one act of lunacy, the university banned color printing. When I noticed that my senior colleague responsible for teacher credentialing was hand-coloring documents for the state licensing board with colored pencils, I took the damned printer off my desk and gave it to her.

Just as educators resolved one power imbalance by purchasing their own cellphones, it is time for action. My colleague Audrey Watters has written extensively about why everyone – student, teacher, citizen – needs a domain of one’s own. Pennies a day gets you a domain, server space, and private email account(s).

You know what else you should own? Your own damned laptop! Here’s what you can buy for $350 and have it arrive tomorrow. (Toshiba makes great PCs, but you can save even more money if you go with another manufacturer.)

Toshiba Radius 2016 Newest Edition 11.6″ HD LED-backlit TruBrite 2-in-1 Touchscreen Convertible Laptop | Intel Quad Core | 4GB RAM | 500GB HD | HDMI | Webcam | Bluetooth | WIFI | Windows 10

NOW do you understand why Secretary Clinton may have used her own server? Is it the least bit possible that the Federal Government can’t keep up with technological progress or imposes nonsensical rules for its use?

PS: Concerned that your school or district owns your intellectual property? Use you own damned server. For more than twenty years, every single syllabus, handout, article, paper… I wrote was stored on my own personal server. It would be really hard for your school superintendent or department chair to claim they own something that never lived on their network.

The following videos are a good representation of my work as a conference keynote speaker and educational consultant. The production values vary, but my emphasis on creating more productive contexts for learning remains in focus.

  • For information on bringing Dr. Stager to your conference, school or district, click here.
  • For biographical information about Dr. Stager, click here.
  • For a list of new keynote topics and workshops by Dr. Stager, click here
  • For a list of popular and “retired” keynote topics by Dr. Stager, click here.
  • For family workshops, click here.
  • To learn more about the range of educational services offered by Dr. Stager, click here.

View Gary Stager’s three different TEDx Talks from around the world

Watch Gary Stager: My Hope for School from Gary Stager on Vimeo.
This clip is part of the documentary Imagine It 2


2016 short documentary featuring Dr. Stager from Melbourne, Australia.



Learning to Play in Education: Joining the Maker Movement
A public lecture by Gary Stager at The Steward School, November 2015

Dr. Gary Stager Visits the Steward School, 2015

A Broader Perspective on Maker Education – Interview with Gary Stager in Amsterdam, 2015

 Choosing Hope Over Fear from the 2014 Chicago Education Festival


This is What Learning Looks Like – Strategies for Hands-on Learning, a conversation with Steve Hargadon, Bay Area Maker Faire, 2012.


Gary Stager “This is Our Moment “ – Conferencia Anual 2014 Fundación Omar Dengo (Costa Rica)
San José, Costa Rica. November 2014

 

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Gary Stager – Questions and Answers Section – Annual Lecture 2014 (Costa Rica)
San José, Costa Rica. November 2014

TEDx Talk, “Seymour Papert, Inventor of Everything*


Ten Things to Do with a Laptop – Learning and Powerful Ideas
Keynote Address – ITEC Conference – Des Moines, Iowa – October 2011


Plenary Talk at Construtionism 2014 Conference
Vienna, Austria. August, 2014

 


Children, Computing and Creativity
Address to KERIS – Seoul, South Korea – October 2011

 


Gary Stager’s 2011 TEDxNYED Talk
NY, NY – March 2011

 


Gary Stager Discusses 1:1 Computing with leading Costa Rican educators
University of Costa Rica – San José, Costa Rica – June 2011

 

Progressive Education and The Maker Movement – Symbiosis or Mutually Assured Destruction? (approx 45:00 in)
FabLearn 2014 Paper Presentation
October 2014. Stanford University

Keynote Address: Making School Reform
FabLearn 2013 Conference.
October 2013. Stanford University.

Making, Love, and Learning
February 2014. Marin County Office of Education.


Gary Stager’s Plenary Address at the Constructionism 2010 Conference
Paris, France – August 2010

 


Gary Stager Excerpts from NECC ’09 Keynote Debate
June 2009 – Washington D.C.

For more information, go to: http://stager.tv/blog/?p=493

 


Dr. Stager interviewed by ICT Qatar
Doha, Qatar – Spring 2010

 


Learning Adventures: Transforming Real and Virtual Learning Environments
NECC 2009 Spotlight Session – Washington, D.C. – June 2009
More information may be found at http://stager.tv/blog/?p=531

 

© 2009-2016 Gary S. Stager – All Rights Reserved Except TEDxNYED & Imagine IT2 clip owned by producers

In Australia…

Laptop Schools Lead the Way in Professional Development

As published in Educational Leadership – October 1995
By Gary S.Stager

Gary S. Stager is a teacher educator and adjunct professor at Pepperdine University. He has spent the past ten years working with a dozen Australian schools in which every student and teacher has a laptop computer.

Educational reform is too often equated with plugging students into anything that happens to plug in. Technology-rich Australian schools lead the way in helping teachers use technology thoughtfully.

Many educators believe that technology alone will lead to innovation and restructuring in schools. Unfortunately, they either do not include staff development in the equation, or they provide programs that do little more than ensure that teachers are able to unjam the printer or use one piece of canned instructional software.

Having developed a number of professional development models for a dozen schools in Australia and more in the United States, I believe computer-related staff development should immerse teachers in meaningful, educationally relevant projects. These activities should encourage teachers to reflect on powerful ideas and share their educational visions in order to create a culture of learning for their students. In brief, teachers must be able to connect their computer experience to constructive student use of computers.

Australian Leadership

In 1989, Methodist Ladies’ College, an independent pre-K-12 school with 2,400 students, embarked on an unparalleled learning adventure. At that time, the Melbourne school made a commitment to personal computing, LogoWriter, and constructivism. The governing principle was that all students, grades 5-12, should own a personal notebook computer on which they could work at school, at home, and across the curriculum. Ownership of the notebook computer would reinforce ownership of the knowledge constructed with it. Approximately 2,000 Methodist Ladies’ College students now have a personal notebook computer.

The school made personal computing part of its commitment to creating a nurturing learning culture. It ensured that teachers were supported in their own learning by catering to a wide range of learning styles, experiences, and interests. All involved agreed that personal computing was a powerful idea, one more important than the computers themselves. What students actually did with the computers was of paramount importance. LogoWriter was the schools’s primary software of choice. (MicroWorlds is now used.)

Dozens of Australian schools (called “laptop schools”) are now in various stages of following the lead of Methodist Ladies’ College in computing and are now using some of the professional development models created during my five years of work there.

Staff Development Innovations

Many schools find the task of getting a handful of teachers to use computers at even a superficial level daunting. The laptop schools expect their teachers not only to be comfortable with 30 notebook computers in their classroom, but also to participate actively in the reinvention of their school. In such progressive schools, staff development does not mean pouring information into teachers’ heads or training them in a few technical skills. Staff development means helping teachers fearlessly dream, explore, and invent new educational experiences for their students.

I have employed three staff development strategies – in-classroom collaboration, “slumber parties,” and build-a-book workshopsæin many laptop schools. All three model constructivism by providing meaningful contexts for learning, emphasizing collaborative problem solving and personal expression, and placing the learner (in this case the teacher) at the center of the learning experience. Each school values and respects the professionalism of the teachers by acknowledging the knowledge, skills, and experience each teacher possesses.

In-Classroom Collaboration

Several Australian laptop schools have used the in-classroom model I developed working in the Scarsdale, New York, and Wayne, New Jersey, public schools. This collaborative form of teacher development places the trainer in the teacher’s classroom to observe, evaluate, answer questions, and model imaginative ways in which the technology might be used. The collaborative spirit and enthusiasm engendered by the trainer motivates the teacher, who feels more comfortable taking risks when a colleague is there to help. Implementation is more viable because this professional development occurs on the teacher’s turf and during school hours.

Residential “Slumber Parties”

This approach allows teachers to leave the pressures of school and home behind for a few days to improve their computing skills in a carefully constructed environment designed to foster opportunities for peer collaboration, self-expression, and personal reflection, and to encourage a renewed enthusiasm for learning. These workshops have taken place at hotels, training centers, a monastery with lodging facilities, even at a school. These learner-centered workshops stress action, not rhetoric. The workshop leader serves as a catalyst, and creates opportunities for participants to connect personal reflections to their teaching. These connections are powerful when they come from the teacher’s own experienceæmuch like the types of learning opportunities we desire for students. The slumber parties use three key activities:

  1. Project brainstorming. Before we are even sure that the teachers know how to turn on their computers, we ask them to identify projects they wish to undertake during the workshop. The projects may be collaborative, personal, or curriculum-related, and they need not relate to the subjects they teach.
  2. Powerful ideas. Each day begins with a discussion of a relevant education issue or philosophical concern. Topics might include the history of Logo and your role in technological innovation (what the school has already accomplished); process approaches to learning; or personal learning stories. The topic for the final day, “What does this have to do with school?” is designed to help teachers reflect on their workshop experiences and make connections to their role as teachers.
  3. Problem solving off the deep end. One or two problem-solving activities are planned to demonstrate how teachers can solve complex open-ended problems through collaborative effort. These exercises help the participants to understand that not every problem has only one correct answer and that some problems may have no answers.

Slumber parties are offered on a regular basis. Because the primary goal of the workshops is to support a learning community, teachers and administrators are encouraged to participate in more than one. Participants gain appreciation for the power and expressive potential of LogoWriter. And, they are reminded that their colleagues are creative, imaginative learners like themselves.

Build-a-Book Residential Workshops

The origin for these workshops is based in the book, Build-a-Book Geometry. The book chronicles the author’s experience as a high school geometry teacher who spent an entire year encouraging his students to write their own geometry text through discovery, discussion, debate, and experimentation. It provides an exciting model for taking what teams of students know about a concept and then giving them challenges built upon their understanding or misunderstanding of it. The teacher then uses the responses to elicit a set of issues to which another team will respond, and so on. Throughout the process, each team keeps careful notes of hypotheses, processes, and conclusions, then shares these notes with the other teams during the process of writing the class book.

Healy’s ideas inspired a format that addresses confusing topics through discussion, problem solving, collaboration, and journal writing. Before the workshop, I ask each participant to identify three LogoWriter programming issues that they do not understand or that they need to have clarified. Small teams of teachers spend hours answering the questions and explaining numerous programming (and often mathematical) issues to one another. This exercise stresses the most important component of cooperative learningæinterdependence. When each group has answered all questions to its collective satisfaction, each teacher meets with a member of another team to explain what his or her group has accomplished.

Participants explore emerging questions through projectsædesigned by the leaderæthat are intended to use increasingly sophisticated skills. For example, teachers discuss the concept of programming elegance as they review student projects, and they keep careful notes of their programming processes, questions, and discoveries. These collective notes are included in the class book (disk). This disk becomes a valuable personal reference that the teachers can use in their own classrooms.

Teacher assessments of the residential workshops have been extremely positive. And, the quality of the experience makes the cost quite low when compared with the cost of providing an ongoing series of two-hour after-school workshops. Schools routinely spend much more time teaching concepts in bite-size chunks, while leaving real learning to chance.

Suggestions for Success

Following are some guidelines for successful technology implementation.

  • Work with the living.
    Because schools have limited technological and teacher development resources, those that do exist should be allocated prudently. If energy and resources are focused on creating a few successful models of classroom computing each year, the enthusiasm among teachers will be infectious. Of course, the selection of models must be broad enough to engage teachers of differing backgrounds and subject areas.
  • Eliminate obstacles.
    It should not be surprising that teachers without sufficient access to computer technology don’t embrace its use. How many workshops must a teacher attend to get a new printer ribbon? How long must a teacher wait to get enough lab time for his or her students to work on a meaningful project? The idea that schools should not buy computers before the teachers know what to do with them must be discarded.
  • Stay on message.
    Administrators must articulate a clear philosophy regarding how the new technology is to be used and how the culture of the school is likely to change. Communication between teachers and administrators must be honest, risk-free, and comfortable. Administrators must constantly clarify the curricular content and traditions the school values, as well as specify the outdated methodology and content that is to be eliminated. Teachers must be confident that their administrators will support them through the transitional periods.
  • Work on the teacher’s turf.
    Those responsible for staff development should be skilled in classroom implementation and should work alongside the teacher to create models of constructive computer use. It is important for teachers to see what students can do; this is difficult to accomplish in a brief workshop at the end of a long workday.
  • Plan off-site institutes.
    Schools must ensure that teachers understand the concepts of collaborative problem solving, cooperative learning, and constructivism. Accordingly, teachers must have the opportunity to leave behind the pressures of family and school for several days in order to experience the art of learning with their colleagues. Off-site residential “whole learning” workshops can have a profoundly positive effect on a large number of teachers in a short period of time.
  • Provide adequate resources.
    Nothing dooms the use of technology in the classroom more effectively than lack of support. Administrators can support teacher efforts by providing and maintaining the technology requested and by providing access to a working printer and a supply of blank disks.
  • Avoid software du jour.
    Many educators feel considerable pressure to constantly find something new to do with their computers. Unfortunately, this newness is equated with amassing more and more software. It is reckless and expensive to jump on every software bandwagon. The use of narrow, skill-specific software provides little benefit to students. Choose an open-ended environment, such as MicroWorlds, in which students can express themselves in many ways that may also converge with the curriculum.
  • Practice what you preach.
    Staff development experiences should be engaging, interdisciplinary, collaborative, heterogeneous, and models of constructivist learning.
  • Celebrate initiative.
    Recognize teachers who have made a demonstrated commitment to educational computing. Free them from some duties so they can assist colleagues in their classrooms; encourage them to lead workshops; and give them access to additional hardware.
  • Offer in-school sabbaticals.
    Provide innovative teachers with the in-school time and the resources necessary to develop curriculum and to conduct action research.
  • Share learning stories.
    Encourage teachers to reflect on significant personal learning experiences. Encourage them to share these experiences with their colleagues and to discuss the relationship between their own learning and their classroom practices. Formal action research projects and informal get-togethers are both effective. Teachers routinely relate that their most beneficial professional development experience is the opportunity to talk with peers.
  • Help teachers purchase technology.
    Schools should help fund 50-80 percent of a teacher’s purchase of a personal computer. This support demonstrates to teachers a shared commitment to educational progress. Partial funding gives teachers the flexibility to purchase the right computer configuration. Consider offering an annual stipend for upgrades and peripherals.
  • Cast a wide net.
    No one approach to staff development works for all teachers. Provide a combination of traditional workshops, in-classroom collaborations, mentoring, conferences, and whole-learning residential workshops from which teachers can choose.

Although many administrators dream of providing only a handful of computers in their schools, the reality of what is happening in schools across Australia requires serious consideration. Universal computing is in our future, and staff development programs must be geared to that fact. Modern staff development must help teachers not only embrace the technology, but also anticipate the classroom change that will accompany widespread use.

We must recognize that the only constant on which we can depend is the teacher. Our schools will only be as good as the least professional teacher. Staff development must enhance professionalism and empower teachers to improve the lives of their students. Our children deserve no less.

The Case for Computing
By Gary S. Stager

A chapter from the book, Snapshots! Educational Insights from the Thornburg Center (2004)

The personal computer is the most powerful, expressive and flexible instrument ever invented. At its best, the PC offers learners a rich intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression. Although computing has transformed nearly every aspect of society, schools remain relatively untouched.

This chapter is not about predicting the future. It is about the learning opportunities that exist today and may be overlooked. Computers and creativity are in dangerously short supply. The dearth of compelling models of using computers in deeper ways has created a vacuum now filled by a Dickensian approach to schooling.

When I read the growing mountain of educational technology standards I can’t help but wonder if these objectives could be satisfied without the use of a computer. The unimaginative use of school computers is symptomatic of larger crises in schooling, including what Seymour Papert calls, “idea aversion.” Over the past few decades I have enjoyed working at key moments in the intersection of learning and computers. My daily work is guided by an optimism rooted in experiences learning with computers and observing children doing the same. As much as this is the story of great promise and great disappointment, the children we serve sustain our enthusiasm to work harder to realize the learning potential of the digital age.

Ancient History – My Early Years of Computing

In 1976 I got to touch a computer for the first time. My junior high school (grades 6-8) had a mandatory computer-programming course for seventh and eighth graders. More than a quarter century ago, the Wayne Township Public Schools in New Jersey thought it was important for all kids to have experience programming computers. There was never any discussion of preparation for computing careers, school-to-work, presentation graphics or computer literacy. Computer programming was viewed as a window onto a world of ideas given equal status as industrial arts, music appreciation, art and oral communications.

The scarcity of classroom computers made programming a highly social activity since we were often leaning over each other’s shoulders in order to get in on the action.

Mr. Jones, the computer programming teacher, was scary in a Dr. Frankenstein sort of way. However, I was attracted by the realization that this guy could make computers do things!

Mr. Jones knew how elaborate computer games worked and would show us the code afterschool if we were interested. Once I understood how to read a computer program, I could THINK LIKE THE COMPUTER! This made me feel powerful.

The feelings of intellectual elation I experienced programming are indescribable. The computer amplified my thinking. I could start with the germ of an idea and through incremental success and debugging challenges build something more sophisticated than I could have ever imagined.

The self-awareness that I was a competent thinker helped me survive the indignities of high school mathematics classes. Mr. Jones helped me learn to think like a computer. The ability to visualize divergent paths, anticipate bugs, and rapidly test mental scenarios is the direct result of computer programming. This gift serves me in everyday life when I need hack my way through a voicemail system to reach a knowledgeable human, or get my car out a locked parking structure.

Perhaps Mr. Jones was such a great teacher because he was learning to program too – maybe just slightly ahead of us. (This never occurred to me as a kid since Mr. Jones knew everything about computers.)

A strong community of practice emerged in the high school computer room. We learned from each other, challenged one another and played with each other’s programs. We altered timeshare games, added ways to cheat and programmed cheap tricks designed to shock classmates. I even ran after school classes in BASIC for kids interested in learning to program.

Computers were to be used to make things at my high school, not as a subject of study. There was never a mention of computer literacy and owning a computer was unthinkable. The school computers were a place to lose our selves in powerful ideas.

We never saw a manual for a piece of software although we treasured every issue of Creative Computing – working hard to meticulously enter hundreds of lines of computer code only to have every single program be buggy. Since we had little idea what was impossible, we thought anything was possible. We felt smart, powerful and creative. We took Fortran manuals out of the public library for no other reason than to hold a connection to a larger world of computing – a world we were inventing for ourselves.

Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak, were involved in similar little ventures at the time. Many of the computing visionaries who changed the world had similar early experiences with computers. I remember the explosion of thinking and creativity I experienced programming computers and try to recreate the spirit of that computer-rich learning culture in every school I visit. Kids deserve no less.

In the mid-80s I was welcomed into the global “Logo community” and asked to present papers at places like MIT. This was pretty heady stuff for a failed trumpet player and mediocre student. Logo programming offered a vehicle for sharing my talents, expressing my creativity and engaging in powerful ideas with some of the leading thinkers in education. Seymour Papert’s scholarship gave voice to my intuitions visa-a-vis the tension between schooling and learning.

To this day, my work with adults and kids is centered around using computers as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression. To experience the full power of computing, the tools need to be flexible extensible and transparent. The user needs to be fluent in the grammar of the system whether it is text based, symbolic or gestural.

Laptops

In 1989, Methodist Ladies’ College, an Australian PK-12 school already recognized for its world-class music education, committed to every student having a personal laptop computer. By the time I began working with MLC a year later, 5th and 7th graders were required to own a laptop. The “P” in PC was taken very seriously. Personal computing would not only solve the obvious problems of student access, low levels of faculty fluency and the costs associated with the construction of computer labs – the PC would embody the wisdom of Dewey, Vygotsky and Piaget. Logo, because of its open-endedness and cross-curricular potential, was the software platform chosen for student learning. The potential of Logo as a learning environment that would grow with students across disciplines and grade levels could only be realized with access to ubiquitous hardware. This justified the investment in laptops.

MLC principal, David Loader, understood that the personal was at the core of any efforts to make his school more learner-centered. He was not shy in his desire to radically reinvent his school. Bold new thinking, epistemological breakthroughs, sensitivity to a plurality of learning styles, increased collaboration (among teachers and children) and student self-reliance were expected outcomes of the high-tech investment. Teachers learning to not only use, but program, computers would acquaint themselves with the type of “hard fun” envisioned for student learning.

If the computer were to play a catalytic role in this educational shift, it was obvious that the computers needed to be personal. Truly creative and intellectual work requires freedom and a respect for privacy. Quality work is contingent on sufficient time to think, to experiment, to play. The laptop can only become an extension of the child when it is available at all times. Therefore, there was never any debate about laptops going home with students. Time and time again, the most interesting work was accomplished during the student’s personal time.

Laptops were a way to enable student programming “around the clock” and make constructionism concrete.

MLC was a magical place during the early nineties. Every aspect of schooling was open for discussion and reconsideration.

When I expressed concern over the gap between classroom reality and the rhetoric proclaiming the school’s commitment to constructionism, the principal supported my desire to take dozens of teachers away for intensive residential professional development sessions. After all, constructionism is something you DO as well as believe. You cannot be a constructionist who subcontracts the construction. “Do as I say, not as I do,” would no longer cut it.

A renaissance of learning and teaching catapulted MLC and the subsequent Australian “laptop schools” to the attention of school reformers around the world.

We were ecstatic when “laptop” students began to adorn their computers with their names written in glitter paint. This signaled appropriation. The computers mattered. Success.

The early success of MLC and the many other “laptop schools” to follow were a realization of the dream Seymour Papert and Alan Kay held for decades. In 1968, computer scientist Alan Kay visited Seymour Papert at MIT. Papert, a protégé of Jean Piaget, a mathematician and artificial intelligence pioneer was combining his interests by designing computing environments in which children could learn. Kay was so impressed by how children in Papert’s Logo Lab were learning meaningful mathematics that he sketched the Dynabook, a dream of portable computers yet to be fully realized, on the flight home to Xerox PARC, a leading high-tech thinktank.

Kay set out to design a portable personal computer for children on which complex ideas could come alive through the construction of simulations. Dr. Kay recently remembered this time by saying,  “More and more, I was thinking of the computer not just as hardware and software but as a medium through which you could communicate important things. Before I got involved with computers I had made a living teaching guitar. I was thinking about the aesthetic relationship people have with their musical instruments and the phrase popped into my mind: an instrument whose music is ideas.”

Kay’s poetic vision resonated with my memories of Mr. Jones, summer camp and my own experiences programming in Logo.

“One of the problems with the way computers are used in education is that they are most often just an extension of this idea that learning means just learning accepted facts. But what really interests me is using computers to transmit ideas, points of view, ways of thinking. You don’t need a computer for this, but just as with a musical instrument, once you get onto this way of using them, then the computer is a great amplifier for learning.”

At-risk and high tech

For three years, beginning in 1999, I worked with Seymour Papert to develop a high-tech alternative learning environment, the Constructionist Learning Laboratory (CCL), inside the Maine Youth Center, the state facility for adjudicated teens. This multiage environment provided each student with a personal computer and access to a variety of constructive material. The experience of trying to reacquaint or acquaint these previously unsuccessful students with the learning process teaches us many lessons about just how at-risk our entire educational system has become.

The intent of the project was to create a rich constructionist learning environment in which severely at-risk students could be engaged in long-term projects based on personal interest, expertise and experience. Students used computational technologies, programmable LEGO and more traditional materials to construct knowledge through the act of creating a personally meaningful project. The hypothesis was that the constructionist philosophy offers students better opportunities to learn and engage in personally meaningful intellectual development. The computer was the magic carpet that would allow these children to escape their history of school failure.

Students in this alternative learning environment routinely suffered from what Seymour Papert called,“the curious epidemic of learning disabilities.” Kids with low or non-existent literacy skills were able to invent and program robots capable of making decisions and interacting with their environment. Robo Sumo wrestlers, interactive gingerbread houses, card dealing robots, luggage sorting systems and temperature-sensitive vending machines capable of charging a customer more money on hot humid days were but a few of the ingenious inventions constructed with programmable LEGO materials. Students also designed their own videogames, made movies and explored the universe via computer-controlled microscopes and telescopes. They wrote sequels to Othello and published articles in programming journals. These kids proved that computing offered productive learning opportunities for all kinds of minds.

One child, said to be completely illiterate, wrote a page of program code the night before class because an idea was burning inside of him. Another “illiterate” youngster, incarcerated for more than half of his life, was capable of building dozens of mechanisms in the blink of an eye and installing complex software. His ability to program complicated robots presented clues about his true abilities. A week before he left the facility, this child, so accustomed to school failure, sat down and typed a 12,000-word autobiography.

Tony’s adventure is also a tale worth telling. He had not been in school since the seventh grade and indicated that none of his peer group attended school past the age of twelve or thirteen. In the CLL he fell in love with robotics and photography at the age of seventeen.

During the spring of 2001, the MYC campus was populated with groundhog holes. To most kids these familiar signs of spring went unnoticed, but not for the “new” Tony.

Tony and his new assistant, “Craig,” spent the next few weeks building a series of what came to be known as “Gopher-cams.” This work captured the imagination of the entire Maine Youth Center. Tony and Craig learned a great deal about how simple unanticipated obstacles like a twig could derail days of planning and require new programming or engineering. These students engaged in a process of exploration not unlike the men who sailed the high seas or landed on the moon. While they never really found out what was down the hole, they learned many much more important lessons.

Robotics gives life to engineering, mathematics and computer science in a tactile form. It is a concrete manifestation of problem solving that rewards debugging, ingenuity and persistence. The LEGO robotic materials promote improvisational thinking, allowing even young children to build a machine, test a hypothesis, tinker, debug, and exceed their own expectations.  As often experienced in programming, every incremental success leads to a larger question or the construction of a bigger theory.  This dialogue with the machine amplifies and mediates a conversation with self.

Digital technology is a critical variable in the transformation of reluctant learners. Self-esteem, or even academic grades, might have been enhanced through traditional activities. However, the availability of computationally-rich construction materials afforded the learners the opportunity to experience the empowerment associated with the feeling of wonderful ideas. For the first time in their lives, these children experienced what it felt like to be engaged in intellectual work. This feeling required a personal sustained relationship with the computer and computationally-rich objects to think with such as LEGO and MicroWorlds. All students deserve the chance to make important contributions to the world of ideas, and must be given the means to do so.

State of the art?

Much needs to be done to ensure that all students enjoy the quality of experience offered by the best laptop schools, online environments and the CLL.

Somewhere along the line, the dreams of Kay, Papert and Loader were diluted by the inertia of school. Detours along the road to the Dynabook were paved by the emergence of the Internet and corporate interest in the laptop miracle.

Until the explosion of interest in the Internet and Web, individual laptops offered a relatively low-cost decentralized way to increase access to computers and rich learning opportunities. The Net, however, required these machines to be tethered to centralized servers and an educational bureaucracy pleased with its newfound control. Computing costs soared, data and children were either menaced or menaces. Jobs needed to be protected. The desires of the many often trumped the needs of the learner.

Microsoft generously offered to bring the laptop message to American schools, but their promotional videos pushed desks back into rows and teachers stood at the front of classrooms directing their students to use Excel to calculate the perimeter of a rectangle. Over emphasis on clerical “business” applications – were manifest in elaborate projects designed to justify (shoehorn) the use of Excel or Powerpoint in an unchanged curriculum. Many of these projects have the dubious distinction of being mechanically impressive while educationally pointless. Our gullible embrace of false complexity increases as the work is projected in a darkened classroom.

I’ve developed Murray’s Law to describe the way in which many schools assimilate powerful technology. “Every 18 months schools will purchase computers with twice the processing power of today, and do things twice as trivial with those computers.”

There is a fundamental difference between technology and computing, which can be seen in the words themselves. One is a noun, the other a verb, What we saw students do with technology at the CCL was active, engaged, compelling, sophisticated learning.  They were computing, and similar experiences for all students can transform the experience of school.

What are you really saying?

I know that many of you must be thinking, “Does Gary really believe that everyone should be a programmer?” My answer is, “No, but every child should experience the opportunity to program a computer during her K-12 education.” Critics of my position will say things like, “Not every person needs to program or will even like it.” To these people I suggest that not every kid needs to learn to write haiku or sand a tie rack in woodshop. However, we require millions of children to do so because we believe it is either rewarding, of cultural value or offers a window onto potential forms of human expression.

Despite our high-tech society’s infinite dependence on programming and the impressive rewards for computing innovation, many people find the notion of programming repulsive. Everyone wants their child to earn Bill Gates’ money, but only if they never have to cut a line of code. Educators especially need to get past this hysteria rooted in fear and ignorance for the sake of the children in our care. (this sentence is optional if you feel it is inflammatory)

I do not understand why anyone would question the value of offering programming experiences to children.

It is unseemly for schools to determine that a tiny fraction of the student population is capable of using computers in an intellectually rich way. The “drill for the test” curriculum of the A.P. Computer Science course serves only a few of the most technically sophisticated students. That is elitism.

Children enjoy programming when engaged in a supportive environment. The study of other disciplines may be enhanced through the ability to concretize the formal. For example, complex mathematical concepts become understandable through playful manipulation, graphical expression of abstractions or the application of those concepts in service of a personal goal. It would be difficult to argue that mathematics education, at the very least, would not be enriched through programming.

Schools need to make a sufficient number of computers with powerful software available for the transparent use of every child across all disciplines. Schools also have an obligation to offer a more inclusive selection of courses designed for a more diverse student body interested in learning with and about computers. Courses in software design, digital communication, robotics, or computer science are but a few options. The Generation Y program, in which students lend their technological expertise to teachers who want to integrate technology into their lessons provides another outlet for authentic practice.

Whither computing?

I wonder when the educational computing community decided to replace the word. computing, with technologyThe Computing Teacher became Learning and Leading with TechnologyClassroom Computer Learning begot Technology and Learning Magazine. Conference speakers began diminishing the power of the computer by lumping all sorts of objects into the catch-all of technology. Computers are in fact a technology, but they are now spoken of in the same breath as the blackboard, chalk, filmstrip projector or Waterpik. Computing was never to be mentioned again in polite company.

I recently read the conference program for a 1985 educational computing conference. The topics of discussion and sessions offered are virtually the same as at similar events today. The only difference is that all mentions of programming have disappeared from the marketplace of ideas.

It seems ironic that educators fond of reciting how kids know so much about computers act as if the computer was just invented. We should be unimpressed by breathless tales of children web surfing or using a word processor to write a school report. My standards are much higher. We will cheat a second generation of microcomputer-age students if we do not raise our game and acknowledge that so much more is possible.

If we concur that kids are at least comfortable with computers, if not fluent, then teachers have a responsibility to build on the fluency of computer-savvy kids. This is a classroom gift, like an early reader, a natural soprano or a six year-old dinosaur expert. It is incumbent on schools and their personnel to steer such students in more challenging and productive directions. Teachers have an obligation to respect the talents, experience and knowledge of students by creating authentic opportunities for growth.

If the youngest children can “play” doctor, lawyer, teacher or fireman, why can’t they imagine themselves as software designers? Open-ended software construction environments designed for children, like MicroWorlds, make it possible for children of all ages to view themselves as competent and creative producers of knowledge. Too few students know that such accomplishments are within reach.  This failure results from a leadership, vision, and professional knowledge deficit.

While school computing fades from memory, keyboarding instruction inexplicably remains a K-12 staple from coast to coast. Computer assisted instruction, schemes designed to reduce reading to a high-stakes race and low-level technical skills dominate the use of computers in schools. In the hands of a clever curriculum committee, “uses scroll bars” can be part of a nine-year scope and sequence.

Examples of kids composing music, constructing robots, or designing their own simulations are too hard to find. More than a quarter century has passed since Mr. Jones taught me to program. Yet, children in that school are now compelled to complete a keyboarding class. There can be no rational justification for so blatant a dumbing-down of the curriculum.

Computing Changes Everything

There are so many ways in which children may use computers in authentic ways. Low-cost MIDI software and hardware offers even young children a vehicle for musical composition. The 1990 NCTM Standards indicated that fifty percent of mathematics has been invented since World War II. This mathematics is visual, experimental and rooted in computing. It may even engage kids in the beauty, function and magic of mathematics.

In Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril, author Timothy Ferris describes how amateur astronomers armed with telescopes, computers and Net connections are making substantive contributions to the field of astronomy. For the first time in history, children possess the necessary tools to be scientists and to engage in scientific communities.

MacArthur Genius Stephen Wolfram has written a revolutionary new 1,280 page book, A New Kind of Science. The book illustrates his theory that the universe and countless other disciplines may be reduced to a simple algorithm. Scientists agree that if just a few percent of Wolfram’s theories are true, much of what we thought we knew could be wrong and many other cosmic mysteries may be solved. Wolfram believes that a human being is no more intelligent than a cloud and both may be created with a simple computer program.

A New Kind of Science starts with very a big bang.

“Three centuries ago science was transformed by the dramatic new idea that rules based on mathematical equations could be used to describe the natural world. My purpose in this book is to initiate another such transformation, and to introduce a new kind of science that is based on the much more general types of rules that can be embodied in simple computer programs.”

You do not have to take Wolfram’s word for it. With the $65 A New Kind of Science Explorer software, you and your students can explore more than 450 of Wolfram’s experiments. The visual nature of cellular automata – the marriage of science, computer graphics and mathematics – allows children to play on the frontiers of scientific thought while trying to prove, disprove or extend the theories of one of the world’s greatest scientists. The intellectual habits required to “think with” this tool are rooted in computer programming.

I recently told Alan Kay that while I was hardly a mathematician, I knew what it felt like to have a mathematical idea. He generously replied, “Then you are a mathematician, you’re just not a professional.” The work of Seymour Papert shows us that through the explicit act of computing children can too be mathematicians and scientists.

“If you can use technology to make things you can make a lot more interesting things. And you can learn a lot more by making them. …We are entering a digital world where knowing about digital technology is as important as reading and writing.  So learning about computers is essential for our students’ futures BUT the most important purpose is using them NOW to learn about everything else. “ (Papert 1999)

We can neutralize our critics and improve the lives of kids if we shift our focus towards using school computers for the purpose of constructing knowledge through the explicit act of making things – including: robots, music compositions, digital movies, streaming radio and simulations. Children engaged in thoughtful projects might impress citizens desperate for academic rigor. Examples of competent children computing bring many current educational practices into question. Emphasizing the use of computers to make things will make life easier for teachers, more exciting for learners and lead schools into what should be education’s golden age.

SIDEBAR

Why Should Schools Compute?

Computing offers an authentic context for doing & making mathematics
Traditional arithmetic and mathematical processes are provided with a genuine context for use. New forms of mathematics become accessible to learners.

Computing concretizes the abstract
Formal concepts like feedback, variables and causality become concrete through use.

Computing offers new avenues for creative expression
Computing makes forms of visual art and music composition possible for even young children while providing a canvas for the exploration of new art forms like animation. A limitless audience is now possible.

Computer science is a legitimate science
Computer science plays a revolutionary role in society and in every other science. It should be studied alongside biology, physics and chemistry.

Computing supports a plurality of learning styles
There are many ways to approach a problem and express a solution.

Computing offers preparation for a plethora of careers
There is a shortage of competent high-tech professionals in our economy

Computing grants agency to the user, not the computer
Rather than the computer programming the child, the child can control the computer.

Debugging offers ongoing opportunities to enhance problem-solving skills
Nothing works correctly the first time. The immediacy of concrete feedback makes debugging a skill that will serve learners for a lifetime.

Computing rewards habits of mind such as persistence, curiosity and perspective
Computers mediate a conversation with self in which constant feedback and incremental success propels learners to achieve beyond their expectations.


References

Cavallo, D. (1999) “Project Lighthouse in Thailand: Guiding Pathways to Powerful Learning.” In Logo Philosophy and Implementation. Montreal, Canada: LCSI.

Duckworth, E. (1996) The Having of Wonderful Ideas and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning. NY: Teachers College Press.

Ferris, T. (2002) Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril. NY: Simon and Schuster.

Harel, I., and Papert, S., eds. (1991) Constructionism. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Kafai, Y., and Resnick, M., eds. (1996) Constructionism in Practice: Designing, Thinking, and Learning in a Digital World. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Levy, S. (2002) The Man Who Cracked the Code to Everything.Wired Magazine. Volume 10, Issue 6. June 2002.

Papert, S. (1980) Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. New York: Basic Books.

Papert, S. (1990) “A Critique of Technocentrism in Thinking About the School of the Future,” MIT Epistemology and Learning Memo No. 2. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory.

Papert, S. (1991) “Situating Constructionism.” In Constructionism, in  Harel, I., and Papert, S., eds. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Papert, S. (1993) The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. New York: Basic Books.

Papert, S. (1996) The Connected Family. Atlanta: Longstreet Publishing.

Papert, S. (1999) “The Eight Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Laboratory.” Unpublished internal document. South Portland, Maine.

Papert, S. (1999) “What is Logo? Who Needs it?” In Logo Philosophy and Implementation. Montreal, Canada: LCSI.

Papert, S. (2000) “What’s the Big Idea? Steps toward a pedagogy of idea power.” IBM Systems Journal, Vol. 39, Nos 3&4, 2000.

Resnick, M., and Ocko, S. (1991) “LEGO/Logo: Learning Through and About Design.” In Constructionism, in  Harel, I., and Papert, S., eds. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Stager, G. (2000) “Dream Bigger” in Little, J. and Dixon, B. (eds.) Transforming Learning: An Anthology of Miracles in Technology-Rich Classrooms. Melbourne, Australia: Kids Technology Foundation.

Stager, G. (2001) “Computationally-Rich Constructionism and At-Risk Learners.” Presented at the World Conference on Computers in Education. Copenhagen.

Stager, G. (2002) “Papertian Constructionism and At-Risk Learners.” Presented at the National Educational Computing Conference. San Antonio.

“The Dynabook Revisted” from the website, The Book and the Computer: exploring the future of the printed word in the digital age. (n.d.) Retrieved January 20, 2003 from http://www.honco.net/os/kay.html

Thornburg, D. (1984) Exploring Logo Without a Computer. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.

Thornburg, D. (1986) Beyond Turtle Graphics: Further Explorations of Logo. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.

Turkle, S. (1991) “Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete.” In Constructionism. Idit Harel and Seymour Papert (eds.), Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Wolfram, S. (2002) A New Kind of Science. Champaign, IL: Wolfram Media, Inc.

“The Dynabook Revisted” from the website, The Book and the Computer: exploring the future of the printed word in the digital age. (n.d.) Retrieved January 20, 2003 from http://www.honco.net/os/kay.html.

ibid…

The following new strategy for 1:1 implementation in schools has been based on careful observation of emerging standards and implementation patterns across the globe.

Step 1:
Buy a lot of “devices” containing a rechargeable battery or allow students to bring a random assortment of “devices” to school

Step 2:
Announce that your school, district, state, or nation has “gone 1:1”

Step 3 – Step 1,000,000:
Repeat Step 2 over and over again

 

 

I suppose that school IT departments are a necessary evil, but that does not change the fact that 999 out of 1,000 of them are just evil.

Too many school leaders are so terrified of anything that plugs in that they surrender unprecedented budgetary authority and power to folks unworthy of such responsibility. Rather than provide support for the professional educators and children one would think they are there to serve, far too many school IT personnel add unnecessary complication and obstacles to the mission of a school. In way too many schools, teachers report to IT staff who put in place cumbersome policies that conflict with educational priorities and make computers too unreliable to have a significant impact on teaching or learning.

In 1990, I led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools. Over the next several years, I helped countless schools “go 1:1.” Until around 1995-96, most schools with 1,000 laptops employed one nice lady you went to when your computer broke. She patted you on the head, wiped your tears and called the vendor to repair the machine. In the mid-90s, everything changed. The World Wide Web decentralized computing by tying computers back together via networks, schools spent a king’s ransom worrying about nonsense like backing up kids’ data, securing the 7th grade computer lab against the Soviets, and installing draconian filtering systems that with each passing year made the Web less reliable or useful to students. Administrative ignorance of computers now had a new friend, paralyzing fear of what kids might find online. Now schools suddenly required an army of IT gatekeepers who if incompetent enough could convince their schools to hire all of their friends.

In the K-6 school where I work regularly, we managed approximately 60 laptops last year with no security, networked storage or IT personnel. I wrote the number of each laptop on its underside with a Sharpie and kids knew that if they wanted to continue working on yesterday’s file, they should go back to the same laptop they were using. Everything worked just swell. There were no maintenance issues and computers behaved as one would expect, not the figment of a computer kids have come to expect after the IT Department is done “fixing them.” Schools routinely buy a $1,000 computer and quickly turn it into a $200 “device.”  I know we constantly have to defend computers for students, but does anyone EVER question the ROI for school IT personnel?

The scenario I just described often leads me to wonder if schools really possess the maturity to have computers. We’re not preparing kids for the future if the computers they’re forced to use don’t function normally or if we confiscate a kid’s machine after they make it operational (see LAUSD iPad clown show). It’s no wonder we can’t have nice things.

Today, I saw the promised land.

I’m in Mumbai working at the American School of Bombay for a week. This is my third trip here since 2004 when I was hired by the school board to perform an audit of their computer use. This morning, I taught 60 tenth graders for three hours. We began by having all of the students spend an hour or so programming in Turtle Art and then set up three areas where kids could choose to work on MaKey MaKey projects, Arduino engineering, or wearable computing/soft-circuits.

Great stuff happened, not just because I’m a badass who can teach 60 kids I’ve never met before to program, build robots and make wearable computers, but because the school’s IT Department was there to help! Let me say that again real slowly… “The ———— IT ———- Department ——— Was —— There —— To —— Help!” Mull that over a few times.

When I arrived, the materials I requested were waiting for me. When kids hadn’t bothered to download and install the software last night, the team helped me get software onto individual laptops. When we needed Arduino manuals, the team downloaded and printed ten copies. When we were missing an item, it arrived minutes later without an interruption in the instructional program. When kids needed help, the team pitched-in and they did so with a smile on their face and pride in a job well done. They love what the kids are able to do with the materials they support. (I should also mention the terrific science and math teachers who demonstrated genuine interest and delight in the work of their students.)

The leader of the IT Team received a second-hand note from me saying that I needed some sort of bucket-shaped item for use in one of the MaKey MaKey projects I hoped to interest kids in. He went to KFC last evening and scored a half-dozen chicken buckets for our use – EXACTLY what I needed, but didn’t know where to source in India.

I see kids go to the Help Desk and (wait for it) receive help. Yup. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Every kid who has approached the Help Desk has left happy. Every time I go to the Apple Store “Genius” Bar, I want to take hostages.

The school IT Team here at ASB is fantastic, but there is obviously a culture in place that expects and supports such greatness. There must be great clarity in their customer service mission. I am honored to work with them.

PS: The network works perfectly and as a guest I have complete access to Facebook and Twitter – booyah!

* ASB is a BYOD school, but the device is a laptop of a minimum standard. This adds complexity to keeping every user up and running, but again, no problem at all.