Laptops and Learning

Can laptop computers put the “C” (for constructionism) in Learning?
Published in the October 1998 issue of Curriculum Administrator

© 1998 – Gary S. Stager

“…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.” Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon (1971)

In 1989, Methodist Ladies’ College (MLC) in Melbourne, Australia embarked on a still unparalleled learning adventure. Eighteen years after Solomon and Papert’s prediction this school made a commitment to personal computing and constructionism. The unifying principle was that every child in the school (from grades 5-12) would own a personal laptop computer on which they could work at school, at home, and across the curriculum with a belief that their ideas and work were being stored and manipulated on their own personal computer. Ownership of the laptop computer would reinforce ownership of the knowledge constructed with it. The personal computer is a vehicle for building something tangible outside of your head – one of the tenets of constructionism. By 1994, 2,000 MLC teachers and students had a personal laptop computer. This school, like most serious workplaces now has a computer ration of more than one computer per worker (teacher & student). Today, approximately 50,000 Australian school children have their own laptop. More and more American schools are embracing laptops as well.

Personal Computing – Personal Learning

Until recently, the notion of the PC and personal computing has escaped schools. Computer labs, special furniture and computer literacy curricula have been designed to make efficient use of scarce public resources. The potential benefits of using a word processor to write, edit and publish are rarely realized when access to the computer is limited and artificially scheduled. Laptops provide a personal space for creating, exploring, and collecting one’s own ideas, work, and knowledge in a more fluid manner. Pioneering schools like MLC adopted laptops for the following reasons:

The laptop is flexible, portable, personal and powerful
Students and teachers may use the computer whenever and wherever they need to. The laptop is a personal laboratory for intellectual exploration and creative expression. Learning extends beyond the walls and hours of the school.

The laptop helps to professionalize teachers
Teachers equipped with professional tools view themselves more professionally. Computers are much more likely to be integrated into classroom practice when every student has one.

Provocative models of learning will emerge
Teachers need to be reacquainted with the art of learning before they are able to create rich supportive learning environments for their students. The computer allows different ways of thinking, knowing and expressing ones own ideas to emerge. The continuous collection of learning stories serves as a catalyst for rethinking the nature of teaching and learning.

Gets schools out of the computer business
Laptops are a cost-effective alternative to building computer labs, buying special furniture and installing costly wiring. Students keep laptops for an average of three years, a turnover rate rarely achieved by schools. Built-in modems provide students with net access outside of school. The school can focus resources on projection devices, high-quality peripherals and professional development.

Since my work with the world’s first two “laptop schools” in 1990, I’ve helped dozens of similar schools (public and private) around the world make sense of teaching and learning in environments with ubiquitous computing. My own experience and research by others has observed the following outcomes for students and teachers.

Learner Outcomes

  • Students take enormous pride in their work.
  • Individual and group creativity flourishes.
  • Multiple intelligences and ways of knowing are in ample evidence.
  • Connections between subject areas become routine.
  • Learning is more social.
  • Work is more authentic, personal & often transcends the assignment.
  • Social interactions tend to me more work-related.
  • Students become more naturally collaborative and less competitive.
  • Students develop complex cooperative learning strategies.
  • Kids gain benefit from learning alongside of teachers.
  • Learning does not end when the bell rings or even when the assignment is due.

Teacher Outcomes

  • The school’s commitment to laptops convinces teachers that computers are not a fad. Every teacher is responsible for use.
  • Teachers reacquaint themselves with the joy and challenge of learning something new.
  • Teachers experience new ways of thinking, learning and expressing one’s knowledge.
  • Teachers become more collaborative with colleagues and students.
  • Authentic opportunities to learn with/from students emerge.
  • Sense of professionalism and self-esteem are elevated.
  • Thoughtful discussions about the nature of learning and the purpose of school become routine and sometimes passionate.
  • Teachers have ability to collaborate with teachers around the world.
  • New scheduling, curriculum and assessment structures emerge.

 

“I believe that every American child ought to be living in the 21st century… This is why I like laptops – you can take them home. I m not very impressed with computers that schools have chained to desks. I m very impressed when kids have their own computers because they are liberated from a failed bureaucracy …

You can’t do any single thing and solve the problem. You have to change the incentives; you’ve got to restructure the interface between human beings. If you start redesigning a learning system rather than an educational bureaucracy, if you have incentives for kids to learn, and if you have 24-hour-a-day, 7-day a week free standing opportunities for learning, you’re going to make a bigger breakthrough than the current bureaucracy. The current bureaucracy is a dying institution.” – U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich (Wired Magazine, August 1995)

When Seymour Papert and Newt Gingrich are on the same side of an issue, it is hard to imagine an opposing view. The fact that computers are smaller, cheaper and more powerful has had a tremendous impact on society. Soon that impact will be realized by schools. Laptop schools are clearly on the right side of history and will benefit from the experience of being ahead of trend.

Much has been said recently about the virtues of anytime anywhere learning. Laptops certainly can deliver on that promise. Integrated productivity packages may be used to write, manipulate data and publish across the curriculum. However, the power of personal computing as a potential force for learning and as a catalyst for school reform transcends the traditional view of using computers to “do work.” I encourage school leaders considering an investment in laptops to dream big dreams and conceive of ways that universal computing can help realize new opportunities for intellectual development and creative expression.

The future is the last refuge of a scoundrel
(Gary Stager, 2010 – with apologies to Samuel Johnson)

I go to a lot of education conferences, a dozen or more per year, read lots of “edublogs” and listen to lots of speakers. The future is a popular topic of discussion.

The most common interchangeable keynote speaker regals his audience (it’s always a HE speaking) with the number of cellphones in the world, the number of FaceBook pages, how kids think email is old-fashioned and how we need to fear The Holy Roman Empire, Japan, China, India, Singapore and Finland.

The wisest of all keynote speakers tell their audiences that the world has changed and that education has not kept pace. A few brave well-compensated speakers even go out on a limb and strike a courageous stance in favor of creativity! Sometimes corporate videos or zany YouTube videos are shown to accentuate their point.

I marvel at these presentations because:

1) They leave the audience unchallenged and unprepared to act in any way that would improve education.
2) The breathless “discoveries” from the future are available to anyone sentient being capable of reading a newspaper, watching Oprah or talking to a teenager on a public bus. Regular reading of Parade Magazine would make the sorts of revelations shared in many education keynotes seem ho-hum.
3) The future is spooky.

Recently, I saw one well-respected academic show this incredibly long Microsoft video predicting “life in 2019.” That video was followed by a statement about how in the year 2000 “none of us” were able to predict all of the technology we now have available in 2010.

Allow me to respond in three ways.

1) The Microsoft video offers almost nothing substantively different in its vision of the future from the Knowledge Navigator film John Sculley produced at Apple Computer in 1987. The only difference between the two films is 13 years and interface elements. (I’ve been known to ask grad students to cobble together their own Knowledge Navigator as a collaborative project.)

2) What do videos like the one produced by Microsoft have to do with education? I get it. Things will be cool in the future. What should I do Monday? How does what I do Monday lead to preparing my students and colleagues for the “Someday” presented in the video.

3) It is preposterous to claim that we could never have predicted the technological progress between 2000 and 2010. I cannot think of a single technology that has changed the way I work or live that I currently own that I was unable to imagine or even own in 2000.

In 2000:

  • I had a cellphone (Perhaps even with email access. I can’t remember precisely when my Sony Ericsson phone provided that)
  • I had a laptop
  • My kids had laptops
  • My mother-in-law had a Kodak digital picture frame we were able to send photos to via a dial-up net connection
  • I had an MP3 player approximately a year before the iPod and then I had every model of iPod since
  • I had wireless Internet access at home and work
  • I had high-speed DSL acces in my home
  • I made digital videos and composed music online (that goes back to the late 1980s)
  • I flew on airplanes
  • I had cable television (My family got HBO in 1973)
  • I owned a digital camera
  • I owned a digital video camera
  • My personal web site had been up since 1996
  • I could burn CDs
  • I had access to portable video projectors
  • I was in my 17th year of email and Internet access
  • I ran my first online collaborative learning projects with children eleven years earlier
  • I participated in my first online “un-conference” in 1985 or 1986
  • I had been working in 1:1 schools for ten years
  • I had been teaching online for five years
  • Our third class of online Masters degree students were nearing graduation
  • I flew in airplanes over great distances
  • I  loved Pop-Tarts then. I still love Pop-Tarts!

Even if the technological progress gap between 2000 and 2010 was enormous, there is almost zero evidence that it has made an impact on education. Yeah, I know. “Blogging changed your life. Your PLN saved you from social isolation…” Social media just doesn’t feel that new to me and I challenge you to argue that it has had more than an infinitesimal impact on classroom practice.

Future fetishism is just the flip-side of nostalgia…

Here are some thoughts by another education pundit…

Suggestions for school improvement:

  1. smaller classes
  2. a curriculum related to real life
  3. better teacher education
  4. teachers make room in the curriculum for the folk-tales of children’s ancestors
  5. parents encouraged to visit the school
  6. more intimate contact with people outside of school and cooperating with the entire neighborhood

New “Literacies”
We must keep the three Rs, but they must change with the changing social needs… Have we the courage to change our class education into democratic education?

The Need to Rethink Teacher Education
Train teachers differently… Can the training include the direction of young children in club life… the study of the home and street life? Should the training school period include work in the hospital for children, so that the teacher may actually learn what the physical needs of the children are and where to go for help?

Site-based Decision-Making
We must break the deadening influence of a too strongly centralized system; we must individualize the schools rather than mass them… What the school system needs to understand is that its strength lies, not in the strength of the central organization, but in the strength of the individual school, not in making one school like another, but in making each school a distinct unit.

Real-world Learning
We must change the notion that the school is a cloistered institution, by breaking down its walls and having it come into direct contact with people… It must use the factory, the stores, the neighboring parks, the museums, not incidentally, but fully and with deliberation.

High Standards/Learner-cententered Education/Personalized Learning/Differentiated Instruction/No Excuses/Global Competitiveness/Emotional Intelligence/PISA Scores/Accountability
We must change our attitude toward the child… I feel that the attitude toward the school and the child is the ultimate attitude by which America is to be judged. Indeed, the distinctive contribution America is to make to the world’s progress is not political, economical, religious, but educational – the child (is) our national strength, the school as the medium through which the adult is to be remade.

Angelo Patri wrote those words in A Schoolmaster of the Great City: A progressive educator’s pioneering vision for urban schools. The book was published in 1917! You should read this book. Teacher and school principal Patri, identifies and solves most of the problems facing education today in a book he published in 1917.

Recently, one edublogger suggested that “we should stop talking about 21st Century Skills and start talking about 22nd Century Skills!” That’s a swell idea. Now educators can wait 190 years before being expected to change their practice! That’s some balloon payment!

I have a suggestion. Let’s stop talking about the future and start doing something now! Generations of children have missed-out on rewarding educational experiences while we worry about how corporate meetings will be conducted in 2019. Sheesh!

wwadio-cover-pages_page_1

wwwadio-article_page_1I have a special fondness for this article I wrote back in 1998. It was one of the first articles I wrote for Curriculum Administrator Magazine before enjoying a ten-year run as an Editor of its successor, District Administration. The article also chronicled some joyful work I did with students who demonstrated competence and good citizenship. This eleven year-old article also describes working in a laptop school (1:1 environment), the timeless hysteria over network security, the trustworthiness of students AND the article is about podcasting before podcasting was cool or even existed. In fact, few schools in the world were online at the time that these kids and I produced a digital radio show on the World Wide Web.

WADIO
Published in the November/December 1998 issue of Curriculum Administrator

© 1998 – Gary S. Stager

“Put on your virtual helmet and goggles! I’ve never tried this before and have no idea if we will be successful.” These cautionary words began my recent work with thirty-two eighth through tenth graders at Melbourne, Australia’s Wesley College.” I then explained to the unsuspecting students that we would spend the next four hours producing and broadcasting a digital radio program on the World Wide Web.

Radio provides a terrific vehicle for the development of writing, editing and oral communication skills without all of the technical vagaries associated with video production. Great radio requires great writing and RealAudio provides remarkably high transmission quality over the inadequate bandwidth found in most schools and homes. Low-cost digital technology allows every classroom to be a radio station.

We began the session with a discussion of the advantages of streaming audio over traditional downloading and a bit about what compression is. Next, we brainstormed what sorts of information should be included in our school radio station. The kids determined that there should be school news, sports, music, movie and book reviews (later grouped as culture), feature interviews and a public opinion poll included in the broadcast.

I asked for five volunteers to comprise the team of web monkeys I anticipated would be needed to make everything work on the web. There were plenty of volunteers. (It seems that the more pejorative the title, the more workers you can attract.) We then asked kids to sign-up for the reporting team of their choice, trying to evenly distribute the students.

My next instructions to the teams consisted of, “decide what sort of information you are going to broadcast, plan, write and record your piece of the program within the next hour.” The students displayed enormous maturity and self-direction in their efforts to decide how to make their piece of the program relevant and interesting. Many of them dispersed so they could conduct a poll, interview or collect other information on the campus. Their cooperative skills were tested when we were only able to find one audio tape recorder on the entire campus. Despite these obstacles, audio tapes poured in after morning tea.

While the newly formed teams of producers, writers, directors and reporters fanned out across the campus, the web monkeys went to work. The first dilemma facing us was that I (the teacher) didn’t know how to stream audio files over the World Wide Web. I knew I had to use metafiles, but were not sure how they worked. Five copies of the documentation were made so I could ask my young colleagues to help me figure out the correct process. It didn’t take long before the idea of metafiles made sense. After overcoming that hurdle two kids began designing the web pages needed to contain the broadcast, while the others downloaded tools they would need to digitize and compress the audio. The rest of the team connected an audio deck to the computer and adjusted audio recording levels in anticipation of the arrival of the tapes. Kids even went out and snapped digital photos to include in the web site.

Things got a bit hectic when the reporting teams arrived with tapes in-hand. There seemed more than enough work to keep all thirty-two kids busy. One of the web monkeys quickly became dissatisfied with the quality of the school’s desktop computer so he took out his personal laptop and headphones and announced that he would digitize and compress all of the audio clips. A system for naming files was created, communicated and documented so everyone would be on the same page. Another member of the team cut, paste, saved and uploaded meta files to the appropriate server. While two kids continued designing the web site and one student took the initiative to be project manager for the entire process. He demonstrated extraordinary poise and leadership skills while keeping track of tapes, file names and quality control. I was able to bark shorthand instructions to him and he would ensure that the relevant people carried out the task.

By the end of the four hours a Wesley College School broadcast prototype was up and running on the web. We decided earlier in the day to call it WADIO. A bit less chaos, more time and more experience would have allowed all of the audio files to sound great. However, the kids did a remarkable job in a very short period of time. Their creativity, technical fluency and collaborative skills continue to inspire me. One group figured out that they could dub their music reviews over clips from the CD. The feature interview group decided that “everyone interviews the principal” so they proceeded to interview one of the cleaners and “tuck shop” (cafeteria) ladies. The most pleasant surprise was found on the culture page. The students not only reviewed popular music CDs and movies, but included an excellent review of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” Trusted with responsibility for their own learning, kids will often exceed our curricular expectations.

None of this would have been possible if the students did not possess the computing fluency that comes from each student having a personal laptop computer. It was easy to forget that I was working with kids as I asked them to find and download programs on the Internet, digitize and edit audio files, create web pages and upload all of their work to a remote file server. All of these seemingly complex processes were within the reach of these 13-16 year-olds.

A few lessons emerged for teachers and administrators concerned with managing technology and locking down computers.

  1. The students were able to produce a simple, yet technically complex streaming audio broadcast on the web in less than one school day. Perhaps existing models of computer literacy need to be reconsidered.
  2. The entire product was created with free and shareware tools.
  3. Despite a zillion dollars worth of school networking, the voice of Australian students was streaming from a server I pay $5/month for in Virginia, USA. Much of our email and web services could be subcontracted externally.
  4. Thirty two teenagers had access to my personal server password at all times. I never once feared that they would breach that trust for I treated them with respect and they were too busy being productive to be destructive. If the kids had violated my security, I could easily restore my files and change passwords. They are just computers.
  5. Information wants to be free. The immediate reaction of some school personnel was that the broadcast would run better if it were on the school’s Intranet. This is a big mistake. Kids should have as big an audience for their work as possible. Parents might want to listen from work. Students might want to know what time the football game starts from home and students on distant shores might be inspired by the work of peers halfway around the world.
  6. When involved in an purposeful educational project, students will remain engaged and create a quality of work that exceeds our expectations.

You may listen to the original audio production at this link (as long as the technology still works).


POSTSCRIPT – 2009

For several years I traveled around the world sharing the story of WWWadio as an example of how the computer can be used to enhance personal expression and offer a global audience. Another lesson had to do with network security and student trustworthiness.

I gave all of the students my personal server username and password without fear for the following reasons:
1.    They needed server access in order to do their work.
2.    I was too busy teaching to constantly be interrupted in order to type a password into student computers.
3.    I believed that if I trusted the students with my Web server, they would behave responsibly. Besides, the server was backed-up in case something went wrong.
4.    The kids were so busy that they were likely to forget my password.
5.    It’s just a damned server.

I never bothered to change the server password following the WWWadio class. At presentations I proudly proclaimed how the students did not harm my server, despite having root access. This was a stunning dose of reality for educators fearful and suspicious of children.

Then it happened…

One day, I found an unfamiliar folder residing on my Web server. Since I’m such a disorganized person, I just figured that I had accidentally created a folder or assumed that my service provider had placed it there.

Curious, I looked at the contents of that mystery folder through a Web browser. Surprise! The Australian private school students had been maintaining a school-related newspaper on my server somewhere in the United States for 2-3 years without my knowledge, and more importantly, without doing any damage to the server or any of its other contents.

That’s right, despite the high tuition fees the students paid, the fact that they every student has her own laptop AND the school’s millions of dollars worth of networking infrastructure and personnel, students found the school network unreliable or too difficult to use in a way that suited their needs.

It sure is a shame how much time, money and personnel schools spend on computer networks only to complicate or cripple them.

At the recent Consortium for School Networking conference [2005*] educational computing pioneer Seymour Papert was asked to explain why there has been so little [school] transformation. Papert told the crowd that their practice of verbal inflation was the major obstacle to educational innovation in the digital age. He meant the breathless rhetoric about the magical ways technology is used in classrooms, when most of those tales could not pass the “So what?” test. Conventional notions of curriculum, assessment and practice are seldom questioned, he said, and yet we have the temerity to declare, “Transformation!”

Computer-generated mind maps are presented to the community as justification for the technology investment while they represent little more than high-tech napkin scribbles or a book report outline. Wiring is mistakenly confused with innovation while we hold on with all our might to the ridiculous mythology of drill-and-practice. The only transformation in the software industry is the ever-changing collection of ways it disguises that you’ll be gonged if you get a long division problem incorrect. Integrated learning systems, classroom performance systems and adaptive instruction are clever euphemisms for turning classrooms into high-stakes game shows. This is just 1980s Math Blaster without that pesky patina of fun.

Teachers who don’t use computers aren’t digital immigrants; they’re digital ninnies.

Conference programs are filled with presentations on how to use computers to reinforce a trivial aspect of the traditional curriculum without ever calling into question that content. Our attention should be paid to how the computer might allow children to not only learn what the textbooks prescribe in a deeper, more efficient fashion, but to develop what Papert called, “modern knowledge.”

All sorts of excuses are made for why the most powerful intellectual instrument ever invented, the computer, has had so little impact on schooling. We blame a shortage of professional development, funding or quality software. Publishers, politicians and principals are also accused of impeding educational progress with their hierarchical mandates. Yet, the simple fact remains that a quarter century after microcomputers entered your schools a minority of teachers use them and an even smaller percentage do so in a way that increases opportunities for all learners.

Lurking in the teacher’s room
Fifteen years ago I had the good fortune to lead professional development at the first two schools where every child had a laptop. Wondrous student work emerged and a good number of educators even “transformed” their teaching practice. Yet, it seemed impossible to reach the “tipping point” when the vast majority of teachers used computers in constructive ways. It turns out there was a staff member, ironically an IT teacher, who would take colleagues aside and tell them not to worry about the laptops or the silly talk of innovation. “This too shall pass,” he suggested. This one teacher caused inestimable damage before moving to several other schools and repeating the pattern.

Many schools harbor such low-tech insurgents and pay too little attention to their potential for destruction.

Dear Mr. & Ms. Crabtree:
You are not noble defenders of childhood innocence or pedagogical excellence. You have managed to block student access to critical learning opportunities and intellectual tools for more than 25 years. There is no acceptable excuse for cheating a generation of children.

Words matter
We love cute little cliches referring to children as digital natives and adults are mere digital immigrants. Not only is this simplistic aphorism insulting to the millions of grown-ups capable of using a computer, but it also provides cover for the teachers who have refused to enter the last quarter of the 20th century. After all, they’re special.

Why not call such teachers digital ninnies? How about non-learners? Students should not be entrusted to adults so oppositionally defiant as learners. An IEP would be created for a child who displayed such an unwillingness to grow.

School leaders need to expand their vision, raise expectations and use precise language they are indeed going to transform education for the next generation of learners. Let’s cut the baloney, increase access and share compelling models of what children can learn and do with computers.

Gary Stager, was editor-at-large for District Administration Magazine and is a Visiting Professor at Pepperdine University.


*Gary Stager on Tech Insurgents
Do your teachers need a computing IEP?
By Gary Stager
Originally published in the June 2005 issue of District Administration Magazine

Fueled by adrenaline from the early-morning keynote debate, I got the enormous NECC stage to myself to make a presentation called, “Learning Adventures: Transforming Real and Virtual Learning Environments” The video of that presentation has finally appeared online and I am most grateful that ISTE filmed the session at such a high level of quality. I am enormously proud of this presentation and am thrilled that my mouth worked pretty well that morning, June 30th, 2009.

As I’ve said in other contexts, I’ve been online since 1983 and have taught online since the late 1980s. Therefore, I look upon the euphoria and controversy accorded “online learning” like a fish looks at water. It just isn’t that interesting to me that people communicate online. I expect it. I depend upon it. Everybody does it, right?

My work is driven by how adults can create the productive contexts for learning in which every human may enjoy the widest array of deep experiences that hold the potential of resulting in the construction of knowledge and a happy life.

It seems cruelly ironic that the viability of school as a “technology” is dependent on the very activities and disciplines (band, choir, drama, studio art, laboratory science, etc…) that schools cut first. Could this just be a manifestation of the phenomena Seymour Papert described in his 1990 speech, “Perestroika and Epistemological Pluralism?

This NECC spotlight session captures many of my thoughts about how online education rarely reaches its potential and my struggle to transform my own teaching online to reflect the most learner-centered, non-coercive, creative principles of face-to-face education while using what I’ve learned online to inform my real-world teaching.

I sure hope you will take the time to watch it! (and perhaps even blog a bit)

NECC 2009 Learning Adventures from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

My most sincere apologies to David Perkins for being unable to remember the correct title of his terrific new book, Making Learning Whole – How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education. I highly recommend that educators familiarize themselves of Perkins’ important work.

PS: I’ve learned that if I’m on a stage that large, I need a monitor at the front of the stage and to walk around less. 🙂