A Not-So-Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future

© 2004 Gary S. Stager

Published by the NECC Daily Leader conference newspaper on June 22, 2004

The computer is not just an advanced calculator or camera or paintbrush; rather, it is a device that accelerates and extends our processes of thought. It is an imagination machine, which starts with the ideas we put into it and takes them farther than we ever could have taken them on our own.”  (Daniel Hillis, 1998)

This is an incredibly dark period for education. Perennial challenges are now accompanied by name-calling and public policy based on “getting tough” with third graders. Perhaps decision-makers just don’t know what learning in the digital age could look like. They need to see how kids not only learn old things in new ways, but construct personal understanding of powerful ideas in a rigorous computationally-rich fashion. Computers are today’s dominant intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression.

Computers offer kids the means of production for learning via previously off-limit domains, including: music composition, filmmaking, robotics, computer science, journalism and engineering.

If only there were a place where compelling models of new educational practice could be shared… Welcome to NECC!

A few years ago, educators ceased talking about computing and started talking about technology. Suddenly computing, this remarkable invention of 20th century ingenuity, capable of transforming every intellectual domain, was dead without so much as an obituary. Conference speakers soon spoke of computers being just technology – like a zipper or Pez dispenser. This rhetorical shift liberated educators from learning to use computers, rethink the nature of curriculum or change practice to embrace the expansive opportunities afforded by computing. Information became the focus, not what kids do with computers.

In the mid-1970s my junior high required every 7th grader to learn to program a computer in nine weeks. The feelings of intellectual elation I experienced programming are indescribable. I didn’t know what was impossible so everything was possible. The computer amplified my thinking and the habits of mind I developed in Mr. Jones’ class serve me every day.

Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak enjoyed similar experiences. Imagine how the world would be different if some smart adults had not procured a mainframe and some terminals and said to Gates and Wozniak, “See what you can figure out. Have fun. Lock up when you’re done.”

How do your children’s school computing experiences compare? Do all students have access to creative tools anytime anyplace? Does the school culture inspire a thirst for knowledge and support authentic project-based work?

We’ve lowered standards when twelve year-olds in my junior high are NOW being taught to find the return key in a mandatory keyboarding class. Someday they may be “taught” to surf a filtered locked-down crippled Web incapable of downloading, rich media or collaboration all in the name of preparing them for the future. Some future.

Adults talk of how kids know so much about computers, how they are so competent, confident and fluent. Then those kids come to school and are treated like imbeciles or felons. Kid power is a gift to educators. We need to build upon those gifts and channel their students in directions they might not know exist. If kids came to school readers, we wouldn’t grunt phonemes at them. We would read better literature.

When many of us first attended NECC, we viewed the personal computer as not only a window on the future, but a microscope on the past. We knew how all sorts of learners exceed our wildest expectations when equipped with computers and constructionist software. Personal experience illuminated how the existing pencil-based curriculum was failing kids. Optimism filled the air.

Look around and you might conclude that the state-of-the-art includes: classrooms as game shows; data mining to justify standardized testing; reading as a winner-take-all race; and hysterical network security. “Technology” is being touted as a way to centralize control and breathe life into the least effective teaching practices of yore.

Widespread consensus is hard to achieve, especially on complex matters like education. Nonetheless, the educational computing community seems to have decided that our children should look forward to a future filled with testing and Microsoft Office instruction. Tests about Microsoft Office could achieve two national goals.

NECC attendees are pioneers entrusted with helping schools realize the potential of the imagination machine and as Gladwell suggests serve as the 10th Fleet in revolutionizing the context for learning. Go home and share the fabulous ideas you collect here in the Big Easy, but remember that the kids you serve expect big things from you and it won’t be easy.

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.