School is More than a Place – Laptops in Teacher Education
by Gary S. Stager
Adjunct Professor – Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology (USA)

This September our school, Pepperdine University in Los Angeles, California, began requiring all new students in our veteran teachers Masters degree programs to own a laptop along with modem and Internet Service Provider. Practicing teachers entering our Master of Arts in Educational Technology and Master of Arts in Teaching as a Profession would not only own a personal laptop computer, but also participate in the reinvention of education. The new Masters degree programs were initiated after two years of offering an educational computing doctoral program with 60% of all contact time spent online. Teachers in our Masters program spend more than 40% of all “course” time online away from campus. The percentage is hard to quantify. Although we reduced face-to-face (f2f) class time from thirteen to eight sessions spread out across the thirteen week trimester, students spend far more time online engaging with each other and faculty than occurred during the typical graduate level uni course.

The implementation of laptops was based on three objectives:

1) To professionalize computer-use among educators enrolling in our degree program
2) To provide anywhere, anytime computing opportunities for our students and to help them experience the learning benefits of personal computing
3) To end our reliance on computer labs run by the university bureaucracy. Despite the quality of the labs professors are constantly frustrated by the unpredictability of public computers and questionable oversight.

It is clear after just one term that we are on the right track. 100% of our education faculty regularly uses email, the web, newgroups and MOOs. Faculty members have a private web page from which we can automatically establish a new newsgroup.

My 32 students and I posted 2034 newsgroup messages during a three month period. Many of these messages are several pages in length and final projects were submitted as web sites. We have learned the following lessons about learning online.

Scarcity is a major obstacle to use
All of my suspicions about teacher ownership of computing were realized this term. I have always believed that teachers didn’t have enough access to computers to make learning to use them worthwhile. Students attended a Friday night and all-day Saturday “tech camp” where they learned to use their laptops, go online and create simple web pages. The following Monday classes began and students were expected to collaborate online. Technological fluency was acquired at a rapid pace.

We are educators, not telephone companies or software developers
We use off-the-shelf email, web server, and newsgroup software in addition to a MOO environment designed by Xerox PARC. Students use standard browsers, email clients, and Claris Home Page for communication purposes. Pepperdine provides no remote student Internet access. Students are offered a $12/month ISP or are expected to arrange for their own service provider. Face-to-face classes use a mini Ethernet hub and cables to connect student laptops to the Internet. The beauty of the Internet is that it isn’t dependent on any of us. It existed before us and doesn’t require us to reinvent the wheel.

Learning in an online community of practice is more personal, thoughtful and social
Instead of relegating learning to a two hour and forty-five minute class once a week students have access to each other and the professor at all times. One student commented that “class travels with me all week.” Students and faculty can share news items and issues faced in their classrooms in a timely manner. Exciting discussions emerged from such current events and personal experiences.

When one has the opportunity to edit their messages, the resulting thoughts tend to be more thoughtful. Students have exhibited an enhanced willingness to take a stand on controversial issues online and routinely share what might have been considered private thoughts and work with their peers. Assignments are routinely posted to the public newsgroup when private email to the professor would have been acceptable. Students provide a great deal of support, praise and assistance to each other via the net. Marital engagement announcements and email from lawmakers were shared online by students. Students would tell you that they became very close online.

Newsgroups are fantastic!
What if all of your year 10 history classes were able to continue discussing a topic with all of the other students taking that course at night? What if they were able to collaborate on projects with non-classmates and share original source material freely? Simple newsgroup technology allows for public one-to-many discussions complete with attached web pages and multimedia resources. Newsgroup postings are public, asynchronous and archived so learners can interact with them at anytime from anywhere. Assignments, readings and course announcements may be posted in the newsgroup. Email and listservs don’t allow such seamless integration of text, HTML and multimedia resources.

The power of cross-posting
On occasion, professors post a message to several classes at once. A wonderfully unintended consequence is that when a student replies, that response is shared with other classes. This encouraged all sorts of collaborations and discussions between students from other courses, campuses and sections.

Access to experts
I emailed authors of books assigned in my course and asked for them to “talk” with students. The ability to interact with students on their own terms encouraged “master teacher” Susan Ohanian, leading teacher educator Linda Darling-Hammond and Seymour Papert to converse with students. From now on I will try to adopt books by authors willing to interact with my students. One problem is that most academics and authors are not as wired as my students. Therefore email, specially focused newsgroups and “getting started” manuals need to be in our bag of tricks.

Professors drop by to chat
Curiosity and collegiality caused faculty members to “lurk” in each other’s class newsgroups. When a professor felt he/she had something to contribute to a discussion they were free to jump in. This was a wonderful unintended consequence of going online. Imagine the history teacher from across the hall spending their free period chatting with another teacher’s class about Japanese bombing of Darwin. Such collaborations between learners and teachers is possible when the teacher can teach “in their pyjamas.”

The web is my secretary
Course syllabi, articles, assigned readings, downloadable software tools, links to interesting sites and online textbook purchasing is available on my web site at: http://moon.pepperdine.edu/~gstager/home.html

The net and personal computing can play a major role in the improvement of education if we let it. I look forward to discovering that future alongside my students.

I just received the following email from my nephew, a conscientious and excellent student currently enrolled at an East Coast university costing $68,000/year – before textbooks, etc…

The subject line in the email was PISSED

Since I know how much you love Pearson…

I’m taking a math course and an accounting course this term, each requires the completion of weekly online homework assignments. In order to gain access to these assignments, each student must make an account using a course ID so that our scores will automatically be sent to the professors, and purchase access to the e-books online. The accounting textbook is McGraw-Hill, and the math book is Pearson.

Each e-book will cost me $100, only because we are required to use these websites for our homework. I’m literally buying homework.

I thought Pearson’s death-grip on my throat was over, but alas…

Click to enlarge image

It is worth noting that all of my nephew’s other coursework thus far has been project-based and authentic.

OF COURSE, a required math course and math-adjacent “Accounting,” rely on the same-old shitty “answer the odd numbered questions” alternative to an actual productive education experience. This is not a small point.

As Seymour Papert told me, [paraphrase] “If you are not concerned that not a single progressive development in education has had an impact on ‘math,” it means ultimately that no matter what else your school does to make education relevant, there is some part of the day or week where you introduce coercion, irrelevance, and misery into the system.” This coercion is corrosive and ultimately undermines any other learner-centered efforts. As I like to say, “the weeds will always kill the flowers.”

A boyhood dream has come true. I was interviewed by California School Business Magazine!

I certainly sized the opportunity to pull no punches. I left no myth behind.  Perhaps a few school business administrators will think differently about some of their decisions in the future.

A PDF of the article is linked below. I hope you enjoy the interview and share it widely!

Edtech Expert Discusses the Revolution in Computing

I bought my first modem and Compuserve account in 1982 or 83 and was connecting via acoustic coupler to Timeshare systems several years before that. The first online conference I participated in was in late 1985 or early 1986 and I was creating online projects for kids a couple of years later.

During the summer of 1997, I suggested to Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology Associate Dean, the late great Dr. Terry Cannings, that Pepperdine offer our MA in Educational Technology entirely online. If memory serves, Dr. Cannings called me a charlatan.

The university had already embraced a 60% online/40% face-to-face format for it’s edtech doctoral program and was experimenting with other hybrid models, but in mid-1997, Cannings thought that entirely online was a bridge too far.

Around Christmas of that year, Dr. Cannings called me into his office and asked, “Can we discuss that online Masters idea again in January?” A meeting was scheduled at the end of January on the Malibu (main campus) to pitch the idea to the Dean. (much hilarity ensued) I created the attached proposal as a basis for discussion.

Proposal dated January 22, 1998 to create online Masters program

To put things in a historical perspective, this proposal was written the month the Lewinsky scandal broke and before anyone had heard of Ken Starr (former Dean of the Pepperdine Law School)

Great clip-art, eh?

I’m sorry that I can’t locate the cheesy “clip-art-rich”  cover page attached to the document I printed at 3 AM on my kids’ DayGlo colored printer paper, but remarkably my Mac was just able to open the original documents in Appleworks 6 and print a PDF version to share with you. There is crappy clip-art included in the body of the document.

The Dean listened politely to Dr. Cannings, Dr. McManus, Dr. Polin and myself and asked when we proposed to start this new program? We replied, “this Spring.” She nervously smiled and sent us on our our merry way. After all, universities move at a glacial pace, right?

The Online Master of Arts in Educational Technology (called OMAET, OMET & MALT over the years) was fully accredited by the end of May and our first cadre of students was on campus for what became known as VirtCamp early that July. There are lots of stories about that first Virtcamp, but I won’t share them here.

My hard drive also contains a copy of the accreditation proposal Dr. McManus and I wrote for WASC (the accrediting body), but I am not sure if it would be proper to share that document publicly (I’ll await a more informed opinion).

The reason for all of this nostalgia is that the 15th cadre of students in that program arrive for Virtcamp this week and are being greeted by an alumni-organized reunion of former students, all to mark the 15th anniversary of the program.

Regrettably, after eighteen years of teaching as an adjunct and full-time Visiting Professor at Pepperdine, I no longer feel welcome on campus. So, I’m going to sit out this week’s activities. However, I hope those students and the rest of my friends in the Blagosphere (Rod Blagojevich is also a Pepperdine alumnus) enjoy this documentary stroll down memory lane.

I think we got a good deal right in trying to create a constructionist collaborative learning environment online before PLNs, PLCs or social networking existed.

Happy Anniversary to all former and future OMAET/OMET/MALT students! I’m proud of you!


Other files found on my hard drive:

New Trends, New Learning Opportunities

As we approach the new millenium, technology – and its use in schools – continues to evolve
© 1998 Gary S. Stager
Published in Upgrade, The Magazine of the Software Publisher’s Association

As the cost of computing decreases rapidly, children continue to enjoy increasing access to computers and the Internet . However, lower cost is not the only trend in learning with computers and communications technology. A few of the trends may seem quite obvious. Others are more provocative and will change the nature of teaching, learning and software development. The trends include:

  1. Lower cost hardware and software
  2. The locus of technological innovation shifting from school to home
  3. The Internet
  4. A sea-change from software predicated on passive instruction and entertainment to an expectation to use computers as vehicles for intellectual construction
  5. Miniaturization/Mobility

Many of these trends are interdependent and support one another. The overlap reinforces the changes taking place.

Lower cost hardware and software

Moore’s Law continues to hold and the educational promise of the Internet has caused millions of new computers to be purchased by families, while schools rush to “get wired.” There is an enormous demand for sub-$1,000 computers and the success of Apple’s iMac provide evidence of the increasing availability of low-cost, powerful, “Internet-ready” computers. The couple of years will see computers approach the price of a few pairs of Air Jordans.

This phenomena will cause more homes to own personal computers and allow for more telecommuting and learning outside of school than has been possible in the past. Schools will find that the level of access demanded by students, coupled with reduction in cost of computing will have a profound impact on the nature of teaching and learning. At the simplest level, ubiquitous computing will move computers out of specialized labs and in contact with every aspect of schooling.

Equity will improve as the cost of computer ownership drops. Several studies already conclude that socioeconomic status no longer determines a child’s level of computer literacy – at least the modest level desired by traditional school computing curricula.

Increased access to powerful, less expensive technology is also creating new ways of learning and expressing oneself. MIDI keyboards and software allow fifth graders to compose and perform original musicals while $50 drawing tablets and digital cameras provide children with new palettes for expressing their artistic talents. Such technology is welcome news in an age where art and music education is in serious jeopardy.

Challenges to the profitability of the software industry

One concern for software developers is the public’s demand for products with higher production values at lower prices. Many customers no longer perceive the value of software priced at $499, but they don’t understand why it costs forty-nine dollars when a home video of Titanic costs $9.95.

Whether due to high-volume licensing or the availability of increasingly powerful shareware/freeware on the web, the price of software increasingly approaches zero.

The home

Increasing access to powerful computers, expressive software and the Internet has shifted the locus of technological innovation from school to the home. There is no way for schools to catch-up. They are likely to have less powerful computers and connectivity than some of their students have at home. This presents educators with a challenge and opportunity to view the home more as a learning resource than a place where kids do trivial homework assignments and stop learning until they return to school.

While parents will continue to purchase software designed to drill their children in specific skills, kids are likely to ignore these tasks in favor of controlling the computer to achieve more personal and complex objectives. Just as shooting down math problems are less interesting to kids than “surfing or chatting,” making things to share with the world will consume more computer time.

The net

Much has been said about how the Internet offers learners of all ages with unprecedented access to information. This fact alone has revolutionized learning, however the greatest impact of the net lies in its ability to democratize publishing and expand opportunities for collaboration.

While schools assimilate the Internet by using it as a way to find discrete facts or deliver information to sometimes unwilling students, kids at home are beginning to use their personal computers to create web sites, collaborate in online communities of practice and express themselves in new ways. This should come as no surprise as schools struggle against the clock, irrational fear of Internet abduction and the institutional expense of providing students with sufficient access. The home provides learners with a level of freedom, contemplative time and computer access necessary to construct knowledge.

Even when schools begin to discuss online learning, the reflexive response is to scan everything they have ever used in a traditional classroom in preparation for “pouring the information down the pipe” and into the computer of the online students. A “push” mentality permeates the discussion, rather than viewing learning as the act of “pulling and shaping understanding” in the mind of each individual learner. You can lead a school to the I-Way, but you can’t make it think.

The Concord Consortium (http://www.concord.org) is dedicated to creating rich online environments for learning math and science by doing. Their collaborative projects include Haze-Span, a project in which children are collecting and analyzing important scientific data and sharing that data with interested scientists, and the Virtual High School in which students explore areas of mathematics and science in ways beyond the school curriculum.

Pepperdine University (http://gsep.pepperdine.edu/online/) is perhaps the first university to offer accredited online graduate programs in educational technology, based on constructionist principles of learning. Educators enrolled in the Pepperdine master’s and doctoral programs use a combination of synchronous and asynchronous technologies to build community and construct knowledge within a personal context. Guest speakers, faculty members and even other classes of students join discussions of powerful ideas in virtual settings in which every member of the community is a learner. Access to classmates and faculty members is available virtually around the clock. Pepperdine is working to invent the future of learning and teaching without relying on an old correspondence school model.

Mamamedia (http://www.mamamedia.com) is a unique Internet start-up designed to provide children with a safe, creative and intellectually stimulating place on the web. Mamamedia extends the traditional notion of the 3-Rs, by adding the three Xs, “Exploration, Expression and Exchange” as the design philosophy of their site. Mamamedia founder Idit Harel’s goal is to “sell learning to kids” in an environment they will wish to return to over and over again. Anything children can use may also be collected, created or manipulated by the child. The future development of the net has to not only include faster bit delivery, but greater opportunities for users to construct things online.

Educast (http://www.educast.com/) provides educators with a free screensaver that is updated with timely news, views, resources and teaching ideas based on a push technology similar to Point-Cast. The system is optimized to make the best of slow or infrequent net connections.

Every Internet user is depending on software and hardware engineers to increase bandwidth and more intuitive tools for web publishing. Web design still requires too much “monkey work” and “two percent” of users understand the process of uploading a page to a web server.

Learners of all ages have the unprecedented opportunity to not only “look things up,” but use the Internet to publish their ideas in all sorts of ways – from dancing poetry, special-interest groups and TV/radio broadcasts. The web is full of places where you can publish your work for free and powerful tools for expressing your ideas. As the courts and educators are discovering, school know longer has sole jurisdiction over what goes on in a kids’ bedroom, personal computer or head. For an increasing number of kids, “high-tech means my tech.” (Idit Harel)

From passive to constructive computing

Recent research demonstrates that computer use is most effective for learning when students use it to “problem solve.” Inside and outside of school, the thing computers do best is provide learners with an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self expression. Children need better, more open-ended, computationally rich tools than their parents in order to sustain their interest and leverage the potential of computers for making connections between powerful ideas.

Five year-olds ought to be able to see themselves as software developers by using MicroWorlds to design a video game. Children should be able to collect data, perform experiments and discuss their conclusions with other children and experts. Kids who build and program LEGO robots may use physics, measurement, feedback and perhaps even calculus in a meaningful context. Seymour Papert and others point out that children who have had such deep learning experiences will demand much more of school.

Miniaturization and mobility

Computers are not only getting cheaper and more powerful, they are getting smaller. I have enjoyed working with Australian schools in which every child has a laptop for more than eight years. Approximately 50,000 Australian children have had personal laptop computers and the number of American school districts embracing truly personal computing is growing as well. The Australian pioneers viewed laptops as a way to make learning more personal and as a catalyst with which teachers could rethink the nature of teaching and learning. The ability to use the computer as your own portable laboratory and studio has had a tremendous impact on the social, cognitive and artistic development of children. Learning can not only occur anytime and anywhere, but new deeper forms of learning have become possible.

Students with laptops need two essentially two pieces of software, an integrated package for doing work and environment for messing about with powerful ideas and learning. This is why so many schools use ClarisWorks or Office for writing, calculating and publishing and MicroWorlds (http://www.microworlds.com) for designing interactive multimedia projects that may be run over the web. The software requirements for laptop schools include: being open-ended, non-grade specific, inexpensive and have a life-span of at least three years. Developers need to begin thinking about how they will distribute and license software to schools in which every student has a personal laptop.

High schools have been embracing low-cost graphing calculators for several years. These devices cost less than one hundred dollars and have been used to help students visualize mathematics that was previously abstract. A new innovation, calculator-based labs (CBL), allows students to connect scientific probes to the graphing calculator and collect experimental data. This data may then be analyzed and shared in ways never before possible. These probes place students in the center of their own learning and enriches mathematics education by making tangible connections to science.

Nicholas Negroponte once joked that we need to “melt crayolas down into Crays.” He meant that toys would become more and more computationally rich. The recent Tamagotchi craze offered creative teachers with a tool for connecting student toys to curriculum topics like: senses, life-cycle, probability and artificial life. New twelve dollar HotWheels cars have computers in them capable of measuring velocity and distance traveled. Perhaps the most exciting new product is the LEGO Mindstorms programmable brick set that allows children to construct autonomous robots of their own design.

These trends provide parents, educators, developers and children to enter into a new discussion of the nature of learning. If we trust the natural learning inclinations of children, provide them with rich open-ended tools and don’t do too much to get in their way, we will witness an explosion of learning in the very near future.

Gary S. Stager is a contributing editor for Curriculum Administrator Magazine and editor-in-chief of Logo Exchange. He has consulted with LEGO, Disney, LCSI, Compaq, Tom Snyder Productions, Netschools, Universal Studios and Microsoft. Gary is an adjunct professor of education at Pepperdine University, a frequent speaker at conferences and has spent the past seventeen years helping educators around the world find constructive ways to use computers to enhance the learning process. Gary may be reached at http://www.stager.org.

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. 🙂