Sunday, May 06, 2007

May 2007 NY Times article on one-to-one computing

I created this previously empty blog two years ago when I was fielding questions mostly via email from teachers new to our tablet pc program. The teachers were following up on training I had delivered via a workshop, and the answers seemed to have relevance to more than just the person asking so I thought I might include them in a blog. Well, that never quite happened. However, I found an article in the New York Times published last week on one-to-one computing interesting enough to motivate me to write about it. Also, reading and listening to presentations, blogs, and podcasts from educational bloggers such as Will Richardson (Weblogg-ed), David Warlick (2 Cents Worth), and Alex Ragone/Arvind Grover (21st Century Learning) in the past year has remotivated me to give this a try so here's my first weblog entry.

The Times article is titled "Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops" and was written by Winnie Hu on May 4, 2007. I've included quotes from the article with my comments.

On the surface, the article looks like a gloomy take on one-to-one computing, but I think a closer examination shows the avoidable (with significant work) pitfalls anyone with or planning for a one-to-one computing program needs to carefully consider.

"When the school tightened its network security, a 10th grader not only found a way around it but also posted step-by-step instructions on the Web for others to follow (which they did)."

There's a student capable of independent work so the challenge seems to be to find the right motivation.

Teachers and other educators supporting teachers need to encourage and motivate students to use technology appropriately by it being a useful tool in the classroom (as opposed to a toy or an addendum). Teaching and expecting appropriate behavior needs to be part of the program. Students acting inappropriately using technology need to be dealt with like students acting inappropriately not using technology. While IT departments can help, they shouldn't have to take the lead and be the disciplinarians or guidance personnel just because a student is using a computer.

Student accountability is a must and constant use of "traditional" lecture-only based instruction will no longer be a great choice for teachers. (Of course, there are other reasons for that, but one-to-one computing seems to bring those to the surface in a very obvious fashion.)

"Districts have dropped laptop programs after resistance from teachers, logistical and technical problems, and escalating maintenance costs."

Computers break. When you have more, more break. I'm hoping the schools that have had bad experiences did more than just buy computers with manufacture's warranties, but this really emphasizes that school IT departments need to really be ready and retool, at least somewhat, for one-to-one computing. Readily available spares, quick repair turn around times, secure storage, reliable and easy data backup, holding students accountable, and training, training, training need to be part of the program. Personally, I think the more that student training and holding students accountable is led by the teacher inside the classroom (as opposed to only in special computer classes) the greater the chance of success.

IT staffs need to have the resources to respond quickly to problems in the classroom that directly affect instruction. A proactive approach to keeping things from breaking as well as sufficient staff will help here.

Student training leads us to training, training, training for teachers. They need time and support. While differentiated and constructivist learning are not solely related to technology, one-to-one computing is a great tool to encourage and support these. I suspect the teachers who embrace these learning methods in the classroom would have more success in this realm. However, even teachers who are really interested in this need on-going professional development to learn and practice this. One-day workshops on professional days probably aren't going to meet the need here.

"Such disappointments are the latest example of how technology is often embraced by philanthropists and political leaders as a quick fix, only to leave teachers flummoxed about how best to integrate the new gadgets into curriculums."

Anyone who supports or uses computers in an educational environment knows they are not a quick fix (nor do they always get fixed quickly). That just backs up my suggestion that one-to-one computing needs to be carefully planned including, again, adequate professional development of teachers. Teachers shouldn't just have a device dropped into their hands and told "here, use this effectively." That might work for a couple of teachers who are often looked at as role models, but expecting the majority of teachers to succeed under these conditions is unrealistic. I am very grateful for the self-motivated, really-charged-up-about-technology teachers, but maybe they shouldn't be the role models. Getting ideas from them is great, but we need to support the willing but less obviously tech-savvy teachers so they can shine and be role models for a larger group of peers.

"Matoaca High School just outside Richmond, Va., began eliminating its five-year-old laptop program last fall after concluding that students had failed to show any academic gains compared with those in schools without laptops."

That is a tough one. For better or for worse, public schools are required to use standardized test scores to assesses performance. That brings up a whole argument about how well test scores actually measure academic gains, which I'm not going to embark on here. While standardized test scores are part of independent schools also, so we can't ignore them, I don't think most focus on them as heavily. Instead, if we properly educate our students to adequately prepare them for college and to be life-long learners as adults, the test scores will turn out ok. So how do we measure academic gains? Again, that's another big topic not unique to technology. Do the arts increase test scores? Does athletics increase test scores? Does community service increase test scores? I don't know if anyone has studies for those, but even if there are none that say they make test scores go up, I don't think most educators are ready to drop these programs because they cannot show a correlation with an increase in scores. I certainly am not.

“ 'You have to put your money where you think it’s going to give you the best achievement results,' said Tim Bullis, a district spokesman."

This certainly needs to be kept in mind even in independent schools where we don't have the issue of how even tax-payers who don't have children in the school are looking for justification on how tax dollars are spent. However, for all schools this relates back to how achievement is measured. While teaching children how to be information literate so they can evaluate all of the unfiltered data that will be available to them as adults might not raise test scores, how much money is worth spending on that skill?

" 'Where laptops and Internet use make a difference are in innovation, creativity, autonomy and independent research,' [Mark Warschauer] said. 'If the goal is to get kids up to basic standard levels, then maybe laptops are not the tool. But if the goal is to create the George Lucas and Steve Jobs of the future, then laptops are extremely useful.' "

Another person who shares my (obvious by now) bias that there is value to one-to-one computing. Maybe it isn't right for every institution, but does that mean it isn't right for any? Of course, who should decide what schools have the potential Lucas or Jobs and what schools have the "basic standards" kids. I certainly don't have the omniscience to make that decision.

"Soon, a room that used to be for the yearbook club became an on-site repair shop for the 80 to 100 machines that broke each month, with a 'Laptop Help Desk' sign taped to the door. The school also repeatedly upgraded its online security to block access to sites for pornography, games and instant messaging — which some students said they had used to cheat on tests."

Yes, I agree that these are certainly challenges to be addressed (as I look over at a pile of tablet PCs that have recently been repaired where I work). However, It doesn't mean the challenges can't be addressed, but it takes a lot of work by teachers, administrators, and IT staff.

"But in many other classrooms, there was nary a laptop in sight as teachers read from textbooks"


The journalist just saw one instructional method used in that classroom. Hopefully, for many reasons not even related to technology, other instructional methods were in use at other times. Otherwise, I agree that one-to-one computing is not worth the cost for that classroom.

" 'Let’s face it, math is for the most part still a paper-and-pencil activity when you’re learning it,' [Alice McCormick] said."

I am not a math teacher, but I think I could find a few with students using tablet PCs in my school who might argue with that. Even without pen based computing, I've seen slope taught and practiced by students using software such as Geometer's Sketchpad in such a way that students grasped the concept more quickly than using the comparatively slow process of doing similar work with a pencil and graph paper. I speculate that doing a couple of examples, which is all the time you might have with a pencil, works for students who grasp a concept quickly. However, others who need to visually see many example to get it might benefit from a computer.

“ 'The art of thinking is being lost,' [Tom McCarthy] said. 'Because people can type in a word and find a source and think that’s the be all end all.' ”

That is an excellent example of a case where professional teachers and librarians are needed to assist students in developing research skills (even though that is not the context of the quote). Information literacy, including the critical evaluation of sources, is a skill many students might not even realize they need if left to "google" answers to questions at home, which students will do regardless of what is taught. K12 educators can't easily help adults avoid the pitfall of taking information on the Internet at face value, but we do have the ability, if given the right resources, to educate future adults to not make the same mistake.

Obviously, I am positively biased toward one-to-one computing. However, I would like to think I have an open mind and do not jump to conclusions without thought. My current bias comes from experience in K12 educational technology without one-to-one computing for over 10 years and being involved with a one-to-one tablet computing program for two. When looking at the expense of such a program, it is certainly not easy to measure the benefit in terms of investment and return. The field of technology and education in general could probably use some researchers doing more work beyond today's standardized tests on return on investment, and I would be very interested to see the results regardless of what they indicate. However, until then, what I have seen so far makes me think that the students we serve can benefit from one-to-one computing when implemented with a lot of attention paid to overcoming the pitfalls mentioned in the article.

1 comment:

ColleenMc said...

While our school does not have a one-to-one program in place, it's something we are watching carefully as this becomes more and more common in schools not only here in our area (Washington DC) but across the country.

This article highlights the associated challenges which can really be generalized to almost any educational technology application. The biggest message I can take away from it is that these incredibly powerful tools are not particularly well suited to the traditional sage-on-the-stage style classroom. If that's what you want, stick with the paper and pencil. For a variety of reasons, I think that's a disservice to the students in question and under estimates the abilities of our teachers, but slapping a computer into the mix isn't the magic wand for educational reform in America's schools.

Why is it always so much easier to find funding to buy hardware and software than it is to find funding for professional development and support? And why do school technology plans always focus on hardware and software instead of a feasible technology curriculum integration plan?

The more effective implementations of one-to-one models seem to follow a pattern of developing the need for the tools before mass implementation, by allowing faculty the time and support to integrate technology in meaningful ways into their curriculum.