Thursday, May 9, 2013

Learning works: Laptop program change sets schools back 10 years

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Governor Paul LePage described his recent decision to shift the laptop program from Macs to Windows machines as being driven by a desire to promote "college and career readiness." It's a sketchy correlation to say the least — and Tuesday's introductory webinar (mainly for school staff, but open to all) from Hewlett Packard did little to increase confidence.
The webinar started with a five-minute effort to ensure the screen-and-audio sharing technology was actually working, punctuated by uncertainty about which representatives of which companies would be making remarks, or had said they would be there to speak, but hadn't arrived yet. Not an auspicious start.
Next came a very friendly five-minute pitch that could have been from 2002, when the Maine Learning Technology Initiative was just kicking off with Apple and Macintosh laptops for middle-schoolers. Amy Dupuis, the HP representative, and HP "education strategist" Elliott Levin explained why "one-to-one learning" was the "new" direction for education, and how computers facilitate breaking away from the old classroom models.
The focus, repeated throughout the presentation, was on choice — how much flexibility the school districts, and even individual schools and classroom teachers, would have to customize their devices for maximum usability.
What we want from our school laptop program, though, is not the limitless range of choice HP kept touting, but a set of tools proven to work in education settings for students and teachers of varying capabilities. Such solutions aren't going to come from HP and its partners, teachers and tech leaders listening in were told.
While it's true, as Levin said, that "you shouldn't be limited to accessing textbooks from a single source," that was never true of the Mac-based program either.
What the Mac base did bring was a suite of hardware and software, like iPhoto and iMovie, that provided crucially important relative uniformity for teachers across the state, facilitating collaboration between professionals and among students.
That sharing has helped make the laptop program what it is — not the computer-skills instruction program LePage seems to envision, but a tool for education that supports thinking, acting, and learning at modern speeds.
Now, though, with everyone having to learn a new platform, and the very real prospect that no two platforms will be very much alike — even within school districts — the "college and career readiness" lesson will be painfully obvious:
Corporate America is filled with non-standardized, non-interconnected, confusing technology systems that have to be learned from scratch at every new school or job. Technology, as used in government and the private sector, is as often as much of an obstacle as it is an enabler. (Real-life example from this week: JPMorgan Chase's computer system can detect I'm not in California and decline the purchase attempts there of someone who has stolen my credit card number, but can't tell me what my new card number is for two days, and makes me wait another full day for online access to my account.)
We don't want obstacles to learning — we want enhancements! And we don't want students who've been taught to successfully fight with one specific program or operating system — we want graduates who can think broadly, widely, and creatively, and express those thoughts effectively.
All the technology-specific obstacles from 2002 had been cleared, through the power of collaboration and shared experience. LePage's decision has put them all back in place, and expanded the possible range of barriers to actually using technology to learn.