When does technology become school supplies?

Posted by ubermix On Sunday, November 20, 2011 3 comments
A few weeks back I once again had the opportunity to pitch the idea of parents purchasing devices to our administration team here at Saugus USD. To be sure, this wasn't the first time I'd floated the idea. However now, perhaps more than ever it seems to be the right time to be talking about it. With budgets continuing to shrink and the economy showing little sign of recovery, the idea of getting the school district out of the "technology business" seems like the right strategy.

Now, I want to be very clear that I wasn't pitching the sort of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) "program" that most districts who consider parent purchase are referring to. You know the type: "our kids will bring whatever they have, be they iPods, iPads, smart phones, laptops, netbooks - whatever they want - and we'll allow them to use them in school." This is always followed by waxing quixotic about "21st century skills" and "the way today's world works", along with a healthy dose of utopianist rhetoric about how such a move will "transform learning in the classroom." Upon closer examination, of course, it becomes abundantly clear that there is nothing systemic about these programs. No plan. No idea of how it will work. Not a thought of what it takes to actually build a 21st century learning environment. If there was, then it would be obvious that a technology "free-for-all" is completely unrealistic lunacy that amounts to little more than opening up access to the school's wireless network. Look closely at the depth of activities in BYOD programs that claim to be successful, and you'll find little but the shallow and trivial, with little-to-no evidence of measurable effectiveness.

If you think critically about it, the impracticalities become clearly evident. A broad variety of device capabilities, screen sizes, battery life, reliability, ability/inability to afford/run applications, software licensing, etc. creates an environment where teachers are faced with crippling limitations and workarounds to accommodate the least capable device in the room. This naturally promotes marginalized, "activity-centric" models of technology use, makes staff development extraordinarily difficult, and creates natural barriers to truly systemic change. Worse yet, if students are bringing "whatever they want/can afford", schools actually promote an environment of "haves" and "have nots", and leave themselves open to all sorts of problems with equity, which will likely (or perhaps inevitably) lead to greater social segregation and its accompanying strife.

While I'm sure we all agree that every student should have a personal device, ultimately the problem with the typical BYOD "program" is primarily a software problem - a software problem that creates a hardware problem. Multiple, differing operating systems with different capabilities is a software problem. Application compatibility is a software problem. Licensing costs to provide applications is a software problem. The ability to run that software creates the expensive hardware problem. Thus, to take on the hardware problem, schools either give up and hope it all works out (technological utopianism), or find themselves back in the "providing the hardware" business, hence the rise of the school-provided 1:1 program, of which the ubiquitous, ever-more-expensive and costly (there's a difference) iPad is the flavor of the month. And let me head this one off now before you fill up my comments with arachnoid dreams - the web is not a leveler, as not all platforms conform to common web standards or are capable of accessing/running all web applications effectively.

Of course, beyond the software and hardware we must think about exactly what role the technology will actually play in the classroom. The most important things to consider are what our vision for technology in the classrooms is (ie what we believe) and how will our technology decisions lend themselves to realizing that vision. Will technology use be activity - dare I say "app" - centric, or will it be something more? Will we view technology merely as something supplemental, or something greater? Will the technology be the curriculum, or will the focus be on using technology to empower students to participate in and take responsibility for their own learning? And if it is to be the latter, what technologies will best facilitate that vision, and how will we go about preparing our people to transform the culture of school, so that we might realize that vision?

Ultimately, realizing that vision depends upon providing a consistent, flexible, affordable, reliable, sustainable, and scalable technology in the learning environment. Is that possible with "free-for-all" BYOD? I don't think so. There are too many of those words - consistent, flexible, affordable, reliable, sustainable, and scalable - that just can't be met by the free-for-all model. Fortunately, I think we are at a tipping point at which the fundamental components of a realistic, parent provided technology infusion in the learning environment has the potential to become a practical reality for all of us, much more so than it ever has in the past.

So what are those components? Remember before that I said fundamentally we have a software problem that drives a hardware problem. The software we use has to provide a consistent, flexible environment. It has to work reliably on a variety of hardware types and brands, preferably the hardware the majority of our students already have (or have access to) and/or hardware that is inexpensive enough to be practical for our parents to provide. It has to be capable enough to access all of tools and resources at our disposal, while providing a broad array of rich, capable applications that empower students not only to build and create, but also to share and participate. It has to be easy-to-use, so that our teachers can stop worrying so much about teaching technology and start worrying about creating opportunities for learning. And, perhaps most-importantly, it has to be something teachers can know that they know that know is going to work when they need it to work. And we need all of this for free, because not only do we not have any money, but we also want to be able to give it away and install it on everything our students can bring.

Impossible, you say? I say, not so, and humbly offer you the ubermix as a potential solution. The ubermix is an answer to achieving cell phone reliability and ease of use on almost any device. By leveraging Linux and open-source software, ubermix strips away all the complexities of typical proprietary operating systems, leaving an elegant, cell-phone like interfaces of simple icons, with reliable and secure underpinnings that are not prone to failure, malware, or general instability. All the tools you would expect are there, along with dozens more that you wouldn't. Built-in quick recovery features empower users to reset their systems in seconds, should something go awry, leaving devices no longer needing to be "managed" to "save users from themselves," as many tech directors might put it. In short, you gain software and interfaces that do not impede the use of the system, rather they enable it by empowering users through simplicity of design and freedom to explore without risk.

Because ubermix is extremely efficient and lightweight, it runs well on almost any hardware - even older desktops, laptops, and inexpensive netbooks, which enables schools to overcome nearly all of the hardware obstacles to students bringing technology into the classroom. Netbooks, in particular, are low cost, typically less than half that of a traditional laptop or iPad. They provide incredible battery life which enables them to easily be on a students desk all day, ready to be used at a moment's notice. They are also extremely durable, especially if one uses the flash-based models which have no moving parts. In short, schools can get cell phone durability and battery life, with tons of flexibility, plenty of performance, aolong with ease-of-use and reliability that can make all the difference between seamless use and constant disruption in the classroom.

Of course, that's just hardware and software - powerful, but not enough to transform the culture of school. With the hardware and software in place, the final piece of the puzzle is this: leveraging our students' natural drive to create, share, and connect - to be social - through extensive use of social media and web 2.0 tools. The use these tools in the classroom creates a powerful, participatory learning environment. Not only does the mere production of content for an audience bring about a certain authenticity to common tasks, it also breaks down barriers, makes the classroom porous, and creates a sense of community among students, teachers, and parents. What does it mean when 2nd grade students can see the work of fourth grade students and decide to take on that task themselves in a self-directed, online activity? What happens to learning when students create content with the express intent of helping other students understand key concepts? What is the impact of teachers being able to connect with students at any hour, regardless of whether they are in their class or not? Concepts such as these shake the very foundations of 19th century learning models and bring powerful new ideas about teaching and learning in the 21st century.

When we combine these three, I believe we have the ingredients of transformation at our fingertips. Does it work? Absolutely yes, we've seen this success in our SWATTEC program. We've done nearly zero training on the technology itself, yet the students are using it to learn, create, and share in amazing ways on a daily basis, and teachers have embraced technology to the degree that it is regularly used all day, every day in the learning environment.

So what's the magic? How do we make these into school supplies? My thoughts are as follows:

  1. Establish a framework of mutual understanding with the parents of students of the school/district in which everyone understands the school's/district's vision for technology in the learning environment. As part of that framework, provide a minimum set of technology requirements, along with suggestions for devices/models that would be able to meet those goals, and where one might purchase them. For parents who wish to provide a device for their students, the incentive would be that the students would own the device and be able to take it home, as well as carry the same device through grade level changes, etc. Minimum recommendations like a low cost netbook places the device purchase well within reach of a typical family (most have expensive cell phones, after all.)
  2. Make as many devices available at school as possible for those who are unable/unwilling to purchase one. Again, these could easily be carts of inexpensive netbooks. These devices typically cost about half that of a desktop computer, so stop refreshing your computer labs and classroom desktops and buy a couple of carts of netbooks instead.
  3. Use the ubermix to ensure consistency in applications, processes, and performance are in place on every machine on campus, and give the software to parents to install on their home computers.  All of the software can be installed on any machine running any operating system, be they classroom computers or those in a student's home, without restriction or expense, creating an environment of ubiquitous technology access.
  4. Develop a nurturing and supportive plan to develop our teachers and assist them as they restructure learning in the classroom around student empowerment, while also creating opportunities for them to share what works, what doesn't, and what's next, both face-to-face on a regular basis and continually via the same social tools students will be using in school.
The trick to making this all work, of course, will be achieving critical mass of parent supplied devices. 50% probably isn't enough, unless the district has the wherewithal to provide enough backup equipment to accommodate the other 50%. But, if, as indicated by a recent Speak-Up parent survey, 60-80% of the parents provide, then I believe the rest is do-able, probably for less than we are already spending on technology.

So, if we accomplish all this, have we not achieved our goal? If we no longer have to teach students how to use the laptops themselves, no longer have the burden of providing significant support for them or training on how to use them, we make sure all of the tools are free and easily accessible no matter what device the student uses, and we develop our teachers and environment to support this sort of student empowerment, does the device suddenly become like a calculator? When does technology become school supplies? I think if we are willing to leverage the power of ubermix and couple it with a consistent effort and energy towards classroom transformation, the dream might just become a reality!


Colin Matheson said...

I like the idea of a more standardized BYOD via ubermixing student laptops/netbooks. However as a school we have been quoted $375 for a 12 inch netbook which retails for $500. What about the school buying the standard hardware and then having the parents buy it from the school? I am sure there are all kinds of budgeting concerns about state money vs parent's money, but that way you could get more parents on board by offering them a good device at a great price. Also if kids bring high powered gaming laptops they won't want to ubermix those devices and lose their precious windoze games. Additionally most laptops don't last nearly a school day, so there will need to be a lot of chargers and wires everywhere.
Thanks for sharing
ps people love the demo model of the 12 inch netbook because you get a full size keyboard and the screen feels big enough for school work.

ubermix said...

We tried that ourselves and it proved to be a huge pain. Keep in mind that you have to deal with state sales taxes and all the other issues of becoming a hardware retailer. If you partner with someone to handle the purchase process you can avoid some of it, but we found that by the time we locked it all in, prices had dropped and we were charging more than the street price for devices. Dealing with shipping, delivery and all the other aspects were also immensely problematic. Beyond pure logistics, we found that a lot of folks just didn't like our brand choice, or they wanted the "pink" one, or something else. In the end that we gained nothing but frustration for both parties by taking it on ourselves.

It's far easier to give the parents the knowledge they need to make wise decisions by offering a few model recommendations, suggestions on where to purchase for the best price, and a set minimum requirements. Your parents will thank you for it.

Alex Inman said...

Jim, glad you are going to be in the BYOD webinar audience. I will try not to wax quixotic with Utopian rhetoric during the facilitated discussion! :-) I like your take here and agree with your position. I insisted that each panelist define BYOD at the beginning of the webinar so we really know what we are talking about and know how to direct questions.

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