Saturday, 26 May 2012

Sacrificial Laptops

Personalizing of technology will one day reach education (hope, hope)
I went to my principal last year and suggested we try the mini-lab idea, wherein a technology curious/experienced teacher collects a class set of digital tools around themselves in order to develop some digitized pedagogy.  Alas, we couldn't go all in.  The idea of a teacher directly selecting diverse technology and then going off the school/board controlled and organized IT system was more than even our forward thinking principal could take.

The end result was a laptop cart of netbooks, one for each of our three floors.  The idea of the mini-lab is a constellation of differentiated technology orbiting a specific teacher. The variation in technology encourages wider digital fluency, and the single teacher focus produces a strong sense of ownership that helps reduce neglect and misuse.

Acer Netbook   
It was great to get these machines unhobbled by board IT.  The last time the board issued a cart of netbooks, they'd erased the manufacturer's fresh Windows 7 and installed the board's ten year old Windows XP package complete with numerous driver problems (companies don't make a new laptop then spend a lot of time building drivers for an operating system no one has used in three years).  The results were disastrous.  These new netbooks are no slouches (dual processor, decent memory, the latest software), they worked right out of the box, but they didn't have anything to do with the antiquated board network.

I had real trepidation about how to administer these carts.  The massive job of unpacking and setting up 70 odd netbooks seemed overwhelming, but a couple of pizzas and some helping hands later it got done over lunches; then came the putting them into operation part.

At the staff meeting I showed everyone the cart and explained that these are not board issued laptops.  This involved answering a number of questions around what that means.  No, the school server with it's piddling 10 megs of memory per student isn't available, but Googledocs is with 8 gigs, or Microsoft's Skydrive is waiting for you to use for free with 25 gigs.  No, you can't print to school printers, they're all on a closed network, but if you had to print, you could always have students email you work, or, you know, don't print it and just look at it on the screen.

I also stressed that these are our computer carts.  The board isn't going to maintain them, so benign neglect isn't an option.  If you're booking a lab so you can ignore your students for the period while you mark, these are a poor choice.  Tech-keen teachers on each floor were given the happy job of looking after the carts.  In many cases this allowed them to make use of the carts, which they have done eagerly.  Adoption by other teachers has been slow, but it has steadily improved, which worries me.

The first problem resolved around poor student privacy habits.  When a class ends the vast majority of students simply shut the lid and walk away, leaving themselves logged into Facebook (which they are inevitably running in the background), and saving whatever they are working on to the desktop.  Soon Macbeth papers, history essays, moderns translations and other digital flotsam, all named document1, document2, etc, bloomed on the desktops.  The inevitable Facebook spamming ensued, which greatly upset the students too lazy or clueless (or both) to bother logging off before putting the machines away.

Concern has arisen around plagiarism (taking essays found on a laptop and handing them in because an essay left by someone on a desktop called document3 HAS to be worth copying), and the opportunity for digital bullying with the not logging off the social network they're not supposed to be on anyway.

Today I got my first broken hardware issue.  Apparently a key 'popped off' the keyboard.  Those things are like popcorn, sometimes they just come flying off by themselves.

We're getting out of the initial roll-out phase of the off board IT netbook experiment.  The novelty is wearing off and teachers who wouldn't otherwise use them are starting to book them for periods they aren't actually in the school so the kids can play online (yes, we made a rule about that, but some teachers can be remarkably lackadaisical about rules when it means they have to be there to enforce them).

The digital coaches I'd envisioned in the mini-lab are still competently using the carts regularly, but as the carts find their way into the hinterlands of our school, teachers who don't understand (or care to understand) how to use digital devices in class to actually, you know, teach, will book out the carts and return them in a steadily deteriorating state.

We've done well with the initial portion of the roll out, putting the laptops together and having digital coach types making good use of them early, now comes the mediocrity.  One of the things we strive for is equal access to technology in education.  Unfortunately, we don't encourage development of digital competency in teachers and the end result is a lot of extra work for the few educators who are interested in making education meaningful and relevant to a new, digital millennium.