Sunday 12 February 2012

Internet At Home/Internet At School

All stats are derived from the November 2010/January 2011 Centre Wellington DHS blended learning career studies pilot (102 students in four sections).  

More than 75% of my students have high speed internet access at home.  This internet access offers stable multi-megabit per second through-put, allowing for instant web access.  These students have none of the headaches of a closed educational network with network drives, secure individual logins, forgotten passwords or thousands of people trying to share their connection.  They are used to instant on, always on, fast internet.

With that access they play the latest games, many of which include multi-player massively online environments and astonishing graphics where they socialize with many people simultaneously.  Their home computers use the latest OSes almost exclusively and include the latest drivers and software.  An unusually high percentage also live in Apple OSx or the latest Linux distro.

At home they tear across the internet, downloading, uploading and multi-tasking with ease.  They are able to select a browser based on personal preferences and then load it with apps of their own choices; they are able to author their access, which is a key component in developing digital skills.

Then they come to school.

At our school they get to share our school bandwidth with fourteen hundred other people in the building, and then it gets funneled down to the board office where it's shared with dozens of schools and thousands of other people.  And when that single link (single point of failure) fails?  The whole board goes dark.

"School internet sucks" is a standard description of the experience.  At school you know you will click on google docs and wait, and wait, and wait.  When you're typing in a googledoc you'll sometimes see no text, and wait, and wait, and wait.  In many cases, this is the only time students see web pages timing out. This even happens with text pages, not just media heavy stuff.

The school network uses an image that has a pile of Ontario Ministry of Education software installed on it, but it's not what they use at home.  Microsoft Office?  No, you get Wordperfect (which isn't).  Trying to balance all of that software so that it plays well together is an ongoing challenge, and what many of our techs spend their time doing.

On top of all of it, when you login to a school computer you're greeted with a pixelly WindowsXP screen.  WindowsXP?  Students remember that, it's the OS their parent's used when they were small children.                                                   
Internet at home.

Internet at school.

One of the fun things at school is trying to find drivers for an OS that hasn't been sold in years, but we're not allowed to use anything else.  Got a new peripheral?  Better BYOD, because it ain't gonna plug in to the school machines and work properly.  The hardware is new enough, but the operating systems running them are an anachronism.  We buy new i5 laptops, delete Windows7 with all the current drivers off them and install WinXP with generic drivers because no one builds drivers for new equipment for an operating system that's been out of circulation for years.

What to do?  

Correct use of computers in school are not a function of limiting network and machine functionality.  Teachers need to teach with computers, not use them as distraction.  An engaged, observant teacher in a digital classroom demonstrates and directs correct use.  Centralized Soviet style board IT management does not, all that does is offer a digital effigy to be hacked; it's a dare.

The screen as a private mind-space is a misunderstanding of many digital natives.  Labs need to be set up with the teacher desk at the back so all screens are visible.  Students need to be aware that their screen is not a private space when in school, and they need to be sharing what they do with everyone in the room.  If they aren't willing, then they are probably doing something that they shouldn't.

Bring your own device should be encouraged, even actively supported by the school IT environment.  A diverse, personally authored access to technology should be the goal.  In many cases students will buy their own tech in order to get what they want, but there should be no digital divide in school.  The mini-lab would address this, allowing students with limited access to technology a choice in how they access information, and an opportunity to begin to develop their own sense of digital authorship.

Students can sign up to a high speed, multiple path network with built in redundancies and intelligent throttling by signing up the MAC addresess of their devices.  This would still allow for security and personal responsibility in their use of the resource.  A student who shows that they cannot make productive use of the network would find themselves throttled in bandwidth until they demonstrate a more efficient use of the tools.

This could even be tied to something as easily quantifiable like previous semester report card grades.  Students with failures are MAC blocked from Facebook and non-school related youtube video until they are passing.  When they notice how much more freedom and speed a digitally focused student gets online, they might begin to self-direct their digital serfdom into digital self-control.  Higher average students are offered greater bandwidth and more freedom.  Network through-put is a limited resource, using it as a reward for best work is not a bad idea and allows us to maintain a lean, efficient, faster online environment.

An intelligent network with no single points of failure and guaranteed bandwidth for learning tasks is entirely possible.  What prevents this is a stubborn, 20th Century mindset around industrialized, centralized use of networked tools.

With some teacher intervention and nuanced technical support, we can make schools a place to learn how to dance in the datasphere and develop digeracy, instead of being an anachronistic joke.