Technology Integration

Light to the Future, or Keeper of the Flame?: The Role of a School

September 8, 2006

"Saying No to School Laptops: Programs to Give All Students Computers Come Under Fire Over Costs, Inappropriate Use by Kids," published on August 31, 2006, in the Wall Street Journal and written by Jessica E. Vascellaro, has been widely distributed and responded to by folks who advocate for and those who argue against one-to-one computing as a way to improve learning opportunities for all students.

As someone who has personally seen some of the best and some of the worst (traditionally managed end-of-day study halls that are really dumping grounds for kids who don't participate in band, chorus, debate, and so on) sides of one-to-one implementations, I worry about what I see as the shortsightedness of the fears and doubts expressed in the article.

You see, I remember the early days of discussions around the MLTI -- the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, when Seymour Papert, who was then and still truly is the spiritual leader of this groundbreaking one-to-one project, shared a vision of the transformative potential of one-to-one computing in Maine's schools. He helped us develop a vision where Maine would be transformed from the state with the nickname Vacationland to a state bearing and deserving of the nickname the Learning State.

For that to happen, however, it was clear that fundamental changes in the way school happens would have to take place. Teachers would have to share responsibilities and authority with their students in new ways, families and communities would need to engage in radically different ways that would go well beyond parent conferences and voting on school budgets, and students would need to accept personal responsibility for their learning if this was going to happen.

In many, many classrooms across our state, exceptional teachers have facilitated this kind of great change and routinely meet with their students as learners, and in a few schools with exceptional leadership, entire school communities have been so transformed. But has the hoped for happened universally? No. It turns out that Maine's nickname, and the way school happens, runs pretty deep -- often deep enough to resist the potential transformative power of ubiquitous computing. And no, this resistance is not a uniquely Maine thing; it is a human thing, it is a cultural thing.

The reality is that schools are not only places for learning. Far from simple, they have cultural responsibilities that often, I believe, far outweigh the curricular ones. Their job is to to transfer not only knowledge about mathematics, science, art, and health but also experiences that ensure that life in the community it serves will continue as it has.

I often describe schools as having potentially schizophrenic responsibilities -- they are asked to be both the light to the future and the keeper of the flame, and if one-to-one computing is to truly realize its transformative potential, a school community -- be it a classroom, a school, a district, a state, or a nation -- must agree, with no holding back, that the primary responsibility is to be a light to the future. Now, as someone who appreciates history, I also believe that part of the fuel that feeds the flame that lights the way to the future is knowledge of the past, but the primary responsibility is to look forward and not back.

Here in Maine, we have a governor, a legislature, and a commissioner of education who insist on looking firmly forward. I am now in the midst of helping design professional-development sessions for the principals of the schools of the MLTI, and as we enter the second state-funded four-year cycle of our one-to-one implementation, we are beginning with some assumptions of our own. These are still drafts, but I think they are worth sharing, because we feel that unless these are in place, the potential gain of one-to-one computing cannot be realized. Here they are:

The MLTI is here to stay. From this point forward, one-to-one computing is a reality in Maine middle school classrooms and a growing reality in classrooms on either side of the current MLTI placements in seventh and eighth grade.

MLTI schools are focused on learning goals. After examination of data about student achievement, school goals have been established for student learning. These goals not only drive utilization of the MLTI but also purpose the use of all school resources.

Schools that develop professional learning communities focused on the learning goals of the school will see an increase in student and teacher learning. The MLTI has delivered incredible resources to all the involved schools.

It really is not about the technology. The MLTI delivered consistent resources to all public seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms throughout Maine. Benefits reaped from these placements have varied widely. Look to the variables for what made the difference, not the consistencies. It is about the matching of the use of the technology to the learning goals.

The effective use of technology allows students to demonstrate evidence of their learning (Assessment for Learning) against targeted learning goals in ways never imagined. Students and teachers who access the many resources available on iBooks bring learning to a deeper level.

Active utilization of a leadership team is critical in determining the value an MLTI school community receives. This team, made up of principal, teacher leaders, technical staff, and librarian, helps guide the work and problem solve inevitable issues. The work with one-to-one computing is too new to expect success without this multilevel support.

Professional development is the most important factor in supporting a teacher or a school in making best use of the MLTI. Effective professional development will be ongoing and sustained, tied to school or classroom learning goals, and delivered by people who understand good pedagogical classroom practice around effective use of technology. This professional development will occur both locally and off site, with a focus on building local capacity for self-supported improvement.

So, being a believer in inquiry-based learning, I guess I ought to end with a question: Which model of school community is better suited to prepare students of 2006 to be successful citizens of the twenty-first century -- one that works as a professional learning community to effectively leverage the transformative power of ubiquitous computing as a way of supporting all students in achieving learning goals, or one that works to figure out how to make ubiquitous computing fit into the traditional model of how we do school?

I understand it is not easy, but the older I get -- or, rather, the older our children get -- the more I realize nothing is easy. But creating effective schools, like raising effective kids, is, in my opinion, worth the effort of changing some things I used to take for granted. What do you think?

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