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

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant
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"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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Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant

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david V. Loertscher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

One to one computing elevating education to a world-class larning community begings when the technology itself becomse transparent. That is, the technology itself is as ubiquitous and reliable as a pencil.

It is at that point that we begin to pay attention to the "features" of the technology that enhance learning and make learners more efficient.

To enhance learning, we think of technologies ability to manipulate data and ideas by stusendt to enhance critical thinking and knowledge acquisition.

For example, we wish studnets to read widely and bleen important ideas about a concept. They will extract those ideas, organize them, re-arrange them, discover what is missing, and then synthesize what is already known about the topic on their way to creating not just a conclusion, but a plan of action or a central meaning.

For this, they need technologies that assist them in recording ideas, manipulating them, rearranging them and assisting them in the development of synthesis. The question is, which o avarety to technology options will do this for different kinds of students. The answer is perhaps sticky notes or a program such as Inspiration, or a collaborative documentt building technology such as a wiki.

Until we get away from our concentration on a particular brand or software package to a focus on choice of feature that supports learning, teachers and students will be deprived of the best gifts technology have to offer.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

David's comments are really good. It is hard to reply to this post because there is so much to say. Lots of people still just using the Internet and not using new media, Internet 2 or the Grid or other technologies probably think they are technology literate.

Think of E Learning , we use electronic media and the power of networks -primarily those based on Internet technologies but also satellite based networks and digital content to enable more efficient, flexible, personalized , effective and engaging learning. This can extend far beyond traditional education and internal training to include a very wide scope of activities.

Learning then can accomodate a variety of learning styles, and knowledge management acitivies, and we can facilitate learing along a value chain, combining technology, content, and services in very different ways.

San Dieguito's initiative

Among the 47 offerings in five San Dieguito schools, students can study the principles of engineering, digital photography and health care. Students can learn to build a guitar, create digital music, produce videos and film and troubleshoot and repair a computer in various classes. The ROP-funded classes on high school campuses are open to the public.

Recently the district spent $130,000 to outfit a technical education lab at La Costa Canyon High School. Half of the space ---- once the Associated Student Body headquarters ---- is dedicated to design. The lab is equipped with 32 brand-new Dell computers. Scattered about the manufacturing side of the "Applied Technology Wing" are various machines for working wood, plastic and metal.

In Debbie Elliott's new Principles of Engineering class, students are studying the six simple machines: the incline plane, the lever, the screw, the wheel, the pulley and the wedge. Simultaneously, students are learning a computer-aided design program called "Inventor" by duplicating three-dimensional line drawings of various machined parts. The next step, Elliott told her students on Wednesday, is to design and create an energy-transfer machine similar to Mousetrap ---- the game by toymaker Milton Bradley in which a marble travels through a series of towers, troughs and levers to trap a mouse in a cage.

Elliott's students will work in pairs to construct their portion of the "mousetrap" machine using all six simple machines. In the end, the team portions must work together to form a classroom "energy-transfer machine." Each team will first design its portion of the machine in the software program and then test it with other portions.

Then students will take their designs to the manufacturing side to build their contraption on a one-foot square piece of plywood using anything they can find to create the simple machines.

"What we're trying to do is to show them some of the things they may do as a mechanical engineer," said Elliott, who also teaches Civil Engineering and Architecture and Digital Photography at La Costa Canyon High School.

Career and technical education at Canyon Crest Academy, the district's newest high school, was envisioned as a defining concept in the school's design. The school focuses on technology and performing arts.

For example, a nationally established engineering program called "Project Lead the Way" offers students training in the principles of engineering, biotechnology, and aerospace engineering during the regular school day.

Another new program, the Envision Project, created and led by Assistant Principal Brian Kohn, expands the daily offerings in performing arts, fine art and digital art with after-school classes. Students will apply and audition for the after-school classes taught by professionals dancers, musicians and digital and video artists.

My experience this summer at NASA Ames.. who ever though of being able to do a simulated job experience for an air traffic controller. It doesn't make my flights easier, but I understand the problems a lot better. I never ever thought of it as a career option.
But it is ,

NASA's "Virtual Skies" Web site transports students and teachers into the exciting world of aerospace research and air traffic management without leaving the classroom.

"Virtual Skies," a collaboration among aerospace and education experts from NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., is part of NASA's expanding commitment to education. The Web site introduces students to several aspects of the exciting world of aviation with a series of virtual field trips using air traffic management as the main theme. "Virtual Skies" contains numerous interactive elements to encourage students to explore the excitement and variety of aviation and aerospace research.

Geared for grades 9 through 12, "Virtual Skies" is aligned with national education standards in mathematics, science, geography and technology. The Web site also provides teachers with lesson plans and worksheets to allow easier incorporation of material into a regular high school curriculum.

"'Virtual Skies' engages students in real problem-solving scenarios, which demonstrate the relevancy and application of math, science and engineering concepts," explained Christina O'Guinn, Ames Educational Technology Team lead. "Students learn core concepts, while they also learn the vital skills of critical thinking, communication and collaboration," she said.

"Virtual Skies" is divided into seven topic areas: weather, aviation research, airport design, air traffic management, navigation, communication and aeronautics. Each topic area contains four interactive elements designed to enhance student learning. You can see the movie of the way air traffic moves during the 24 hours of flight.

There are so many ways we can teach with technology, This is my favorite site.
Windows to the Universe ( note that it is in English and Spanish)
An extensive astronomical learning system. Articles available at three levels: beginner, intermediate, advanced.

Then there is Volcano world, A Collaborative Higher Education, K-12, and Public Outreach project of the North Dakota and Oregon Space Grant Consortia
administered by the Department of Geosciences at Oregon State University, I have actually studied Volcanology, but I can't match this site.. I don't mind being a guide, to students.

I have actually been trained to use these sites and know where the standards are and the way to create transformative paths to knowledge. We keep saying that the students know the technology. I want them to know the content as well and Internet 2, and the Grid and Teragrid.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

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