George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

We’d Better Get a Bigger Keyboard!: The Imperative for a Computer for Every Student

September 20, 2006

At its inception, computing was about machines, applied science, and nerds. It was a world for nonsocial shut-ins who existed in front of their home-built computers, fiendishly writing code to make the machine do something. Often, when it did do something, it was some arcane task that had little practical value to anyone else.

The law of unintended consequences, however, holds that almost all human actions have at least one unplanned outcome. Computing, along with its fathers and creators, was the victim of probably the greatest unintended consequence in history -- certainly, the most revolutionary. A few people who practiced this little private pastime recognized that it might prove useful in solving their own tasks and problems. What began as a pebble rolling down a snow-covered hill became, over time, a gargantuan wheeling ball ingesting everything and everyone in its path.

The old computing valued machines, but the new computing values users. I often tell my students that the object of the game is for them to use the computer, instead of the other way around. Computer education, unfortunately, has always been about the latter, instead of the former: Computer teachers expound on the virtues of this or that application, and how the computer can do the work of many people in a short time. Rather than being about the student, the user, it has always been about the machine.

In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam says, "We must not assume that the future of the Internet will be determined by some mindless, external 'technological imperative.' The most important question is not what the Internet will do to us, but what we will do with it."

Users' expectations of computing have been, and continue, growing. Computing is about collaboration, not competition. And Nicolas Negroponte has written, "One does not think of community pencils -- kids have their own. They are tools to think with, sufficiently inexpensive to be used for work and play, drawing, writing, and mathematics. A computer can be the same, but far more powerful. Furthermore, there are many reasons it is important for a child to own something -- like a football, a doll, or a book -- not the least of which being that these belongings will be well maintained through love and care."

Not unlike the Renaissance, the era of personal computing is changing the way we think, and the way we view the world. But it has not been universally accepted. Though school officials talk about how they have embedded technology into the curriculum, the reality is that technology is usually an afterthought given lip service by those in power, eager to impress voters.

By and large, school computing is still a dream. At the school where I work, there are about 3,200 students, yet the school has barely 500 computers, and the 162 kids I teach have eighty of the total just to themselves. The leaves 420 computers for the other 3,000 students, or about seven students per computer. We'd better get a bigger keyboard!

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