A Mixed Bag

Recently, I had the opportunity to observe several classes at a local school that had received significant funding for a project that I had not yet had the privilege of experiencing first-hand. Every single student in the school, from top to bottom, was given a netbook. The make and model chosen for the netbooks is irrelevant to this article; it is the profound impact on the class that I wish to discuss. As I observed classes over the course of several days, I was struck by the implications this technology had for the students, the classroom, and the teachers, and how I see it evolving in the near future.

To set the stage a little bit, some background…

The school I was observing at is, in a word, privileged. The community that the school services is one with deep pockets, and the decision to equip the students with netbooks (or other similar device) was inevitable. The unfortunate reality is, however, that you cannot gradually introduce a program like this without some students in the school feeling left out, or without giving some students an unfair advantage/disadvantage (depending on which side of the fence you’re on). The only way to implement a shift like this is to simply jump in feet first. Within a few months, the school received hundreds upon hundreds of tiny portable computers, padded sleeves to carry them in, and extra SMARTboards for the classrooms. Not every single classroom is equipped with one, but most are.

Teachers had to receive training on the usage of the new technology, and students were also taught how to use some of the essential software that was installed on each netbook. Thus begins our tale.

By the time I got into the classroom to observe, the students and teachers had already spent some time using the hardware and software, and most were acclimated to the entire setup. Despite having time, training, and resources available to help troubleshoot any possible hiccups in the workflow (there tech support staff available in the school during the day), I was amazed at how much time was spent simply getting the technology to work. On some days, literally a third of the period was spent troubleshooting various problems that the students encountered while using their netbooks, getting the software to work, etc. The number of problems the students encountered was staggering. From connecting to their home’s wifi network to connecting to the school’s file servers from home, to even saving their work reliably, the students came in every single day with new issues. After spending a few minutes trying to address these issues the teacher would usually be left without a clear answer, and send the student(s) for tech support. Clearly, there is a problem here.

In addition to the students’ woes, the teachers experienced their share of grief as well. For many teachers more accustomed to teaching without screens and gadgets glowing and humming out of every corner of the classroom, the addition of SMARTboards and netbooks was an unwelcome distraction and unnecessary hurdle to overcome. That being said, they did welcome many benefits these new additions could bring, but simply felt too stretched to learn to use the hardware/software in a way that would be beneficial for their students.

In addition to the simple issues of usability are those of behavior and focus. Due to the vast difference in experience between the students and the teachers with this sort of technology, students often take advantage of the teachers’ unfamiliarity with the more obscure capabilities of the operating system. What ends up happening is a sad mix of frustration and unnecessary stagnation. The students see the technology as an “out” since they don’t see much value in what the teacher is trying to impart in them.

The whole thing could be so amazing. The synergy could be flawless, the technology integrated into the lessons. The main issue is at the system as it is remains incomplete. The only option students have is to use a system designed for the corporate world, not the classroom. In the corporate world, the network exists outside the individual, despite the individual. Workers plug in to the network with their device (computer, tablet, phone, etc.), do whatever they need to do, and leave. The “network” existed before they got there, and persists after they leave. The classroom, however, is different. All of the “networking” done in the classroom is ad-hoc, spontaneous, and fluid. The network in a classroom setting exists because of the students; it is the students and only the students, without a common ground to unite behind, the network falls apart. The technology that the students and teachers are given does not take this into account, and the entire system suffers because of it. What could be a classroom that moves at the speed of thought has become a classroom hampered by uncooperative thinking machines.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t potential. I’m sure there are companies and groups of people out there devoted to creating a complete, top-to-bottom solution for the classroom that allows the teacher to explore their subject area in ways we can only imagine right now. Until I hold that solution in my hand, however, I will continue to hope.