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.


Superfluous code

In owning an iPad or iPhone, you may have heard of these things called “apps.”

They’re pretty nifty. I, however, am starting to pare down my app collection (as I have done with many things in recent weeks), and have found the experience to be incredibly cathartic.

I scrolled through the pages upon pages of apps that I have in my collection, most of which leave me asking myself “When was the last time I used this?”

Games, productivity, social networking, etc. These are all categories of apps that we see and think, “Wow, I’m going to use this all the time, and it’s a buck (or two, or three). I’m buying it.”

Then there’s schlock on your phone, and you never use it. The icon is pretty, it looks useful…but it’s really not.

It takes up space, saps your attention. You can’t get to the things you really need because you’re mired in a bunch of things that you thought you wanted at one point. Maybe thought you needed.

Maybe you don’t need an iPad or iPhone, or whatever whiz-bang razzle-dazzle doohickey that just came out. Maybe you don’t own one. Good for you and knowing what you want.

Let’s say you already have one, however. Let it be a reminder to you, a reminder to try to simplify the rest of your life. Every time you go to use your phone, netbook, iPad, blackberry, or other neato device, remember how lucky you are, and try to simplify something else in your life.

It’s like Lent, only in reverse.

a funny thing happened

I’ve had the chance to use my iPad for about a week now, and the experience has been incredibly rewarding. Aside from being just…FUN, the iPad has already changed the way i think of “personal” computing. What I think is interesting is the speed at which this change has occurred. I was naturally hesitant when I started thinking about taking on the iPad as my “primary” computer, since there were things notably absent from the final software and hardware. Interestingly enough, none of those things matter now, and I wondered why they ever really did.

I packed up my little netbook this morning to sell to a colleague of mine. In order to get the little beast ready for sale, I had to reformat the hard drive. Normally, this is a process that I’m well familiar with. What I wasn’t counting on was my reaction to the process.

“Wow,” I thought as I booted into windows XP for the last time, “this is really ugly.”

I’d like to say that I miss windows XP (or vista, or windows 7), but I just don’t. I don’t see why most people would want anything other than this experience when they’re not in front of a “real” computer. I fully understand that there are programs and “apps” that simply don’t work the way they would on a desktop, but I think that’s the point. You already have a central data point at home, complete with all sorts of computing power. The last thing you need is something to duplicate that. What I (and maybe you) want, is a computer that doesn’t need to be managed, that simply disappears. The only thing I ever think about is storage capacity, and even that’s not a problem. I did fine with 16 gigs on my netbook, so the 16 gigs I have here is plenty.

The other thing i found myself able to do? Focus. How often do I get distracted by useless things on the internet, end up spending most of my day reading news articles that have no bearing on my life or my intended future life? Too often, and I’m sure most of us could say the same. This machine creates focus, it creates connection to the material. I’m not typing right now, I’m creating, I’m thinking. A machine that allows for thought, innovation, movement. This is the beginning of where we begin to see the “interface” disappear. It’s not about finding what you want in a maze of menus and jargon, it’s about the device becoming what you need it to be. It’s about synergy.

be here, now

we hear it all the time.

“please take a moment to silence your cell phones.”

people nonchalantly reach into their pockets. everyone is a little embarassed. people fumble in purses, pockets, coats. we pretend not to notice, but still judge, silently.

“you mean you still forget to do that?” we think to ourselves. we feel good, we’re tech savvy, we know to silence those little buggers.

settle in. page through the program. wait. a couple minutes go by. the introductions last awhile. no harm in a quick peek at the inbox, right? maybe tweet this? shoot, the [content] is starting. a shift of the hips, one leg straightens to make room in the pocket. not enough, because this is the/a(n) [crowded venue]. have to lean back a little, push off the floor just a touch to get this damn phone back in this damn pocket. seat shifts a little, squeaking. awkward. there! done. no harm in that. the open probably wasn’t important anyway.

then it starts. a little buzz. maybe it’s short. just a tickle. ignore it. this is a [type of production]! I know better than to start texting here.

another one.

and another.

all unanswered. maybe the thing in your pocket/handbag is really buzzing now. maybe it’s repeating the alerts. someone is really trying to get through. now it’s a full blown phone call. full rings. where’s the button to make it stop? try to reach it through the pants, no dice. gotta reach in again, push off the floor, chair squeaks again.

now, we have a scene. this whole thing probably lasts 20 seconds, tops, but you’re nervous for the rest of the [type of production]. you’re simply not present. time lost. experience squandered.

do yourself a favor. find that ever-present cell phone of yours and turn off the vibrate function. just turn it off. think about it, if you’re in a situation that requires you to silence your phone to begin with, having a veritable back massager in your pocket will only cause you stress.

be present. be silent. experience what is in front of you.