The death of tabula rasa

What happens when you drop a bunch of boxed Android tablets, without instructions or training, in the midst of illiterate, non-English-speaking Ethiopian kids who have never even seen an on/off switch?  Do they use them to boost themselves to be able reach into the well?  Do they throw them at marauding hyenas?


They hack them.

ethiopian children with computers


Tablets for what ails you

various tablets

As the world has turned gonzo for tablets, I have not been immune.

While we do not yet have a district-wide student device implementation plan (hey, it’s California – we barely keep the electric bill paid), I frequently field the same question from educators and parents alike: Which device do I choose for my student?

So, I turn to my closest reference material:  my kids, and for one of them, the answer turned on her algebra book.

I have a slender, 75-pound 7th grader at home, one who was issued about 25 pounds of textbooks in late August.  Visions of Dickensian, hunched-over 12-year-olds hauling firewood danced in my head.  When, during back-to-school night, her algebra teacher said the online, digital version of her text was preferable due to its interactivity, I had a new 7” tablet ordered within 24 hours.

While the algebra book was PDF-based, the interactive features were dependent on Flash, so the entire Apple suite was out of the picture.  Another of my daughter’s teachers was having students set up Google accounts, so that piece of information led me to seriously consider Android tablets as I was aware that the integration of features and tools in the Google-verse was pretty seamless.

This illustrates the crooked path to the answer to the “which device?” question; it’s not like choosing bed sheets.

Following are some of the factors to be considered in choosing your tablet:

  • Which suite of apps will serve your student best?  Each of the major app warehouses (Apple, Google/Android, Kindle) provide often mutually-exclusive applications.  There is some overlap between them, so you need to do your research.
  • Over the lifetime of the tablet, will your student age out of one app suite and into another?
  • What level of productivity apps (word processing, etc.) will your student require?  Is one better than another for keying-in data?  Our home experiments indicate that a negative data-entry experience will result in non-use pretty quickly.  This also informs what size tablet to consider.  For instance, our 7th grader’s hands fit the QWERTY touch-pad of the 7” far more comfortably than a larger tablet.
  • Will the on-board browser run the textbooks you need?  If not, will the tablet’s operating system permit you to download a compatible browser such as Firefox?  Are the texts perhaps available as an ebook download?
  • Does your student have access to Wi-Fi in the location the tablet will be used?  Do you have Wi-Fi at home, or does your student’s district have an open Wi-Fi network?  Bring-your-own-device policies vary widely, so check with your child’s school.

In addition, you’ll have decisions to make about on-board memory, how the tablet will be used by your student, etc.  NPR recently did this overview story on tablets, Tis the season for tablets, well-worth consulting.

Interactive White Boards: Tool or Toy?

Yesterday brought a blog post by the Skunk, What makes an interactive white board interactive?, prompting my reply below.  I am a huge proponent of IWBs, though the financial and physical implementation of them is merely the beginning of what is required to make them an effective tool for 21st century instruction.


I’ve always seen IWBs as the critical bridge between a generation of digital natives and their teachers, who remain largely comprised of digital immigrants. New teachers who are also digital natives are much more attuned to the value of interactive, project-based learning environments, though their employers rarely give them the opportunity to practice teaching that way.

Internet-connected IWBs provide the training wheels to bring teachers into a much more interactive mode of “instruction,” providing a rich digital resource that can be shared as a class. The key to knowing whether IWBs are being used effectively is imbedded in the term “shared.” If a teacher manages the technology such that students are regularly creating meaning using the IWB (and/or related response systems for checking for understanding), then it is being used effectively. If the IWB is a jazzed up presentation tool used exclusively by the teacher, the teacher will realize a certain bump in their students’ level of engagement in the short term, but they will not be using the full power of the tool.

Effective IWB professional development focuses on guiding teachers through these stages of understanding the meaning of “learning through interaction.” It is not about students seeing or holding technological “things,” but having human interaction in a learning environment made more dynamic and rich with the aid of digital tools. In 1:1 classroom computing environments, facilitated by a teacher who understands 21st century learning dynamics, the IWB is completely unnecessary, because the interaction and consequent learning is happening between students with access to 21st century tools.

“A video’s worth how many words?”

My recent conversation with Thomson Reuter’s Science & Environment reporter Ben Gruber regarding the California Roadkill Observation System for which I am a “citizen observer” evolved, naturally enough, into a discussion regarding ed tech.  Any reader of this blog might expect my side of the conversation to devolve into my usual rant regarding the American preoccupation with traditional instruction and the consequent loss of our national competitive edge in science and technology to those countries willing to make the necessary investment in their children.

In the spirit of “You’re going to hate this…,” Ben mentioned a story he recently completed regarding the aggressive South Korean national investment in education technology, understanding the inherent service to their national self-interest as they look to the future of their country.

Ben’s resulting Reuters video story is far more powerful than any further words I can offer.  Please invest 2:26 of your time and think hard about the cultural back story:

Living as we do in a nation that popularly refuses to acknowledge the link between education and technology presumably because it requires we spend money on children instead of warfare and pleasure seeking (we can afford chalk and pencils for them, can’t we?), it is comforting that someone in the world sees fit to prepare their children for their troubled planet so they may address its problems with all the necessary tools they will need.  I remain sad that my own country is not counted in that number.  No one needs to “bomb us back into the stone age”** to win at the civilization game.  We need only stand still while the world passes us by.


** This phrase, ironically enough, came into popular usage amidst the coverage of twentieth century American policy toward Asian countries.  See this article on the topic if you’re interested.

Add your 1:1 fantasy here…

There is growing interest among educators in my district, technical and curricular alike, in the reality of students increasingly making WiFi/cellular-connected devices part of their daily life-gear. There is keen interest in the kimble readermomentum on the equipment-side toward inexpensive tablet devices (most recently hacked out of the near-capable Kindle) that were they to reach the commercial market in that configuration and price-point it could revolutionize not only device acquisition, but the way we budget for text-based materials.  The impact on instruction would be dramatic, revolutionary even.

Colleague and Blue Skunk blogger Doug Johnson recently probed this issue with his post, Specs for Student Devices.  The response to this post was interesting, and the conversation stopper was cost of the $400-$500 devices that dominate the discussion, as equity is always the deal-breaker in public education.  So what happens when we throw Marvell’s $99marvell moby tablet Moby tablet into the discussion?  Suddenly conversation turns to textbook budgets, open-source becomes a favorite sidebar, and discussions around educational equity become laced with “What if we [add your favorite topping here].”

Our departmental water cooler discussions are now drifting toward considering the feasibility of universal WiFi to serve students and staff bringing their devices to school.

What will be the evolution and changes in campus behavior once this happens?  What will be the best practices in service to equity of opportunity for all students?  How do we guide system-disruptive technologies to further our effectiveness as educators?

I’m asking readers to take a break from the work routine and wax fanciful here.  Let’s say that in the next year or so we can think of all students as “haves” and the cost-of-device issue disappears.  Let’s add to this assumption that our legislators will see the digital light and crack open the means by which we bring information to students allowing us to fund the best future.  How do we move educational structures into the future with relevance and a smile?

Is Tech Funding Racist?

rosa parks busThis thought has dogged me since this news item appeared on yesterday: Ohio Case: The ‘Rosa Parks Moment’ For Education? You’ll find it helpful to read the article before proceeding here. [You’ll notice the line the Rosa Parks bus ran on was the Cleveland line – sadly ironic in this context.]

To see my gut-level reaction as a dad and sometimes-educator-cynic, scroll down in that article and check out the “Most Recommended” comments, complete with typos I overlooked in my haste to comment yesterday morning.  You’ll see I find the behavior of the Ohio school district particularly outrageous, especially in the light of how I’ve experienced our local legal system’s failure to serve society’s mandate to educate all our students to the highest level possible.

But being an ed tech guy, it didn’t take long for my curiosity to grow about whether tech funding in Ohio follows the local property tax education funding patterns common in so many states, a funding pattern that allows segregation and socioeconomic Balkanization to persist in so much of twenty-first century America.  So this morning, while my kids waited for my participation in our weekend buttermilk pancake ritual, I took a look at Ohio’s EETT competitive awards in their last round.

Fully expecting the other outcome, I was delighted to see that the Ohio EETT competitive awards, however paltry in this economy, were granted exclusively to urban schools, most of which were over 90% African American in student ethnicity.   It would appear that our state level ed tech colleagues in Ohio are indeed fulfilling their EETT mandate.

However, we all know that EETT-C awards do not fund infrastructure, they do not fund network administrators, they do not fix leaky roofs in classrooms, server rooms, and computer labs.  The larger picture remains one of grossly inequitable opportunity persisting in most of America.  I entered this field precisely because I believe technology to be the great social-leveler of modern time.  One Laptop Per Child truly captured my imagination as I entered ed tech; the idea of a child in the African bush networking with another in Brooklyn, NY, is now real, and it is changing the world.

Technology has been a social equalizer since humans began making stone axes and hide scrapers, with early adopters enjoying clear competitive advantages in every Darwinian sense.  We see headlines of technology at work in Tunisia and Egypt [and again here] today as young people demand opportunity to control their destinies and our government organizes its bully pulpit resources in support of those movements.  Why is it that we can wrap our collective imaginations around flattening the world between nations, but we remain essentially blind to this critical social need to extend equal opportunity, fueling the collective good, when it comes to people in the next town, or even the next neighborhood over?  Are we humans truly that navel-oriented?


This thought has dogged me since this news item appeared on yesterday: Ohio Case: The ‘Rosa Parks Moment’ For Education?  You’ll find it helpful to read the article before proceeding here.

E-books R Us?

We here in California have made a startling discovery.  We’re out of money.  Suddenly, the educator’s fondness for cuddling a warm, bound pile of ink-enhanced cellulose is giving way to open-source texts and ebooks, not to mention a sudden recognition of the environmental impact of all that printing and binding.

image of sony ebook

We know there have been a number of fantasies in this direction, but the rubber has hit the road in our state.  What are readers finding?  Searches on ebooks in schools yield a number of library-based experiments around the country, but is there anyone on the verge of making The Great Leap at a district or county level?