What You Should Know This Week

The anniversary of the first one-to-one laptop program. Each week, Educating Modern Learners picks one interesting current event – whether it’s news about education, technology, politics, business, science, or culture – and helps put it in context for school leaders, explaining why the news matters and how it might affect teaching and learning (in the short or in the long run). This week (the week of February 9), Audrey Watters does something a little different, looking instead at a historical event: the anniversary of the first one-to-one laptop program.

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the first school one-to-one laptop program. On February 12, 1990, the Fifth Year girls at Methodist Ladies’ College, an independent girls’ school in Melbourne, Australia, received their laptops (which had been paid for by their parents).

The story of laptops at Methodist Ladies’ College – along with the development of education technology before 1990 and the spread of one-to-one laptop programs afterwards – is chronicled in Bob Johnstone’s book Never Mind the Laptops: Kids, Computers, and the Transformation of Learning. (Full disclosure: the book gives a huge nod to the role played by EML co-founder Bruce Dixon in facilitating all of this – in Australia and then in the US.)

Under the leadership of then principal David Loader, this first laptop program was decidedly constructionist, drawing heavily on the work of Seymour Papert. That is, the laptops were not introduced so as to boost the girls’ skills at using business productivity apps; they were not introduced so as to run the students through their paces via computer-assisted instruction; they were not introduced to make traditional education more efficient. The laptops were about supporting the girls’ construction of knowledge by placing in their hands these new, powerful, programmable computing machines. They served to bring about a radical transformation of school, school culture, and teaching and learning.

25 years ago.

A lot has happened technologically since then. In 1990, the MLC students received Toshiba T1000’s. These laptops were 12.2“ x 11.0” x 2.05″, 6.4 pounds, with a 4.77 MHz 80C88 processor, and 512 KB of RAM. Laptops today are cheaper, faster, lighter; their storage capabilities have skyrocketed; they’re now able to connect to the Internet, often wirelessly. Moreover laptops are no longer the only computing option: there are tablets and netbooks and smartphones, for example.

But what has changed with laptops at school? Certainly more students are learning in one-to-one environments. But do these environments encourage ownership of the machines and the learning? Do they encourage students to build and program in order to make use of these powerful machines? Or do they simply encourage students to “do school” in a traditional sense just on digital devices?

I’m not sure what attention, if any, the education technology community will pay attention to this important anniversary. But it’s important that education leaders do, particularly to the leadership of principal David Loader. In February 1990, when the media got wind of this milestone, Loader told the Melbourne daily newspaper The Age, “This is no longer the future, this is the present. It is going to transform the classroom.” And he insisted that it did – but it was because the computers were allowed to enable this transformation, rather than, as Papert himself noted in his 1993 book The Children’s Machine using computers to promote “business as usual.”

Little by little the subversive features of the computer were eroded away: Instead of cutting across and so challenging the very idea of subject boundaries, the computer now defined a new subject; instead of changing the emphasis from impersonal curriculum to excited live exploration by students, the computer was now used to reinforce School’s ways. What had started as a subversive instrument of change was neutralized by the system and converted into an instrument of consolidation.

25 years since the first one-to-one laptop program, where are we now — not just with our adoption of computers of school, but with a consideration of the sorts of constructionism and learner-centered design?

Image credits: Wikipedia

3 thoughts on “What You Should Know This Week”

  1. Stephen K

    A hammer in the hands of a carpenter is only a tool — it is up to the carpenter’s intent, genius, and ability to use it as an instrument of repetitively pounding on the nail….or allowing the wood to become a work of remarkable art and craft….

    Now, toss that weak metaphor out, and even the 1:1 (giving one student one laptop can be just updating one student and one #2 pencil, as we know) model doesn’t get at the heart of it: technology or no (though we have to have it, and more of it), the individual learner has to be the common denominator, the heart, the point of the entire process, the always-in-mind.

    And laptops, after 1/4 of a century, have not much changed Horace Mann’s mindset about processing a lot of people all at once. Despite the guide-on-the-side idea, most of us (educators, parents, school board members, politicians, etc.) still like How It’s Always Been.

    It’s hard posting such a pessimistic comment, as a retired teacher/administrator (is there such a thing) who chaired a committee “on these computer things” in 1985. But despite the dollars, time, frustration, and hope expended — and the truly many, many good things accomplished! — laptops, tablets, iPods, and cellphones have speeded up the process of getting A+ kids into some prestigious colleges and allowed poorer kids to lose traction. (No, it’s not a direct cause-effect.) But my belief is that real hope for change resides in the transformation of each teacher’s, each administrator’s heart and soul and pocket book: it’s about the student, the learning — not the adult, not the teaching. Doing that? Maybe artificial intelligence will figure it out — so far, human intelligence hasn’t.

  2. Keith B

    Maybe it;s a good time for the 1lpc movement to take stock, evaluate and evolve.

    I had a quick look at the one laptop per child rollout in Peru – also a Seymour Papert insprired project. Just over 900’000 laptops distributed, at about $200 a pop, and no impact noted on standrdised testing, and minimal impacts noted on other metrics – these results are limited, and not conclusive. But theyt are also not what you hope for when you manufactre 1 million devices at 200 a pop.

    Or Sugata Mitra, and the issues with his program ( it;s now using instructors, devices are now not always free access but sometimes in schools, older male children may be monopolising the devices).

    What’s working, what isn;t, and how does the movement evolve in response.

    I’d suggest that focuising more on context is key. Selling devices into educational contexts where there is not the knolwedge or physical infrastructure is not going to work,a nd may invilve giving up other programmes that will. If, for example, a food in school programme is something that’;s needed, that’s probably what should come first. If there’s no or very limited access to internet, or basic healthcare, or power, then spening million on laptops is not the priority.

    Do educator’s have the training to leverage the devices, and is curriculum designed to take meaningful advantage of them in the local context. Are there cultural or power contexts that mean devices are inequitably accessed, and perhaps emphasising or empowering inequity, and what does that mean?

    The pedagogical model needs a lot of tinkering too.

    We can be reasonably confident that access to devices does not equal education. That critical literacies don’t actually transfer well between domains. And general critical/digital literacy is not an adeuqate preparation for self-directed learning. You can’t really use your knowledge of the evolution of the medieval curriculum to decode Hawking Radiation. Good digital literacy won’t allow you to decode an obscure but important statistical debate about the validity of statistical controls in a metastudy on classroom sizes or to validate the statistical procedures used in an RCT. The basis of good critical literacy, which is part of the argument behind student centred learning. is in good factual domain knolwedge of the domain you are learning about.

    I guess what I;m saying there is that the type of curiousity based discovery learning ( and that is kind of what Papert was describing ) is not the best fit for lots of learners. Self structured learnig works effectively where you have enough domain knolwedge to make good calls on the validity of content, and where you have good skills in metacognition and in learning techniques, and where you make good choices about how you proceed. The evidence is telling us that, in general, novices do’t have this, and don;t make these choices as well as they might. Discovery learning is probably powerful for those whom already have a significant degree of expertise. But in order to achieve that autonomy in a way that empowers you, access to well structured expertise that teaches you is a better bet. In general.

    We can be confident that novice learners in general need a heck of a lot more support ( both pedagogical and emotional). So the curiousity driven discovery model is probably one that has relatively narrow rather than wide appeal. And that”s something that device driven programmes really need to take into account.

    All that siad, I need to do a heck of a lot more reading and research before I can make a hugely meaningful contribution here…

    Here, as always, endeth the rant.

  3. Brian L

    One of the more successful 1:1 operations is just up the road from my office. The Mooresville Graded School District did/does an amazing job. Not only did they establish the physical systems needed to support a school full of kids, but they taught their teachers how to integrate the machines at a curricular level. Plus, they provide ongoing training for their teachers about how to use these laptops to improve classroom performance.

    Just dumping a bunch of laptops on students and faculty won’t get the trick. MGSD makes it work by ongoing evaluation and training.

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