Last week’s article “School Bus Becomes Mobile Classroom Thanks To iPods” in Arkansas may sound like a dream come true for technology-craving students, but I wonder if the underlying pedagogy of content transmission will ultimately permit the realization of the project’s idealistic goals? According to the article and accompanying video, the Sheridan school district in Arkansas is piloting a project where all students riding some school buses get iPods and Mac laptops pre-loaded with instructional videos and content. The project’s creator, a Vanderbilt professor, is hoping these technology tools and the access to digital content they’ll provide will motivate more students to become “doctors and dentists and veterinarians and scientists and engineers.” I hope some academic researchers are involved in measuring the impact of this program, because it sounds technologically sexy on its face– but I question what appear to be some of the project’s core assumptions.

In line with Lawrence Lessig’s view of read/write culture shared at Wizards of OS 4 last September (audio and video links available,) I see a strong need in education to provide learning opportunities and experiences for students which involve both “the new read-only” and the “read-write” modalities of the twenty-first century. Certainly students are interested in watching movies and consuming other types of multimedia, but education (as well as LIFE and LEARNING more generally) in the 21st century is about much more than content CONSUMPTION. The mistake of assuming that digital technologies should fundamentally be focused on the goal of more efficiently transporting CONTENT into the minds of learners is also made by the eRate program in the United States. In my view, educational providers need to recognize the need to EMPOWER learners to remix and share their learning on a regular basis via read/write technologies, not simply be the passive “receptors” or “receivers” of content delivered in a 1-way transmission model. That is the model of broadcast television as well as “traditional” education, and while TV has certainly had enormous impacts on society and culture as a whole, it failed to revolutionize or transform education. (Some people predicted that it would, joining others who claimed new technologies like the phonograph also would revolutionize learning back in the 1870s.)

Students always have been MUCH MORE than “empty pails” to fill with content in the classroom. Sadly, although we’ve had a great deal of excellent work done in the areas of brain research, cognitive science, and educational theory including constructivist and constructionist approaches to learning, many people (mostly adults) remain entrenched in early 20th century, behaviorist patterns of thinking about education, learning, cognition and psychology.

In reading this article about the Sheridan iPod and laptop project, I’m concerned by the statement:

It’s going to be controlled by the school. They’re going to put their instructional material on there.

Where is the differentiation? Where are the customized pathways for learning? Is the school district going to let each student maintain and customize their own RSS feed subscription list via Podnova or another web-based tool? Nothing in the article or television reports suggests they will.

And what are students going to be able to DO with their laptops and iPods besides passively watch content? These students should be empowered to CREATE content with their digital devices. Failing to do so equates to simply providing each one of them with scaled down, sexier versions of a television set. If that miniature TV permitted customized DVR program recording, that would be a step in the right direction of differentiation. It does not sound like the project has an instructional vision that includes differentiation or read/write education, however. :-(

Given the alternative of a bus ride without iPods or laptops, I suppose this project in Arkansas has some merit and value. If the program’s champions fail to empower students to use their digital devices to both WRITE and CREATE as well as CONSUME content from the web, I think they are going to fail at a basic level to fully leverage the power of their investment and the protean tools they’ve purchased with taxpayer dollars. (I heard the word “protean” used a couple of weeks ago at the SITE conference to describe the versatility of digital technologies like computers, which are fundamentally different from fixed-purpose, traditional educational tools like the chalkboard, overhead projector, pencil and microscope.)

Giving THE STUDENTS technologies is a step in the right direction. Too many school districts reserve computer technologies for the hands of teachers and administrators, only giving students limited and short-term opportunities to possess and interact with digital tools in fixed-room labs and with carts of wireless laptops. Choosing to use those digital technologies for strictly traditional, content-transmission purposes, however, falls short of the promise which is offered by web-enabled digital devices.

I’ve been playing with several ideas for frameworks to understand educational technologies in general, as well as web 2.0 technologies and services lately. The one I’m mulling over at present for educational technologies as a whole breaks them into three broad categories: technologies which serve as a funnel, as a measuring stick, or as an amplifier. Jeff Allen was the first person I heard use the term “amplifier” for technology in a skype conversation we had last year.

Which Educational Technology Purpose(s) are served?

In the case of this Arkansas iPod and laptop project, it appears they are limiting the use of the PROTEAN technologies to only the first purpose: That of a “funnel.” Certainly iPods and laptops can be powerful digital funnels for content, but they can and should be used for SO MUCH more!

Thanks to the ever-creative Maria Henderson for the heads-up on this article.

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  • http://pages.lindberghschools.ws/education/staff/staff.php?sectiondetailid=427&PHPSESSID=9e1560d0c68e5a730f697b12e959c4d2 Cindy Lane

    Ok, good article, but did you catch the part about the “test” after 3 years and if they pass, they get to keep the goods…
    WHAT KIND of test? I’d LOVE to see that part? What are they truly assessing? hmmmmm

  • http://noeltigers.info Wm Chamberlain

    I think you are over thinking the program. It is wonderful to talk about the students creating content, but these students more than likely don’t have exposure to the content to begin with. It takes more than paper and pencil to write, you have to know what their purpose is first.

    I understand completely where this idea comes from. If you get technology in their hands and allow them to explore with it, they will soon want to be able to create their own content.

    I teach in a small town in southwest Missouri. My students have very little technology at home. There is almost no exposure to the internet. In my class this year for the first time they had the opportunity to comment on a blog. Next year, I hope for my students to create their own. You can’t have the latter without the former.

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Good point. This project is a HUGE step forward for students who don’t have access to digital devices. I wanted to make that point with the statement I included about GIVING KIDS digital devices. Every journey begins with 1 step. Hopefully the vision of this school district does or will at some point include this idea of read/write content and differentiated digital instructional materials. That vision can be adopted at any time.

  • J. Angel

    The future of education is in what we are doing right know, internet based learning. Soon everything we do in education will be through some form of media. Students will be creating their own blogs and learning will be a influenced by millions.

  • http://killiancomputers.blogspot.com david

    Horrible idea. Students to relate to one another not merely watch another screen. WHY does Google still hold conferences to bring together programmers across the world? Watching iPods doesn’t make scientists or doctors.

  • http://www.MyTutoringTips.com Geri

    I think it is still better that education is read-write and not read-only. Sure, kids will learn from read-only but will they have the same knowledge compare to those who do read-write. Practice is still a good tool in learning and especailly in mastering something.

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  • http://www.theLineOnOnlineColleges.com Frank

    I agree that education still needs to be read-write instead of read only. We all need to interact and practice the things we learned inorder to do identify it’s effectiveness.

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