As a vocal advocate for 1:1 computing I’ve been following the development of the XO Laptop, or “$100 laptop” from MIT, fairly closely the past few years. I had read about the possibility of XO Laptops being sold to school districts or even states in the United States, but until last week hadn’t realized (thanks to a conversation with Gary Stager) that a deal has been cut which will bring XOs to students and teachers in Birmingham, Alabama.

Walter Bender of One Laptop per Child (OLPC) mentioned the deal with Birmingham Public Schools in a BBC interview in November 2007 in the article “Politics ‘stifling $100 laptop.'” Engadget reported on the deal in December 2007 in the post “Birmingham, Alabama schools getting 15000 OLPC XOs,” indicating the $3 million deal is providing laptops in mid-April 2008 to 1st through 8th graders in the school district. Somehow I completely missed these articles and announcements, which I find both important and highly significant.

Apparently details of the plan are still being worked out. A February 28, 2008 article on the FoxNews Birmingham affiliate station revealed:

The future of Birmingham’s laptop program could soon lie in the hands of the school system. Yesterday, the City Council’s Education Committee met with school representatives to talk about the school system itself administering a program to bring some 15-thousand XO laptops to students. School Board members say there are still a lot of unanswered questions. The first thousand laptops for city schools are scheduled to be distributed in April.

Let’s hope the prospect of “the school system itself administering [the OLPC] program” will not contravene the positive, constructive potential for this initiative to open new doors of learning and opportunity for Birmingham students, teachers and families. We need to look no further than Cobb County, Georgia, just next door to Alabama, to see how community leaders can completely foil well-intentioned efforts to bring laptops and a focus on 21st century literacy skills to students. I’ve posted about this several times in the past (here, here, here and here) but still haven’t read “the rest of the story” about that debacle (in the parlance of Paul Harvey) either online or in print. I had a very interesting discussion with Alan November at the Learning 2.0 conference in Shanghai last September about the Cobb County laptop mess. He shared some facts and perspectives I hadn’t heard previously. At some point I hope to interview former AF General and Cobb County superintendent Joe Redden about the situation. Dr. Tim Tyson certainly has street-level perspectives on that situation in Cobb County, since he originally proposed the 1:1 computing idea to district leaders. There are multiple perspectives on what happened in Cobb County and why it happened, but the outcome is clear from my vantage point: The school board and community leaders FAILED THE STUDENTS and FAILED THE NATION in bungling this initiative which would have been the largest K-12 1:1 project implementation in the history of the United States. Let’s hope the leaders of Birmingham Public Schools can avoid the mistakes and failures of Cobb County in their XO Laptop initiative.

When it comes to educational technology in general, and 1:1 computing more specifically, it is VITAL leaders discuss as well as support fundamental pedagogic change. Prior to the 21st century, most traditional learning environments in U.S. public schools were defined by the teacher serving as the font of knowledge. Armed with a textbook, chalkboard, overhead projector, transparencies, Vis-a-Vis colored pens, notebook paper and number two pencils, teachers and classrooms of students attempted to transmit the information in the head of the instructor and from the pages of the textbook into the brains of students. As we move further into the 21st century, the futility and undesirability of perpetuating this “teacher directed model” of instruction will continue to become more apparent. As Michael Goldhaber stated in his 1997 article “The Attention Economy and the Net,” it is silly to define an economy with something in abundance like information. Our economy is increasingly defined by the scarce resource of ATTENTION, and our educational systems must fundamentally change to acknowledge and address this reality. For more on the “attention economy” and the educational changes it demands, check out my three part podcast series from last fall on these topics.

The OLPC Wiki page “OLPC Birmingham” has been created to catalyze a support network for individuals and organizations in the Birmingham area interested in helping this effort. Let’s hope many will step up to the plate to support and help OLPC become a success in Birmingham, NOT by attempting to perpetuate the traditional, transmission-based model of instruction with which we all became so familiar in the 20th century– but RATHER a new model of learning which is truly student centered, and involves both the transmission of content and ideas (in multiple media modalities) into the brains of learners as well as the ACTIVE CONSTRUCTION of knowledge products by those learners to demonstrate their mastery of important knowledge and skills. Let’s hope educational leaders in Birmingham resolve to “work on the work,” as Phil Schlechty of the Schlechty Center for Leadership in School Reform outlines in his excellent book “Working on the Work.” Let’s hope Birmingham teachers, principals and other leaders focus on the “10 Critical Qualities of Student Work” as they collaboratively explore and discover the possibilities of the XO Laptop for learning inside and outside of Alabama classrooms. Finally, let’s hope the leaders of Birmingham can avoid the tragic mistakes and blunders of Cobb County Schools.

Our nation needs the XO laptop project in Birmingham to be a resounding success for many reasons, and one of the pivotal keys to the project’s eventual success or failure is and will be the VISION (or lack of vision) of the district and community’s educational leaders. The eyes of our nation are upon you, Birmingham leaders. Lead us to the educational promise land. The road sign that will take us there will most certainly not include the initials: NCLB.

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One Response to XO Laptops coming to Birmingham, Alabama

  1. Gary Stager says:

    Wes,

    Since I’m not sure if you and I agree on the causes of the Cobb County debacle, may I point you to an article I wrote on the matter 2.5 years ago?

    It’s called, “Laptop Woes: Bungling the World’s Easiest Sale ,” and may be found at http://tinyurl.com/yspolk

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