The February 26, 2006 article in the Orlando Sentinel, “At schools, not all computers are equal,” laments low levels of educational technology funding, especially for schools “in the middle:” not low income and federally funded but not high income with wealthy PTA budgets either. These introductory paragraphs will give you a flavor of the article’s focus:
In an economically depressed area just west of Orlando, where few children can afford lunch, Rolling Hills Elementary students calculate equations on the latest Internet-wired “Smart Boards” bought with grants from a nonprofit group.
Yet in the middle-class, south Orange suburb of Meadow Woods, Southwood Elementary children have fallen behind. Neither rich nor poor, they are caught in a middle ground of schools with outdated desktop computers. Schools such as Southwood are too wealthy to get grants and too poor to count on the PTA to pay for new computers.
Call it the technology gap.
School districts find themselves on an endless treadmill of computer upgrades, which are often disruptive and painful in many ways– and always expensive. The technology gap identified in the article IS a problem. Technology tools should be treated like textbooks and pencils. We don’t think twice about supplying them to students, and we don’t withhold them from students in certain socio-economic “middle” categories. We shouldn’t withhold technology tools either.
That being said, I think most school districts are being fiscally irresponsible today if they are not moving towards open source computing solutions, at least for some of their campuses and instructional applications. Miguel Guhlin has written a new, excellent article on thin client network architectures for schools that is worth checking out on this subject. I also recommend listening to Tim Wilson’s podcast interview with Paul Nelson on the K-12 Linux Terminal Server Project.
Ultimately, I think the future of educational computing will be 1:1 wireless laptops for all students. We are still several (or perhaps many) years away from that reality in most schools, however, and in the meantime district leaders and boards need to decide how to best spend their funds. I am a big advocate for the creative, constructive use of disruptive technologies in the classroom to promote literacy skills, and I do not hide the fact that Macintosh computers are the most transparently powerful tools I’ve ever used. That being said, however, most computing tasks done by students and teachers in schools today don’t require Macs. Most students and teachers are NOT video editing, creating original music in Garageband, or desktop videoconferencing. (This is unfortunate, because more should be, but the fact is most are not.)
Most folks in schools are using computers for “sustaining” purposes: word processing, surfing the web, creating multimedia presentations, and using spreadsheets. All of these tasks can be handled by open source operating system and software programs.
School districts need to ONLY purchase web-based curriculum materials in the future which can run on any computer operating system, and avoid at all costs getting locked into proprietary software that only runs on a single platform (i.e. MS Windows.) The future is 1:1 and open source, my friends. Your school district CIO and board should understand and see this vision, and take tangible steps to start embracing it today.
This is perhaps the best quotation in the entire article:
“Without question, there is a better textbook lobby than a technology lobby,” [State Rep. David] Mealor said.
We do need to provide students with the technology tools they need today and will need tomorrow. As I’ve written before, laptops are 21st century pencils. Schools may not be buying laptops today, but they certainly should explore open source alternatives to the OS/software upgrade cycles that corporate quarterly profit wonks love, but the rest of us generally resent.
And we must provide these tools to all our students, not just a few. That’s what providing a high quality (not merely adequate), free public education is all about.
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