Netbooks and Open-Source: Rethinking Laptops and Learning
Ask any progressive educator the following question: "If you were to select just one tool to give to each student - one that you believe would have the greatest impact on their learning - what would it be?" Nine times out of ten the answer will be "a laptop." Sounds simple, right? And yet it's not. Why? Because, while we all recognize the potential of the technology to transform the learning environment, the implementation of individual student devices is fraught with complexity and impracticality. Those that have dared to tread down the path have been met with high costs, massive support requirements, and fragile hardware, all of which combine to create a toxic mix that, at best severely limits the technology's effectiveness in the classroom and, at worst leads to epic program failures that have been widely reported in the media.
This, of course, is not intentional. When educators consider giving laptops to students at any scale, they generally do so only after careful consideration and planning. These plans typically boil down to two primary areas of focus: systems "management" and staff development. Solid staff development is key to the success of any learning initiative, but I believe our approach to "management" to be the root of the problems that plague broad deployment of individual student technology solutions.
Don't get me wrong, I completely understand that there was a great need for "management" of each device in the past. Traditional laptops, with their relatively short battery life, unreliable software, and general fragility demand a preventative approach to problem solving, as "management" is often the only way to ensure that the technology will function in a remotely reliable fashion. And yet, any honest assessment of the "managed" approach reveals that it only serves to limit the potential of the technology and its impact on student learning and to significantly drive up costs.
So what would it take to escape the vicious "management" cycle? What if it were possible to offer students a device that was reliable enough that it didn't have to be "managed" at all, allowing us instead to focus on learning objectives? I believe it is, but only if we have what I would call a "cell phone" or "device" approach to technology deployment.
To understand where I'm coming from, consider the number one technology used by students today: the cell phone. Why? Because they are inexpensive enough that all can have one, have the battery life to make it through an entire day, and are easy to use, doing just what they need, when they need it. They are always on, always connected, and rarely (if ever) fail. And best of all, no student needs to be trained to figure out how to use one. So, if we could just recreate those key cell phone characteristics in a device that is a bit more capable of content production and requires just as much "management" (ie none), would we not have an ideal solution? Impossible? Not when you combine netbooks with open-source software.
Netbooks are essentially mini-laptops that combine the physical characteristics of a cell phone with the capabilities of a traditional laptop, overcoming nearly all of the hardware obstacles to continuous student technology use in the classroom. They are low cost, provide incredible battery life, and are ready to be used at a moment's notice, with no complex systems of spare batteries to get in the way. They are also extremely durable, especially if one chooses a flash-based model which has no moving parts. Cell phone durability and battery life can make the difference between seamless use and constant disruption in the classroom.
But hardware is only half of the picture. Open-source software is the answer to achieving cell phone reliability and ease of use on a device. With Linux and open-source software on netbooks, all the complexities of typical proprietary operating systems can be stripped away, leaving elegant, cell-phone like interfaces of simple icons, with reliable and secure underpinnings that are not prone to failure, malware, or general instability. All the tools you would expect are there, along with dozens more that you wouldn't. Quick restore features can be used to empower users to reset their systems in seconds, should something go awry, leaving devices no longer needing to be "managed" to "save users from themselves." In short, you achieve interfaces that do not impede the use of the system, rather they enable it by empowering users through simplicity of design and freedom to explore without risk.
The benefits don't stop there. Through the use of free, open-source applications, students gain access to a diverse set of tools and resources for content creation, and teachers are empowered to challenge students to demonstrate subject area mastery using any one of a variety of tools and contexts. Since the software is free to distribute, students can install the same programs on any computer they have access to, creating an environment in which teachers can have a reasonable expectation that technology-based activities and assignments can be completed regardless of the student's location. And free classroom management tools enable teachers to monitor student activity, communicate privately or with groups, take control of a workstation, start a demonstration from theirs or any student's machine, and garner the attention of the class at a moment's notice, all through an easy to use interface on the teacher's workstation.
Add it all up, and you create an environment that takes the "scary" out of one-to-one in the classroom for teachers and students, and brings practical manageability to one-to-one programs. Does it work? Absolutely yes, we've seen tremendous success in our district through the SUSD SWATTEC program. We've done nearly zero training on the laptops themselves, yet students are using them for amazing things on a daily basis, and teachers have embraced them to the degree that they are regularly used all day, every day in the learning environment. Is it replicable? Absolutely. All the software and every detail is available in true open-source fashion on the SUSD SWATTEC web site. Six school districts in four states (that we know of) are doing it now, with great success.
I hope that you too will consider rethinking your approach individual student devices through the use of netbooks and open-source. With realistic goals, the right mindset, and the right technology, there's no limit to the learning opportunities available to students and teachers in the 21st century classroom.
Cross-posted from Absence of Limitations blog
The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect those of the CoSN organization or its affiliates