Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Report from Indiana

Greg Dekoenigsberg from Red Hat went to visit Indiana:

Last month, I went to visit Mike Huffman in Indianapolis. He's in charge of technology in schools for the state of Indiana. He said he was going to take me out to show me how Linux worked in his schools.

I'd seen a bunch of cool Linux labs elsewhere. Good example: I visited Jeff Elkner at Yorktown High School (Arlington, VA) a few years ago and toured his K12LTSP lab. It was essentially a lab for teaching computer skills, in the wealthiest high school in a wealthy school district, with a highly motivated teacher. Impressive stuff, but not what I would call a broadly replicable success.

So on my visit with Mike, he took me to a school in Greensburg, Indiana. This was not a wealthy school; in fact, it was in an economically depressed area. A lot of parents lost their jobs in the past few years when the local plant shut down. Fairly typical story nowadays, it seems.

As we drove out to Greensburg, Mike told me the story of how he came to believe that open source in general was *the* solution to the "computers in education" problems in his state. He told me about how Microsoft was squeezing him at every turn, and yet how the computers he had were sorely underutilized. He really explained to me, for the first time, the ideas around one-to-one computing -- and why open source is ideally positioned to make one-to-one a reality in his state.


I was expecting Mike to take me to a computer lab. Instead, he took me to an English class.

The kids filtered in, chitchatting like kids do. When the bell rang, the teacher directed their attention to the URL she'd written on the board. The kids turned on the monitors mounted underneath their plexiglass-covered desks, fired up their web browsers, and got to work.

The URL was a Moodle quiz. Something about "The Red Badge of Courage" or something, I don't remember. (As so often in my school days, I wasn't paying attention to that bit.) But the kids were done with the quiz in, oh, five minutes. When they were all done, the teacher started to teach her class. The kids would occasionally Google something. The teacher had a supernatural instinct about which kids were working on class-related stuff and which kids were fooling around, and kept the class pretty well in line.

I talked to her after class. "Moodle and Criterion have saved my life," she said. "I used to spend hours grading papers and quizzes. Now, Moodle takes care of the quizzes, and Criterion grades the papers for spelling and grammar so I can focus on the content. This software saves me 10 hours a week -- which I spend building the actual curriculum."

When I asked her about how she created the content, she said "oh, I get help from the other English teachers; we build the lesson plans together." Whereupon Mike Huffman broke in and told me that this was one of the first lessons he'd learned: the absolute necessity of collaboration. When Mike put *one* lab into a school, that lab failed. The teacher was intimidated by the technology, wouldn't ask for help, and the computers would sit unused. But when he put *three* labs into a school, the labs prospered; the teachers compared notes, learned from each other, and ultimately took fierce ownership of these fantastic new tools they'd been given.

The next day, I went to the symposium for the teachers in the state of Indiana, and heard similarly breathless stories. I heard from a teacher of *twenty-five years* who said that her one-to-one lab changed her mind about taking early retirement. "I can focus on actual teaching now," she said.

The common wisdom that old teachers can't adopt technology is clearly wrong. If you give smart teachers the tools to do their jobs, they will use those tools. In fact, the veteran teachers will be *more* effective than the younger teachers, because they've got the classroom management skills to make it work. I've seen the proof.


All of this tells me that a lot of folks have been selling the whole "computers in schools" concept completely wrong. In Indiana, they are not, not, *not teaching computers*. They are teaching *kids*, and they are *using* computers to do it. It seems like an arbitrary distinction, but it is in fact a *fundamental* distinction -- and it's a distinction that so many people seem to miss. Until very recently, myself included. Sometimes you have to see these things firsthand to understand the impact.

So why don't teachers embrace technology? The common "wisdom" goes something like this:

"How can you expect a teacher to learn all this computer stuff when they've got all this other work to do, like grading papers?"

When the success stories go more like this:

"How can you expect a teacher *not* to learn all this computer stuff so they stop wasting their time on grunt work, like grading papers?"

He goes on to ask, "What role should Red Hat play here?"

This is on a fairly K12LTSP-focused mailing list, so the responses are, well, fairly K12LTSP-focused. I find it to be weird question, considering Red Hat is currently leading the software development for the most innovative, paradigm-busting project in educational computing in the past decade, if not ever. I would tend to think their role should be to make that software work. If it doesn't we'll all be able to return to our hopeless little desktop paradigm until it is time to retire.

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