Sunday, June 03, 2007

Cell Phones or Laptops; Private or Public Networks?

When we talk about educational uses for cell phones in schools, aren't we just compensating for the inadequacy of a school's IT resources? To be sure, the entire school IT industry has in the aggregate been a profound failure in very concrete ways. Indiana isn't the only state that has found itself doing the equivalent of spending a billion dollars to give each kid a half-hour a week in front of a computer in school, to paraphrase Mike Huffman's pitch. In 2007 if a student needs to take a photo in class for a project and upload it to the web, he or she shouldn't need to pull out a personal cell phone. The school should provide these resources. It ought to be basic stuff by this point.

"Given the failure of school IT market, how do we move forward?" is an essential question that underlies the discourse of educational technology in the US, but is rarely if ever stated or understood. Saying "it is not about the technology" is a cop out, when the technology has been a failure. Spending our way out of this mess, pouring more money into the same approaches, seems unlikely to those of us facing large budget deficits on the local, state and federal levels. To me, embracing cell phone usage represents capitulation. We will simply give up on providing publicly funded computing resources attached to our (already well built out) publicly funded network, and let each student use a personal device to connect through a proprietary network.

You probably already know by now that the way forward I advocate is robust, inexpensive hardware (be it laptops or thin clients) and free software written and supported by a global network of governments, academia, hackers and commercial vendors. At this particular historical moment, these elements are coming together, but whether they will be successful in the market still remains to be seen. Certainly, every little bit of advocacy helps.

So to me, promoting cell phone use in schools is, with apologies to Scott McLeod, dangerously irrelevant. If cell phone usage was embraced by schools, what would we gain? Students working on a hodge-podge of closed, proprietary, mostly incompatible platforms, noted as a class for their dreadful usability, usually with incomplete and/or inconsistent wireless reception throughout the building, provided by notoriously bad actors, known not for innovating but for keeping the US far behind other countries. Plus the whole idea of putting students in a situation where they may be paying to access information through a private network while in a public school is distasteful.

Now, it may be the case that we can have it all, and advocating for private technology use won't distract or detract from the goal of free, public resources for all students, but I worry.

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