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EdTech Update





The $100 Laptop and the Mouse Army

If you follow technology news at all, you are probably aware that Nicolas Negroponte went very public with M.I.T.’s $100 laptop project at last week’s Emerging Technologies Conference.

This remarkable device is wireless, uses static memory, can be cranked to provide power, is built for durability and will run open-source software. Just what I’ve been clamoring for (and predicting – see Turning the Page: E-books and their impact on libraries, School Library Journal, November 2004).

Yeah, I’d be delighted if I could provide such contraptions to all my Mankato students. But we are not the target market for them. Negroponte wants to offer them (by the millions) to students in developing countries - Brazil, China, Egypt, South Africa and Thailand are supposedly already on board.

With this announcement, Neal Stephenson’s science fiction book The Diamond Age is proving once again eerily prescient. (I just love it when science fiction does that!) Set in a future Hong Kong, Stephenson’s world is Neo-Victorian, thoroughly stratified by class. It has also mastered nanotechnologies and an amazing “e-book” A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer has been compiled for the daughter of a very rich industrialist. A copy of the book falls into the hands of an Oliver-Twistian young woman, who uses its educational powers to survive a terrifying childhood.

What I had forgotten until re-reading the book recently was that lots of copies of the Primer were made and given to a group of the most dispossessed members of Diamond Age society – unwanted Chinese girls, abandoned at birth and raised in an orphanage. Using the power of this e-book, they too are able to learn and become a political and physical force – The Mouse Army.

It’s my sense that Negroponte with his $100 laptop project has the same goal – to create great Mouse Armies of the world’s disposed, disrupting the political structures in which the few, rich and powerful rule over the many, poor and powerless. If that is his aim, I’m all for it.

While I have grown terribly cynical about the ability of politics, religion or science to solve major world problems, I still believe in the power of education to end poverty, violence, and depredation of natural resources. I still hold Horatio Alger’s advice close – that through the dint of hard work, good moral character, and perseverance, anyone can lift him/herself out of poverty. But I would have to add “through on-going education” to Alger’s success formula. I see little hope for this world except in creating a better-educated population.

Mr. Negroponte, I hope you create many, many Mouse Armies.


1 Comment »
I feel compelled to incite the Mouse Armies. I could see some wonderful blogs going with this. I have been following with great interest this $100 laptop phenom. Whenever I demonstrate a cool website, I give my 3rd and 4th graders nifty business card sized papers and remind them that they can go to the public library and look up this FOR FREE! Many of my students from non-English backgrounds are introducing their parents to “cool sites” based on these tiny cards. Unobtrusive, looks like everybody elses and useful. Sounds like a winner.

Comment by Diane Chen — October 1, 2005 @ 2:42 pm


Turtles, Turtles, Turtles, All the Way Down

Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time tells the story of a cosmologist whose speech is interrupted by a little old lady who informs him that the universe rests on the back of a turtle. Ah, yes, madame, the scientist replies, but what does the turtle rest on? The old lady shoots back: You can’t trick me, young man. It’s nothing but turtles, turtles, turtles, all the way down. - George Will

When I was teaching in the ARAMCO schools in Saudi, I was told the story about a plane crash in the early days of oil exploration. On learning of the accident, the oil company asked King Saud if it could go and examine the crash site to see if it could determine its cause. King Saud denied the request, simply stating it was the will of Allah. “We agree,” said the oil company employee. “We just want to see how Allah did it.”

I was reminded of this story while listening to the speaker at last night’s Minnesota Coalition For Intellectual Freedom dinner. Our guest was Lisa Westberg Peters, the author of the children’s book Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story. She related how a number of (suburban) Minneapolis area schools have cancelled her author talks, citing fears of parental reaction to her work. A damn sad state of affairs in Minnesota, a state that has always prided itself on its intellect. Or as Garrison Keillor puts it, “..people (in Minnesota) avoid stupidity when possible, not wanting to be a $10 haircut on a 50 cent head.” (Another sad sign was the turn out of only 38 people at last night’s dinner.)

Personally, I have absolutely no problem with the teaching of either evolution or intelligent design (or the theory of Intelligent Falling, for that matter.) in the public schools, so long as evolution is taught in the science classroom and intelligent design is taught in the comparative religion classes or in social studies units looking at current controversies. The mission of the public school educator is not to create belief in any one system, but to give children the tools to formulate their own beliefs. And in order for this to happen, of course, kids need access to lots of points of views on lots of different issues and a method for analyzing the credibility, reliability, and potential bias of those advancing a view.

Librarians (or at least those with backbones) have long upheld the principles of intellectual freedom, but we need to do a better job teaching the rest of the educational community (including techies) about IF’s sometimes difficult precepts. And that kids who are thinkers, not believers, should be the product of our schools.

Oh, the inscription from Lisa Peters in the copy of her book I bought for my grandson reads, “Paul, Thank God you’ve evolved since your grandfather. – Lisa.”

1 Comment »
An embattled author with a good sense of humor! How refreshing and hopeful, Sara

Comment by Sara — September 29, 2005 @ 8:09 pm

Rules for Pod People and a Proposal for Banning Pencils

Ex abusu non arguitur in usum. (The abuse of a thing is no argument against its use.)

One of the goals this year of our district tech advisory committee is to formulate guidelines for student-owned technologies. At yesterday’s meeting, I thought we’d start with an “easy” set of rules to create – those for the use of iPods and MP3 players. What possible reason could a school have for banning these things?

Well, I got a list (and earful) from the teachers and librarians on the committee…
  1. They might get stolen.
  2. They make kids who can’t afford them feel bad.
  3. Kids might listen to them instead of the teacher.
  4. Who knows what kinds of lyrics that the kids might be listening to!
  5. Kids might listen to test answers (There’s a stretch.)

Oh, sure, kids might use them to help them study, replay their French vocab lesson, or listen to audio books or an NPR broadcast – but really, what’s the chance of that?

The underlying argument was because of possible misuse, they should be banned - period.

(One of our students on the advisory board had the courage to say that he felt individual teachers should have the right to say whether iPods should be allowed in their classrooms, and added that he concentrates better in study hall and the library when his music drowns out other distractions.)

I gotta say that this “potential misuse” as a reason for banning technologies drives me nuts. If we applied this rationale for not allowing a technology to an old, familiar technology, we’d certainly have to ban pencils from school because:
  1. A student might poke out the eye of another student.
  2.  A student might write a dirty word with one. Or even write a whole harassing note and pass it to another student.
  3. One student might have a mechanical pencil making those with wooden ones feel bad.
  4. The pencil might get stolen or lost.
  5. Kids might be doodling instead of working on their assignments.

Oh, sure, kids might actually use them to take notes or compose a paper - but really, what’s the chance of that?

I cringe whenever I hear a district or school “banning” cell phones, blogging software, e-mail, flash drives, chat, game sites, etc. Each of these technologies has positive educational uses. Each of these technologies is a big part of many kids’ lives outside of school. And yes, each of these technologies has the “potential” for misuse.

One of my biggest worries has always been that by denying access to technologies that students find useful and meaningful within school, we make school less and less relevant to our Net Genners. When are we going to learn to use the kids devices for their benefit rather than invent excuses to outlaw them?

Is there a sensible policy for iPod use?
Doug, we did have an incident with an iPod during midterms last year (girl hid the wires with her long hair and sweatshirt), and she *was* listening to answers. I think that iPods can add value to a learning environment, but should be banned during exams because they can provide a cheat sheet (or whatever we’re calling the modern equivalent!).

Pencils, on the other hand, could lead to pens and markers and should just be burned before they enter a school building.

Comment by Laura — September 29, 2005 @ 5:31 am

A “study hall only at the discretion of the teacher” policy is rather reasonable. Cell phones off and not seen is also reasonable. Kids (and their parents) who know the rules, are bringing expensive electronic equipment to school, and then don’t follow the rules for them and then gripe about it are NOT reasonable. Teachers who only sit at their desk during exams are following the “don’t do dumb things” rule…Laura’s teacher who caught the student with the iPod was probably paying attention.

Comment by Sara — September 29, 2005 @ 7:01 am

The whole ipod thing is just another silly thing that schools like to band. I for one like to listen to music when I’m reading or doing work. But can we have portable cd player no why cause it might get stolen or you listen to music that has cusing in it. Anything can be dangeruos or stolen or used like library books, desk, the teachers telphone that they use to call the office those are just some things. If you bring it to school then that is asking to get stolen and you now that so why band anything in the first place. Example for anything bieng a wapon my friend hit a person with his bag because that person was saying they were a fairy so he swung his bag and hit that preson. So see bags should band too

Comment by Alex Wilcox — September 29, 2005 @ 12:06 pm

We are concerned about students and They are putting out way too much information about themselves including age (under 15) location, school and private pictures, often revealing.
What do you think about this. Myspace is blocked at school, but in my freshman orientations I find about a 3rd of our students having accounts in my space.

Comment by Adam Janowski — September 29, 2005 @ 5:05 pm

First, the cell phones “off and not heard or seen” reminds me of my classroom gum chewing policy - you can chew all the gum you want so long as I don’t see it, hear it, smell it. Seemed to work.

Adam’s question is a good one. My sense is that Adam’s school is losing a lot of “teachable moments” by denying access to myspace - chances to talk about the dangers of revealing too much information online. Who counsels and coaches when kids access this space from home? Doesn’t sound like parents are. Kids WILL have access to these tools. Don’t we have an obligation to help them use it safely rather than simply blocking it and saying “it’s not my problem?”

Comment by Doug Johnson — September 29, 2005 @ 8:18 pm

I think you have the cart before the horse here. Could you first set down any educational reasons FOR having these devices in a school?
Also, in reviewing your opening list of “objections” I could not find ONE that has not already occurred at our school! I see these tech toys in the same category as Matchbox Cars, hacky sacks and Game Boys … they go into backpacks when entering the building, get locked into lockers, and may be taken out to play with on the way out of the building. Jon

Comment by jon elliott — October 3, 2005 @ 7:23 am

Hi Jon,

You make an excellent point. The constructive uses of any technology should be considered before looking at a ban. Apparently, Princeton U must have done so before giving iPods to all its incoming freshman. (Although I’ve heard this has been scaled back.

How are these (from The Digital Backpack, Threshold, Fall 2005)

- Record and playback teacher instructions
- Download a foreign-language broadcast or NASA science lesson
- Listen while reading to improve comprehension
- Help focus in a noisy room
- Compare recordings of a musical selection
- Store portfolio

I appreciate your comment and perspective,


Comment by Doug Johnson — October 3, 2005 @ 8:00 am

Lest we forget that the iPod is like any other mass storage device? In addition to music, DATA files can not only be listened to, but read outright during exams. My feeling is they don’t belong in an exam environment — and probably not in most classroom situations.

Proprietary right/responsibility to the distibution of educational data and, perhaps most importantly, it’s medium, is a great big bug-a-boo in the years to come!

Comment by Kelley Lanahan — October 4, 2005 @ 8:27 pm

Schools’ knee-jerk reaction to ban any new technology that students understand better than administration, is reflective of other authoritarian groups’ responses to perceived threats. This uproar reminded me of the lawsuit brought by Universal and Disney against Sony Corp over the legality of the Betamax. The Supreme Court was asked to impound all Betamax VCRs as tools of “piracy”. As we all know, the court decided not to outlaw the machines, and schools, not to mention movie studios, have certainly benefited from the many legal and positive uses of this technology. Like with all technology, not to mention everything else in life, it’s a matter of selecting the right tools and using them appropriately.


Comment by annette — October 7, 2005 @ 11:54 am

I completely agree that CD players and IPODs should be allowed in schools during certain times. I listen to mine during study and I have found that I get my work done much faster and dont notice the outside world much. The kids I know are smart enough not to listen to music during a class. I think that it should be up to the teachers. I mean, listen to the way we kids talk anyway. we dont speak nicely at all to eachother. So us listening to music with supposed bad lyrics isnt bad. At least kids dont play it out loud. Should schools ban singing in class too?? Because I happen to sing in class when Im bored. Cd players and IPODs take up downtime. After a test or quiz when we still cant move or talk, you pull out music and you wont be talking to people around you. It just doesnt make sense to ban them.

Comment by Katie — October 24, 2005 @ 3:00 pm