Alexandria Online

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Define "Technology" at the Waldorf School in Silicon Valley

In the Sunday NYTimes today there is an article about a Waldorf School in Silicon Valley that has no computers in the lower grades.

The cover picture -- front page of the times and pretty big too -- is of a school girl lying on her back, legs dangling over the table, reading a book.

What she holds in her hands is a technology. It is a codex. If she were reading a scroll she would not be able to lie on her back like that; she would have to sit at the table and unroll the scroll on the table to read it. She would not be able to go back and forth to reread sections very easily.

In addition, it is a printed codex and not a manuscript. We all know about that revolution.

Once upon a time, the printing press and the codex were brand new technologies. They were resisted by traditionalists and extolled by enthusiasts. Now these technologies are invisible.

Printed codexes never fail. Only once or twice in my life have I encountered a defective book -- one where the pages were somehow messed up or bound in the wrong order. Paper and pencils never seem to fail either. Nor do knitting needles and wool, as mentioned in the article.

It may be that the element of failure itself defines what is technology and what is not.

On my kitchen counter sits a black, bakelite, 1950's era, piece of technology that was once the property of Bell Telephone and leased to my grandmother until the '80's, when Ma Bell was broken into parts. Stamped in the thick metal base plate are the words, "BELL SYSTEM PROPERTY NOT FOR SALE." It was just another piece of equipment in Bell's network and it didn't belong to you any more than the telephone pole on the street belonged to you. Bell owned the whole network and made damned sure that it all worked the way it was supposed to.

Compare that to my iPhone 4s. SIRI, the voice recognition geni, is a remarkable achievement. David Pogue, technology editor  of the NYTimes, calls it "magic". And he is not easily pleased. And yet SIRI fails constantly. And that's not the only problem. I get dropped calls. The system hangs sometimes. The battery dies after a day's use. Facetime only works on wifi.

The rotary phone does not seem like a technology to us and yet the iPhone does.

Given the right economic conditions and technological advances, people will begin to see some of things they call technology today as simply the things they are. Online or digital educational resources will become invisible as technologies and the hard work of learning will be what it always has been, from learning the order of operations in arithmetic to writing long, complex arguments of literary analysis.

What used to belong to the world of technology will belong to you. It may say "Property of Bell" or "Apple" or "Intel inside", but it will be the property of the people.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

E-Textbooks: "They Always Take Longer Than You Think" -- Pooh

That's a quote from Winnie the Pooh as he plays "pooh sticks" with his friends, a game in which you throw sticks off a bridge into a stream on one side and run to the other side to watch them come out.

Today, in the New York Times, I read about a school district that uses digital resources to the exclusion of paper ones:

If you look back through this blog, you can see that it began pretty much at the same time as the original iPad came out in February of 2010. The Kindle had already been out for a year.

Two years later, I'm still seeing a lot of paper. At Episcopal, the usual pattern is that we still get the bound paper book but we also get access to online resources. The resources are not downloads; they are not like kindle books. So you must be connected to the internet all the time to access them. The teacher gets a master account and sets up accounts for all the kids to access the materials. Kids leave their paper books at home, study with them, mark them up, and use the online resources both at home and everywhere else.

I think it is just too scary for the multi-billion dollar educational textbook publishing complex to give up on a tangible product that they can charge serious money for in exchange for a flimsy contract over digital intellectual property that can easily be ripped off.

And yet, in Munster, Indiana, they are going all digital, with lots of problems, complaints and resistance.

As we continue looking at a one-to-one laptop program at Episcopal, having digital resources available in class and at home is a significant benefit, one that weighs heavily in our deliberations. Unlike the first wave of e-books, this generation is not going away any time soon. It's just taking longer than you'd think it would.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Halfway to E-books

Many classes at Episcopal use E-books. Sometimes. Everybody gets a bound paper book, but they also get access to the online version with supplementary materials. So lots of kids just leave their paper books home and access the online version when they need to at school.

We have a committee to study implementing a one-to-one laptop program at Episcopal right now. One of the things we are considering is the price of paper books versus the price of e-books. And the associated weight reduction.

There are definitely some savings to be had solely on the basis of switching to e-books.

If we do implement a one-to-one program, and if we do it right, we will be delivering an experience that is more like a lab and less like a lecture. And in this lab-like setting students may be more apt to reference the textbook from time to time, which will be right there on their screens. The bound paper book will be back home.