Monthly Archives: September 2011

A Lack of Critical Thinking

I’m a bit frustrated and discouraged at the general lack of critical thinking taking place in educational technology today.

I’ll give you a couple examples, and I’m sure some people will take the opportunity to disagree with me. Which is good. Because it will provide evidence both for and against why I’m frustrated.

I know I’ve been talking a lot about netbooks lately. Many people have responded to this post I wrote a while back, and I still think it’s an important conversation to have. Because some people are way too caught up in a device that costs way too much to do way too little for our students. Let me break this down.

First of all, people who have responded or written back about this topic saying my focus is too device-centric are wrong and didn’t take the time to read what I said at the outset of the article above. Our goals for our students are to empower them to learn how to learn. We want them immersed in experiences that will afford them the opportunity to develop their skills of critical thinking, problem solving, written and oral communication, collaboration, and creativity. The coined “21st century skills.” And, of course, we want them to continue building a solid foundation of general knowledge. That’s what we want. Now, how do we get there?

When I talk about a netbook running Linux, many people lose their minds. Because it’s not an Apple device. We are getting our HP 1103 for $267. That’s a total cost. We are running ubermix with over 50 applications. The software is rock solid. If something happens to the software on the device, it has a quick restore function that allows us to restore the machine to its original state in less than 20 seconds, while still keeping all the student files. It has full access to the web, and by full access I mean it runs everything like Flash and a completely native and full Google Apps experience that requires no work arounds. It has full access to all cloud services we utilize with students. It has a web cam. It has the LibreOffice suite, along with a wide variety of other applications for a wide variety of uses. It runs Audacity for students to create podcasts. It has a light-weight video editor. You can save and share files from a USB key. It has Scratch to help kids learn problem solving and programming. It has over 6 hours of battery life, and it wakes immediately from sleep. It presents a real, immersive means to address all the 21st century skills we are aiming at.

But, it’s not an Apple. Which some people just can’t stand. I’ve had the same conversations over and over on this, and I just don’t get it. Because people are convinced that spending at least $500 for an iPad, plus the cost of apps, to have a machine that actually does less overall, is the right thing to do. And I know there are many free apps out there, but many of the valuable apps teachers want to use with students come at a cost. Again, let’s review the purpose of why we are selecting a device. Look at that list above. Yes, an iPad can do many of those things, but the netbook can address those skills just as well, and I’d say better, than an iPad can. And, the students are in complete control of the device. They have full admin rights. They aren’t restricted to the experience that we (or Apple) are dictating for them. The netbook is still a better writing experience both for the speed and accuracy of typing and the experience of moving between applications when composing. If the solution to the speed and accuracy issue is to buy the keyboard for the iPad, you can add another $70 to your cost.

So, let’s think critically, and let’s focus on students in grades 3-8 for the exercise. Because as stated above, I do think the iPad is a wonderful device for primary age students, but the netbook is the stronger option for grades 3-8.

You can have a device for $267 that does more to accomplish the goals above, is easier to manage, is easier to maintain, is cheaper to own, and allows students to entirely experiment and learn how to operate. Or, you can have a device for twice the cost that is the opposite. Now before you melt down entirely, yes, I do think the iPad is a compelling device. It’s just not the right tool for the total cost, experience, and goals as set out above.

Let me give another example. MacBooks. I’ve had the same conversation as the one above, only substitute the MacBook for the iPad. At a cost of around $800 for the unit, plus the cost of software licensing, and possibly Apple Care, we’ll assume an average cost of $900. In fact, that is the figure that Jeff Mao states is the price that Maine paid for their MacBooks in a recent refresh of their 1:1. That means for the price of one MacBook, you can get 3.3 netbooks. Let’s discuss.

One quick point of clarification. I think Apple makes incredible hardware. I would rather have my iPhone than any other phone on the market right now. My MacBook Pro is an amazing machine that I love using for video and photo work. I say that to negate the “you’re just an Apple hater” argument. That’s not what this conversation is about. It’s about thinking deeply about what we’re making available to our students and how we are being fiscally responsible in our process.

So, thinking deeply, the netbook allows students to do 90% of what a MacBook can do. At 1/3 the price. That’s important. Because it demonstrates that 90% of the time students would have more machine than they need. So, if we can accomplish the goals stated above 90% of the time with a $267 device, why would we do otherwise? The most immediate response to that question is multimedia work. I agree with that. Video work, in particular, is a much better experience on a MacBook. And, I absolutely want our students to be creating using video. So, we provide two carts of MacBooks at our elementary buildings and six carts of MacBooks at our middle school that teachers can check out when they want to do heavier multimedia projects. We do this understanding that kids aren’t spending the majority of their time on the devices creating videos. If they are, something is wrong with your curriculum.

Let’s break this down a bit further. For our middle school, we have approximately 1,060 students. Equipping each student with a MacBook would be $954,000. Equipping each student with a netbook is $283,020. That’s a difference of $670,980. Is the 10% of what a netbook can’t do worth $670,980? As mentioned, we have six carts of MacBooks at our middle school that are available for projects. These carts were purchased prior to our 1:1 implementation, but even if they hadn’t been, we could have purchased them, with the carts, for $172,000. That would still leave us $498,980. That is a significant figure.

So, people who are telling me that a MacBook is still the right device for this scenario, I really need to see some critical thought in a rationale that justifies that difference. Because we can accomplish all the goals at a fraction of the cost by using a 1:1 netbook and several checkout carts of MacBooks.

And just because this is already a silly-long post. Let’s hit one more example. Device control.

A tech director shared recently that they force all the schools in their district to lock down their student computers to the degree that students can’t change the desktop background or modify the location of any applications. He said they do this because it liberates the teacher. And that’s all backward. Because we want to liberate the students. We give our students full admin control of their netbooks to actually learn how the device works. We encourage them to experiment and get creative and find out what makes the thing work. If they mess it up, we have the quick 20 second restore to get them back up and running. Isn’t that the kind of inquiry we’ve been seeking for our students? Don’t we want them to have ownership over the device? We talk a lot about problem solving and innovation, yet we lock down one of the best conduits to authentically learn these kinds of skills? I don’t get that at all.

So, that’s where I’m at. I know many people are doing great things with iPads and MacBooks and even full laptops running Windows, but I’d argue you could do all those great things at a fraction of the cost with a system that will be more effective and allow students more freedom in their learning.

And, I would imagine, a couple of you might disagree.

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