[This is Post 3 for my guest blogging stint at The Des Moines Register.]

Archimedes said "Give me a lever long enough and I can move the world." This week I am blogging about 5 key levers that I think are necessary to move Iowa schools forward and help our graduates survive and thrive in this new digital, global age in which we now live. Yesterday I discussed online learning opportunties for students. Today's post concerns providing a computer for every student.

It is hard to believe that the personal computer is nearly three decades old. Our computing devices have come a long way in that time and they now permeate nearly every aspect of our personal and professional lives. At the individual level, this movement has been driven by mobile computers and phones, wireless access, and the rise of the Internet. Every generation of computers seems to be smaller, cheaper, faster, and more powerful than the one before. Every new device or online service allows us to do things more efficiently, more effectively, or that we never could do before. And of course the pace of change is quite brisk.

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As a result, it's extremely difficult to find a well-paying job in America these days that doesn't involve significant use of digital technologies. Unlike other sectors of our society, however, our schools still view the use of computers as a marginal add-on, as something that's optional rather than essential to the everyday core of teaching and learning. Our schools still pretend that it's an analog paper world rather than a networked digital world.

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This has got to stop. We have to stop believing that we can adequately prepare graduates for a technology-suffused world by immersing them in paper-suffused learning environments. We have to look critically at student-computer ratios in schools – which mask the reality that most computers belong to teachers or are in labs – and ask a different question instead: On average, how much time per week do students get to use digital technologies as part of their classroom learning? The answer to this question is dismally low in almost every Iowa classroom.

There are a number of reasons for the lack of technology-facilitated learning opportunities in our K-12 schools. One is funding, of course. I recently did some back-of-the-envelope calculations for Iowa's Institute for Tomorrow's Workforce. At $300/year, the costs each year to provide a laptop to the 480,000 students in Iowa would be:

213,000 K-5 students = $63.9 million
114,000 6–8 students = $34.2 million
153,000 9–12 students = $45.9 million

These numbers look daunting, particularly given difficult economic times. But it is possible to do this by sharing the cost between state monies and school districts' general funds, levies, and referenda. Other potential ways to reduce costs include, but are not limited to:

  • utilizing federal or grant monies,
  • leasing instead of buying,
  • purchasing netbooks instead of laptops,
  • allowing students to bring in their own laptops,
  • making use of the mobile computers that most students bring to school every day (i.e., their cell phones), and/or
  • only purchasing laptops for economically-disadvantaged students.

In the end, we have to balance the costs of doing this versus the costs of NOT doing this.

In addition to funding, numerous other challenges exist as well. One of the biggest is the current predisposition of schools to invest in teacher-centric technologies like televisions, DVD/VCR players, projectors, electronic whiteboards, and document cameras. They're important and useful but they're also primarily used as yet another way for teachers to push out information to students. In contrast, laptops, netbooks, digital cameras, small high-definition camcorders, digital voice recorders, webcams, digital scientific probes or sensors, and other devices are primarily used by students to facilitate their own academic learning. If we want Iowa students to gain the technology skills they will need to be productive citizens and workers, schools should be making as many investments in these latter, student-centric devices as possible. There also are a number of free or low-cost online software and tools that students and teachers can use in creative and productive ways.

Another large barrier to students' technology usage is teachers' inability to effectively implement digital tools into their instruction. One of the dirty secrets of K-12 educational technology is that many of the computing devices that already have been purchased are rarely used. This may occur because of teachers' lack of training; most educators need a lot more help in this area. Or it may occur because of a lack of adequate technology support, which results in teachers inability to rely on the technology actually working when they do decide to use it. Or it may occur because of teachers' outright refusal to integrate technology because of lack of interest or comfort.

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Other barriers include the often-draconian Internet filtering systems that are in place in most schools, the increased pressure on schools' Internet bandwidth capacity from additional computing devices, and the lack of adequate wireless and/or electrical capacity in many of Iowa's school buildings.

The state of Maine provides laptops to 36,000 students and 11,000 educators (at a cost of just under $300/head, which is the basis of my calculations above). The New South Wales province in Australia has announced that it will be purchasing 197,000 laptops for its secondary students. A number of schools and districts across the country (and a few in Iowa) are piloting or implementing 1:1 laptop programs for students. It is these graduates, who have had the opportunity to regularly utilize in productive ways the same technologies that the adult world uses, who will be best prepared for a digital society.

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Chris Lehmann, Principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, notes that technology in schools should be like oxygen: ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible. This is how technology is in adult workplaces. Can you imagine how unproductive you would be in your job if you had to schedule a time next Thursday for 45 minutes in order to use the computer (as teachers now have to do for students to use the lab(s) in their schools)?

There will be a day when we look back and realize how foolish it was that we waited so long to get a computing device into every student's hands 24–7. Until that day, however - until we find the collective will to enable Iowa students to productively utilize in their schools the technologies that are transforming our society - they will continue to be disadvantaged compared to their more fortunate counterparts in other states or countries.

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