It’s a Vision Thing

##AUTHORSPLIT##<--->Our own politicians could learn a lot from the forward-thinking effortsbeing made internationally to reform education.

NICHOLAS NEGROPONTE CERTAINLY has been getting a lot of exposure these days, both in the national and international press and at conferences—most recently at the National Educational Computing Conference in San Diego. And deservedly so. A founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, Negroponte is now sharing his vision of a low-cost computing device that can be used to transform education and eventually the economies of third-world nations. His determination to turn that powerful idea into a working prototype, and to get United Nations Secretary- General Kofi Annan to buy into it, is most worthy of attention. One Laptop per Child, the nonprofit association set up to support Negroponte’s vision, is a clear, encapsulated expression ofthat vision.

Policy & Advocacy

IDEA MAN: Negroponte (right) conceived of the
One Laptop per Child initiative as a way to bring
technology to children in third-world regions.

I had the opportunity to see the prototype up close at the recent EduStat conference, hosted by SchoolNet in New York City. Walter Bender, president of software and content for OLPC, was eloquent in his account of the evolution of the device, and in his descriptionof Negroponte’s goals.

One Laptop per Child is not alone in its efforts. Mexico’s President Vicente Fox announced that his nation will team with Intel to provide PCs to 300,000 Mexican school teachers. In addition, Intel says it is investing more than $1 billion over the next five years in a program “to speed access to uncompromised technology and education for people in the world’s developing communities.” The company wants to extend broadband PC access to third-world users while training 10 million more teachers in the use of technology in education. (The plan includes a low-cost—around $400—PC.)

Microsoft is getting involved too. It has been working on its own “low-cost” gadget, code-named Origami, which may come out in the next year. Project Inkwell is working on a similar tool, and AMD has already rolled out its Personal Internet Communicator, an affordable device aimed at first-time technology users that includes a lower-power, lower-performance processor and comes with only a basic version of Windows. AMD says giving conventional computers to schools in some developing regions often is unproductive because conventional computers are too complex for novice users to run and maintain. Not to be overlooked among all these plans, prototypes, and pronouncements is a piece of hardware that actually is being shipped and used in schools—the Nova5000 from Fourier Systems. It runs on Windows CE, has a seven-inch, touch-sensitive color display and handwriting recognition software, and weighs 2.4 pounds with battery. Fourier has a number of partners providing software and services for the Nova5000, which is being distributed by Dell, CDW-G, and Ingram Micro.

But aside from the Nova5000, the issue of the distribution of these devices in this country is plainly absent from the discussion. Last time I checked, we were at a 3.8-to-1 student-tocomputer ratio nationwide. We also are sorely lacking in national leadership. President Bush recommended zero dollars for educational technology in his latest budget, and the current appropriations bill in the House of Representatives also eliminates ed tech funding. Our primary hope rests with the Senate, where wiser folks often prevail.

President Bush recommended zero dollars for educational technology in his latest budget, and the current House appropriations bill also eliminates ed tech funding. Our primary hope rests with the Senate, where wiser folks often prevail.

One country that is not lacking for national leadership in education is Great Britain. Sir Michael Barber, now a partner in the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, was Tony Blair’s education adviser for a number of years, and he also spoke at EduStat 2006. Clearly and cogently, Barber described the reforms Britain put in place over the past few years and the results that are beginning to accrue. While I cannot do justice to Sir Michael’s entire talk, I can relate some key concepts.

Barber used a technology metaphor to describe the “systems view” the British took toward school reform. Officials looked at “hardware,” such as recurrent, reliable funding (they allotted three years of guaranteed funding at a time), physical capital (buildings, for example), human capital, etc. They also looked at “software” that is not as easily quantifiable, such as an educational ethos, high standards, and teacher quality. The “operating system” consisted of a trio of different models for reform: competition or market forces; performance management, including standards and tests; and capacity and collaboration building, especially by supporting teachers. Many reform efforts focus on only one of the three; Britain’s combined all three. As Barber said, “It is a matter of chemistry, not physics.”

It’s important to support teachers and build their capacity, but it’s also important to know how well students are doing (performance management). Competition in the form of choice, open enrollment, and easy market entry and exit provides a little pressure for schools and allows parents to vote with their feet. Successful reform combines pressure and support. If there is too much pressure without support, everyone feels neglected and demoralized. If there is too much support and no pressure, complacency sets in.

The support that the British government has provided has come on many levels, including: drawing up a three-year budget (as opposed to our yearly budget); raising teacher pay by more than 15 percent since 2000; increasing the number of support staff; investing in school buildings; and—please note, colleges and universities—broadening the supply route for teachers by trying to attract people from other professions. While Barber did not speak specifically about technology, Keith Kruger, executive director of the Consortium for School Networking, pointed out that Britain is making a huge investment in ed tech.

The British education system is very different from ours. The UK has a national curriculum, for example, and school reform on a national basis is a much easier undertaking. Still, Sir Michael’s comments rang true for me, and should be instructive for US schools, districts, and states. We can learn a lot from what the Brits have done.

Likewise, we can learn a lot from the vision of the people at One Laptop per Child and apply it nationwide. Empowering students with technology—whether a $100 machine, a $400 machine, or a $1,000 machine—is not only effective but also necessary. Our vision should be one that imagines changing schools to ensure students get the best possible education, an education appropriate for both the time we live in now and for what is in store for these kids in the future.

Tell that to the people in Washington, DC, the majority of whom seem to lack vision for our students and for our country’s future.

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is editor-at-large of T.H.E. Journal and executive director of T.H.E. Institute.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.