Viewpoint

'The Times They Are A-Changin' – Dylan Got It Right!

In 1981, the year I left the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Sun Microsystems co-founder John Gage proclaimed that “The network is the computer.” Ripe from my experience at PARC, I had been using the prototype of the Internet for some time for everything from sending messages to printing documents at remote locations and even for playing games (only after hours, of course). Once I entered the real outside world, reality hit hard. Using a modem connected to a regular phone line, I could send and receive data at a whopping 300 bits per second.  Whoop de do! As William Gibson opined, “The future has arrived, it just isn't equally distributed.”

Against this context, Gage's proclamation seemed bizarre to all but those few who had broadband. But, even then, broadband was a joke by today's standards. The PARC ethernet zipped along at 3 megabits per second — and that was just for getting data from one room to another in the same building. The 1981 “Internet” zipped along at a whopping 56 kb/sec. Only in the late 1980's did the speed move to the megabit range and beyond.

In any case, the idea that the network was the computer stuck with me.

Fast forward to 1992 when Marc Andreessen at the University of Illinois modified the interface for a text-based research tool called the World Wide Web so it could display images (and other media) as well. This “browser,” Mosaic, was shown at an event in San Francisco in 1993 and I recall saying that, if the network is the computer, the browser is the operating system. Actually, what I thought was that the browser would be the user interface sitting on top of Linux where mundane tasks like access to keyboards, displays, mice and other gewgaws would be handled. When I presented this idea in a speech, the K-12 education world was still using dialup modems — or (more likely) had no online access at all.

No standing ovation that day!

But time keeps moving, and today we have wireless broadband in most schools. And, in 2011, Google announced the Chromebook — an inexpensive computer based on the Chrome Browser, sitting on top of Linux, as I predicted 18 years before.

You're welcome.

To say that Chromebooks are popular in schools is an understatement.  Seemingly overnight, Chromebooks have leapt to the K-12 forefront in the US with 51 percent of the market share, leaving Apple and Microsoft in the dust. And, the pace isn't slowing down, with 30,000 new Chromebooks being installed in US schools every day.

This is all well and good, but so what? Just because some new trend emerges on the scene doesn't mean it will be used for the betterment of education. The recent romance with tablets proves the point. It seems like everyone jumped on the tablet bandwagon without asking the relevant question: What worthwhile activities did this technology support that couldn't be done before? As I've said on numerous occasions, if you implement the wrong technology, the only thing that changes is your electric bill. Consider interactive whiteboards, for example. What amazing new thing did this technology support that couldn't be done with a regular, non-electronic, whiteboard? For example, did the interactive whiteboard support a transition to a more student-centered teaching, or did it reinforce the model of the teacher standing in the front of the classroom — a pedagogical practice that we've known to be a failure since the 1300's?

So now we have our Chromebooks. The price is right, they are versatile, and they provide a gateway to lots of cloud-based applications. (Of course, on the downside, they require a lot of bandwidth. Students relying on these devices in a low-bandwidth climate may as well try to suck peanut butter up a soda straw.)

But, as Bob Dylan said, "The times they are a-changin'." If all you could do with Chromebooks is work with the Google Apps for Education, I'd say that we had a long way to go. But, with the huge popularity of these devices, developers are scrambling to add powerful creative tools that help build an environment for student-centered education.

For example, the programming language Snap comes in a Chromebook version that plays well with the Arduino hardware. I'm currently using this tool to help kids design and build their own Cubesats — small satellites that can be placed in orbit 450 kilometers above the planet where they can gather data and send it back to Earth. Of course, the Cubesats students make in our workshops don't get launched (yet), but a company named Ardusat has a bunch of satellites in orbit right now on which kids are doing projects that would have been Ph.D. work a decade ago — and this is all controlled and accessed by Chromebooks.

But, of course, there will be even more cool stuff coming onto our radar screens. Our task as educators is to look past the glitz to find how our new tools will transform education in wonderful ways.

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