Our Students' Future May Sit in Their Laptops

The Philippines and Jamaica are eager to flood the United States with well-educated teachers, an MIT brainiac is ready to saturate the world's classrooms with bright orange $100 laptops, and I'm pondering why, during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, we saw young looters stealing televisions, not computers.

That thought sequence probably seems weird. It wouldn't if you'd been with me last week at the International Society for Technology in Education's synapse-overloading conference in San Diego.

Before I ask you to wrestle with the utopian and apocalyptic visions that futurists spouted at the conference, though, I invite you to spend a few paragraphs pretending you're between the ages of, say, 8 and 18.

I say "pretend" because you're clearly not. Newspaper readers just aren't. Young people aren't interested in reading my words in black type on paper or even on our still-newspapery School Me blog.

Nor are they (I mean, you) interested in copying the notes that teachers dutifully scrawl across the board each day. Don't protest. When the U.S. Department of Education asked you youngsters if you find school engaging or interesting, only 21% said yes.

That's why I want you with me, even with your plaid boxer shorts or black bra straps defiantly showing, as I shove my way through the hypercaffeinated throng of 12,000 or more teachers, superintendents and dudes with fancy titles like "state technology officer" from across the U.S. and at least 42 countries.

Push into the Convention Center arena featuring some 1,000 booths, and it's like trying to get to the Taj Mahal. From every direction, slick touts for Microsoft and the History Channel or inventors with chaotic eyebrows and "truly revolutionary" teaching robots attempt to infiltrate our fast-flickering attention spans.

Check out all the Orwellian hand-helds that empower a principal to stop that mopey goth kid in the hallway and instantly track down her grades and attendance record and then contact every friend she has listed on MySpace. (Just kidding on that last one, but wait.)

And whoa! Wouldn't you love to gaze at one of these huge, super-hi-def plasma screens or fully interactive white boards as your teacher reveals the complexity of a sand grain with Scope on a Rope, or shows your classmates the animated movie you made? See! The hideous mutant flying around has the principal's real face!

Finally, let's crawl into this small and dark dome tent and sit on the floor with a fat teacher while the salesman projects Jupiter's moons and Orion's belt and everything else in the universe on the walls and ceiling.

As you step back out, it's OK to become yourself again. The lecturing, after all, is addressed to those of us in the adult world. Most of the hundreds of seminars, round tables and panel discussions focus on practical pedagogy -- "How to Engage a Reluctant Reader by Leveraging Technology," for example -- but the philosophical undercurrents are sufficiently profound that a childless technophobe would be well-advised to pay attention.

What's happening, many here predict, is that the exponentially accelerating information availability made possible by the Web and tapped into with a plethora of powerful gadgets -- TiVos, iPods, etc. -- are changing the nature of how students learn.

Ian Jukes, the arm-flailing, globetrotting author and owner of the Committed Sardine edu-blog, talked, for instance, about how "disintermediation," or the ability to ingest information directly from primary sources, has moved power from producers (in this case traditional educators) to consumers (i.e., students and their parents).

We adults are paper-oriented in our learning. The kids now sitting in those little wood-and-steel desks are light-and-sound-oriented. They not only know where to find, in an instant, more information than their teacher could learn in a lifetime, but they absorb it in a flash and thump of video -- and know how to create and ship their own multimedia content around the globe.

Keynote speaker Nicholas Negroponte, a founder of MIT's Media Lab as well as Wired magazine, offered a glimpse of his controversial effort to give millions of poor kids worldwide a low-wattage, Web-linkable laptop at a cost of about $100 each.

What's even more radical than his distribution plan, however, is the education equation on which he's basing his initiative.

When his group hands out the first 5 million to 10 million machines next year, they will offer no curricula. Rather, they're counting on students in Brazil and Nigeria (and probably China and India and dozens of other countries soon) to take the little orange gadgets home, figure out how to use them for whatever they want -- from helping Mom inventory her fruit stand to tracking down soccer stats -- and then come back to class and help the teacher learn not just a new technology but a new concept of the relation between learning and teaching.

As an acolyte of Thomas Friedman's "The World Is Flat," I've been telling my children to work hard in school so they don't wind up fetching coffee for young doctors and engineers educated in India and China. Negroponte's globalism-sans-national-concern causes my moral compass to spin.

As the conference got rolling, Don Knezek, the ed-tech society's CEO, spoke of recent trips to the Philippines, where leaders plan to use techno-training to do for teachers what that nation already did with nurses: plaster them across the science-averse U.S. In Jamaica, he was told: "We want to stamp every one of our teachers 'fit for export.' "

So tough luck for all those aspiring teachers I've met at Franklin and Fremont high schools in L.A.

Almost 15 years ago, after the riots, I noted that futurists Heidi and Alvin Toffler were fretting that students in inner-city L.A. would be left behind by an employment market requiring ever more science and technology skills.

In the same piece, I quoted a young rioter who'd looted in San Francisco, then called home to his mother in L.A.

"Everyone went for TVs down there," he said. "Up here, I went for a computer.... Nowadays, if you don't have one, you can't compete. You can just end up in the streets."

Think about that. How many kids today would steal a flat-screen TV before they'd grab a laptop?

Why? Think about that too. I suspect that even a pants-sagging teen would find this education conference at least remotely engaging. But I've also been to E-3, the national electronic gaming convention in Los Angeles, and this conference ain't that. No bikini-clad and laser-gun-armed babes cajoled us; nor did green ogre blood and balls of virtual flame careen through the hall on drive-in-movie-size screens.

In other words, serious learning will always be boring compared to the entertainment bombarding young people 24/7 these days.

And when the revolution passes us by or crushes us, who will we blame?

After talking about the potential flood of foreign teachers into the U.S., Knezek, the CEO, looked up from his Apple and used the lowest-tech form of communication to convey what the U.S. is doing in response. Flapping his lips with his finger, he said: "Bubbb-bbbbbbb-bbb-bbb-bbb-ub."

I can't offer a much more articulate strategy. But I do think we should hear something said by Will Richardson, a ponytailed former teacher from New Jersey.

Many schools, he noted, are struggling mightily to separate students from the cellphones, iPods and MySpace accounts with which they so eagerly explore the world -- which, indeed, in some ways define their world.

Wouldn't it be better, he wondered, if we found ways to help them help us help them -- a la Negroponte. In other words, let teachers and students together learn the new lessons of the Information Age.

Although the techno-hipster looked just a touch worried himself, I do think we should heed his advice:

"We cannot be scared of this."

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