Sunday, February 08, 2009

When connection is the Issue

A reader writes:

I agree that one day all schools will have one-to-one computers, but right now that is absolutely not the case in many schools. Most of my students do not have computers at home. I would love to see on this blog some ideas about how technology and paperless classrooms can bridge the economic gap in schools.

This is a HUGE issue. And I'll be the first to admit that I don't have all the answers. But I've got a couple of ideas.

First of all, connectivity is on the rise. In fact, the rapid rise that occurred between 2000 and 2008 is nothing less than remarkable. According to Nielsen/NetRatings, as of June 2008, almost 73% of folks in the US were online. That's over 220 million people. That's up from 124 million in the year 2000. To put into perspective just how many people in the US have connectivity, consider this: the only country with more Internet users than the US is China with 253 million. But those 253 million represent only 19% of the Chinese population!

But there remain some quarter of Americans for whom technology remains out-of-reach.

This is where local advocacy can jump in.

The first difficulty in connectivity is the connection itself. That's why Wi-Fi initiatives such as the Wireless Network in Philadelphia that gives free Internet access to anyone with a wireless card are so important. Anyone concerned with closing the digital divide should petition their local representatives for free and open access to Wi-Fi.

Once you are connected, almost everything else can be done online for free. In fact, I will go out of my way to demonstrate over the course of writing this blog that a classroom can go completely paperless for about the cost of a pizza topped with the works.

So the second issue is hardware. Luckily, in this age of rapid consumption, there are options for fitting students of any economic background with laptops or PDAs. I'd suggest taking a look at what's available in the refurbished market at There you'll find laptops for around $400 and refurbished PDAs for as little as $170. Add a $1.50 PDA keyboard to your refurbished Blackberry and you have everything you need to work paperless.

Of course the problem with refurbished goods is generally the lack of warranty. And make no mistake: wherever you teach, the machines are going to be ABUSED. Without a doubt, the first thing any school that wants to take on a tech initiative must do is hire a tech officer. Two or more if possible. Maybe you can start with an IT whiz right out of college and one or two parent volunteers. Quickly they are going to become the most popular folks in the school.

That said, don't think that you have to be a one-to-one computing school to go paperless. As I've said before, my school has been one-to-one for three years -- which means the Seniors are still bound to pen and paper. Or so one would think. In reality, the nice thing about Internet-based blogs and wikis is that they themselves are not dictated by 'place'. So, if you can get your kids (even in chunked groups) to a school's media center or computer lab, they can post their work online and then access it later whether from home on their family PC or on the computers at the local public library. In fact, you could even schedule 'paperless' sessions for after school when kids are at home in front of the PC or are able to get over to the library.

Speaking of public libraries. My wife is an architect. She was just doing a rehab job on an athletic center in the middle of Barclay -- a neighborhood in the shadow of Baltimore's jail. It's a neighborhood wracked by poverty, drugs, and crime. But the city had the vision of putting a new library on the corner next to the rehabbed athletic center. And in that public library in one of the most dessicated neighborhoods in the United States there are computers on which the local kids can connect and take part in the paperless world.

Connecting the kids with the available technology is the difficulty.


  1. In times like these educators are certainly forced to think outside the box. I have been striving for a 1:1 pilot for several years. With my small rural county strapped for funds, I have decided to see if area non-profits and industries would like to "sponsor" a child to have a laptop for a year (a donation of $500, which will purchase a brand new mini laptop). This child would then keep in touch with their sponsor, letting them know how they are using Web 2.0 tools to learn great things! Hopefully this personal connection to a child will evoke greater giving from the community than just asking for the tool itself! Here's hoping.... and thanks for your wonderful blog! I love it! Keep up the great work!

  2. Is anyone using open source software like Open Office and Gimp with students? I plan on looking into it more soon because it would open a lot of doors if students could get free software.

  3. Here in Minneapolis, we have a city-wide wifi system. There is a charge. However, there is something called a "Community Garden" that is free to anyone with a wireless card can access. Mostly for community resources and schools.

    I'd love to see full access given to families that are enrolled in Minneapolis public schools.

    @Kim-Great idea! I've thought of having sponsors on my school web page to try and bring in technology. One thing I've done is to make nice with as many of the district tech people as possible. I've gotten much out of it for me, my students and our building and I've learned a lot in the process.

    @Ann-I use loads of Google tools with my students. My students use Blogger. I have them turn in assignments using Google Forms (Docs) that I embed into my web page. Google Docs is worth a look, as are many other Google tools. Could I type Google a couple more times?

    Open office is good. However, having web-based items is nice because it allows anytime access.


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