Monday, March 20, 2006

Laptops or Desktops - Comments from Brainshare

I am presenting our linux laptop program at Brainshare this week. I present Monday and Wednesday at 2pm. I finished my first presentation and attended a few others that dealt with education. One of the things I am hearing is a significant interest in thin terminals or desktops, rather than laptops. I would love for people to comment on this.

At Whitfield, desktops were never an option for a few reasons. Logistically, we don't have the space. Our rooms could not easily accomodate the larger desks necessary for a full desktop and monitor. However, pedagogically, this didn't fit our need. We want the technology to fit seemslessly into our curriculum. Computers empower kids to be content producers, rather than infomation recievers. Seemless collabortion requires work in small groups and may take place in the classroom, a student commons, or a corner of the room. Desktops could not meet our needs.

Whitfield looked deeply at thin terminals before choosing a linux OS for the laptop. We rejected the notion of thin terminals for several reasons as well. Logistically, mobile thin devices were not rugged enough to meet the demands of students. Also, the price savings simply doesn't exist. Stationary thin devices are cheap but mobile thin devices are not any cheaper than laptops! Logistically, we also had the concern that students would not have access to any resources unless connected to the network. If this saved a TON of money, perhaps we could live with it but the reduction in service is not compensated with a significant reduction in cost. Pedagogically, the reason we rejected pure thin devices is that it eliminated students ability to have any real control over the computer. A tremendous amount of technological literacy comes from kids using the compters to meet their personal interests. This will include downloading files and programs, installing stuff, managing files and folders, etc. This is authentic learning that we, as educators, can never match in a controlled and centralized way.

Is there a happy medium? I think so. We give kids cheap laptops with SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop, give them sudo rights (administrative rights without being the administrator) and provide a stable, fast and secure Windows world for Windows apps via Citrix. It's not perfect, but the incremental cost of laptops vs dektops (about $1000 for laptop, warranty, insurance, and bag) justifies the added benefits of mobility, personal exploration and technological literacy.

Please comment. Be respectful, but ruthless! We grow by understanding the other side.


Anonymous said...

Personally, I wouldn't have minded a purely personal environment, not that some functions of Citrix aren't enjoyable.

I do enjoy the fact that I can do whatever I want to my laptop, and I have done so, both to the system itself as well as modifications to the physical hardware, by way off adding more RAM. While I'm sure it was nice for the school to spend so little on the laptops, it would have been nicer for the students if they had gotten enough RAM for it to run without having to rely so heavily on swap.

Linux is great and I enjoy the ability to modify the heck out of it to personalize it to my own needs. What it lacks, however, is decent "office" applications. For me, that is where Citrix comes into play. I use Citrix solely to access Microsoft Word for use with important documents, other than that, Citrix is just a laggy way to run what Linux can already do.

Finally, I would say that 98% of the students use the laptops just to pirate music, check their facebook accounts, or talk to each other during class. Only about 2% actually know how to use them to install programs, debug and troubleshoot problems, and actually get things done. If the intent is to teach students these critical skills, perhaps a computer class would be a nice elective to offer students.

That's all for now,

Dean Hays said...

Desktops would be a great leap backwards in terms of using space, mobility of access, potential for group work, etc. I agree.

A thin model does not offer the same experience, to be sure, and I argued for a "full laptop" from the start...but I am beginning to doubt my own argument.

I guess I feel like we are at a turning point, and I am wondering what we gain from Linux vs. a Ctirix-only thin...

Yes, Citrix runs a little slowly compared to straight Linux, but Linux "office" apps are really second-rate so far, at least in my experience. The email is a mess, and the word processor is not easily compatible with Citrix-based Word because of crazy formatting, which is a problem at a school where we write so much.

Consequently, I have stayed in Microsoft because my faculty laptop has allowed me to. I "lived in Linux" for about six weeks, and the cutomization at the surface level is cute but not terribly useful, not work-changing anyway. To make the customization really useful, I think, I will need to learn the next level of computer literacy...but when?

The notion that if left alone with a laptop a teacher will simply trial-and-error him- or herself into literacy is an incomplete assertion. Analogy: Drop a teacher into Lithuania, and yes, over time, that teacher will learn to speak some Lithuanian, but drop a teacher into Lithuania and give that teacher some language and literacy classes on a regular basis, and the combination of learning and direct experience will likely lead to fluency.

So I am arguing for more frequent structured laptop learning...but when? I recognize the importance of it, but if we teach everyone at once, invariably we do not meet everyone's needs and frustration takes over. Leave it to teacher initiative and it gets put on the back burner. We need systematic faculty training next year. Once a week? Two late-start faculty meetings a month?

Clearly we need to make this more of a priority, but here is the other dilemma: teachers do not think this applies to them unless they can relate it/apply it to a project they want to do with their students...chicken and egg, right?

Maybe we need more teachers teaching each other about what they are already doing, so that others may springboard off of it. I would like to try that in a more frequent, more elaborate way next year. I will need the tech committee's help with that...

Mr. Dayringer's comments echo for me a sentiment I've heard a lot from Juniors and Seniors this year, and it is something to the effect of "Why do we have these if we are not going to use them well?"

I had a student (I will not say whether a Senior or Junior)in my office after school on the Friday before Spring Break (she cared that much!) to give me the 411 on how students are really using the laptops. The laptops in her opinion have been a minor irritation some of the time, and a real detriment on occasions. It is not the laptops themselves that are the problem, she asserted, but the way teachers are letting them intrude on what she called a "Whitfield education." She sees her classmates "checking out" of the class work to "check in" on Facebook, email, Tetris, etc.

She said she believes that laptops do not need to be open if the teacher has not initiated an activity for which they would be useful.

Laptops aren't necessary for a seminar discussion, she said.

Laptops should not be open during a Spanish quiz, she said.

Absolutely correct, I agreed. So, I asked, how many of your teachers are actually incorporating the laptops well into your coursework and not letting them become a distraction?

One, she said.

I don't think she's alone, and I am concerned about how much faculty change needs to occur before students can really use this resource well. And I recongize some of that change still has to happen with yours truly.

Computer classes for students are not the immediate answer. Training teachers to be better users is more important right now, because ideally they will turn around and teach what they know to their students in meaningful contexts when the skill arises as a necessity.

CJ is certainly right about one thing. If our stated intention is to teach students to be savvy consumers of technology, we are not living up to our promise so far as a whole faculty. In some cases, great and wonderful things are happening, but we need to get that to spread, and quickly...!

Anonymous said...

Given student distraction and misue, do we need laptops at all? Is the problem that the laptops don't bring value at all or is it that they don't bring the optimum value yet?

Alex Inman said...


Regarding the RAM. You are right. students use Linux much more than we anticipated. More RAM will be added to existing machines and purchased in new models. We will have 512 in all models. Good comment!

Mr. Inman

Alex Inman said...

Dean Hays,

I'm thinking about your post and reflecting on the results of the most recent survey. 96% of faculty and 92% of students report the laptops program brings their learning to a higher level. Is the experience of this student the minority? If not, how should we be accessing this in order to get a more "accurate" reflection?

Dean Hays said...

I'll respond to anonymous and to Mr. Inman at once.

I think we have not yet hit our stride with what the laptop program could/should be. I am confident that laptops are a good idea, and that Linux and Citrix both offer advantages that largely outweigh disadvantages in most cases, but I have two concerns:

1- that a significant number of teachers will move too slowly to integrate laptops, inviting students to come up with their own legitimate and illigitimate uses for them

2- that students will tell us the laptops are a good thing for the wrong reasons, i.e. they want to use them, but not necessarily to challenge themselves academically

These are fears, not observations. I would love to be wrong, and I think in the end it will all be okay...

But I think it is good to get those fears out there...

Maybe people like me just need more time observing laptop use in the classroom...

Heidi Hays said...

This is a response to Alex's issue with the survey information not matching the personal reporting of Larry's student.
1. I did not see the student survey, but I remember having the distinct feeling that some of the questions on the faculty survey were leading, as if to limit the responses.

2. We were only given a brief period to fill it out during a time when there were other important things to attend to as well. Here again, I don't know how serious the students took it or the degree of thought and attention they gave it if there were opportunities for open-ended responses.

3. I do sense (from observation of other teachers and personal learning curve in my own classroom)that teachers are not "there yet" on when and how to incorporate the use of this valuable tool, so they do and have risked allowing students to develop bad habits in place of good ones.

4. It would be interesting to get junior and senior teachers together to compare and contrast experiences and uses. I get the impression (from Mike McGlew) that the junior teachers have been setting some pretty tight use parameters that may or may not allow for students to make their own decisions and that senior teachers have been, generally, counting on the discretion of the the students a bit too much. Instead of being at one extreme or another, we need to be somewhere in the middle.

5. Once the junior and senior teachers have a chance to reflect on their collective practice, then individual teachers could help inform the next bunch of faculty to get the laptops, sophomore and freshmen teachers.

I hope any of this is helpful,

Anonymous said...

I love Larry's comments regarding teacher training and the laptops. I think we (wisely) did not set a great deal of parameters and rules with the use of the machines. And now we know more about how and why teachers and students use their laptops.

As we look to improve our practice, how do we empower our teachers to take appropriate risks with the laptops? Training! At the same time, we as a school need to set some 1:1 benchmarks for all classroom teachers. More training!

And finally, the Facebook, tetris, e-mail distractions...this drives me nuts because it is rude and inconsiderate. It also makes me crazy because of all the complaints I have heard about the program, this is most easily solved. Turn off the machine.

Teachers and students need to know that the laptop is a tool. And like any tool, it is only necessary for certain functions, jobs and projects. If I were building a set for a play, I would not allow a student to misuse a power tool. To me, the laptops are no different.


Alex Inman said...

Hi Heidi,

Thanks for the outstanding organization of your thoughts. I will respond in the same order.
1. The student survey was exactly the same as the faculty survey. We (technology committee) only removed questions related to faculty only, such as professional development. Both surveys contained space for open comments at the end but did not offer open comments along with each Likert scale item. The survey was reviewed and run throught three drafts with the tech committee before release. Survey writing is difficult and your feedback is greatly appreciated.

2. I also wish we had more time for the survey. I have no way of knowing how seriously students took the survey.

3. I absoultely agree we are not "there yet." This kind of change is tough. Typical major pedagogical reforms take 3-5 years to take hold. I don't know how long it was before block scheduling took before we had "arrived." However, that being said, I am SO impressed with the high level of dialogue regarding appropriate use. We still have work to do, for sure, but we are really doing quite well. I agree with Mark Anderson below that we are primed for more and better training.

4. The technology committee is meeting after break to begin a planning session to create a knowldge handoff between junior and senior teachers and those not yet in the laptop program. Your suggestions would be very helpful in the process of developing a May late-start training.

5. Yes. Agreed as stated above. Great comment!

Heidi Hays said...

I would like to respond to a couple of pieces of what Mark said in his post from earlier today.

While I certainly agree that turning off the laptops is the smart call to make in many learning situations in our classrooms, it's not entirely that simple and that's not the whole remedy to the rude and inconsiderate behavior.

If we are going to encourage students to take notes on the laptop and if we're going to stay true to our philosophy about constructivist learning, the laptops may be on when they are a secondary recording tool rather than a primary learning mode and in that case become a potential temptation for students who choose to go off task.

For instance, in my classroom we experimented with having a paperless classroom first semester so most students (although not required to do so) took notes on the laptops, as that is how they gathered research and would be writing and submitting papers... Some students quickly sized up the pros and cons of natural benefits and consequences of taking notes that way and made personal choices that were appropriate for them as well as for the learning environment. Others used note taking as a "legimate" excuse to have the laptop open so they could do other things.

I have heard some priceless reactions to telling students that we'd be sans laptops for all or part of a given lesson. They give themselves away so readily at times.

Now, I LOVE being able to jump out onto the Internet to answer a question that arises mid lesson or dig a bit deeper into a point of interest so having students logged on to juiced laptops with lids down is a nice option too.

I feel ready to learn more about how to make further effective use of the technology so I can make even more informed choices about integration into the curriculum. I'm so glad to hear that more training is on the way.

Anonymous said...

I think that the thin terminals would have been detrimental to the learning becuase of the school I enjoy playing with computers more that most. If the internet would have been down and we were using the thin terminals we were out of luck. At the same time I think that the full laptops are dangerous becuase very few people use sync me. This is hazardous to themselves and their work becuase they can end up loosing everything.