Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Digital Natives Need Infrastructure

I visited Riverside Secondary School last week to spend a few hours in their Digital Immersion 9 class.  Students can sign-up online using this web formMicrosoft Windows SharePoint Services LogoThis class consists of about 30 students who spent first semester together as a class learning digital tools, Science, and Math with one teacher.  As of February they are with a new teacher, Elizabeth Bancroft, all morning learning English and Socials.  The expectation is that most learning and teaching will supported by digital tools. 

Ms. Bancroft expressed to me her frustration with how things were working - mainly how the technology "wasn't" working...  I had read positive reviews in the local paper and viewed a positive news video.  Note that you may want to read James McConville’s post about his visit to this class.  I needed to see the class in action for myself.  I had an opportunity to share with the students some of my thoughts about blogging, writing for an audience, etc. and how that’s potentially more motivating then just writing for marks or your teacher to read.

These kids all have blogs (check their class blog for the student contributors) which they use for some of their assignments.  The teacher is using various tools to support class activities including their virtual classroom (in my43) to provide resources, have discussions, blog more privately, share documents, youtube, Google Docs for assessments, more sharing, Blogger for public blogging, to name a few.  They all have either a personally owned laptop, a rented laptop from the school, or a school supplied laptop.  Wireless network access is an essential requirement for this class to function effectively.  My mantra that “wireless should be just like oxygen” is what they need but it seems what they have is “wireless that barely works”.  Riverside teachers and students significantly adopted technology to support teaching and learning.  This use seems to have outstripped the infrastructure’s capacity to deliver.  Or has it…

During my visit I learned how frustrating it can be for students and their teacher when the digital infrastructure doesn’t work.  While I was their, Ms. Bancroft wanted to see how the kids would experience an online test using a Google Spreadsheet.  They talked about how to prevent cheating such as seeing each other’s answers, using the Internet to find the answers, etc.  But the conversation degraded into what to do when the network fails.  The kids were asking to do the test on paper or offline so that they could avoid the frustration and disruption - remember, this is a digital immersion class, paper should be a last resort.  Ms. Bancroft also tried to show an online Socials resource and had to plug in for it to work at all.  And even then, the Internet connection was so slow, the experience just wasn’t worth it.  I asked the kids for their thoughts on what the problem is and how to solve it.  We talked about how the behaviour of other students was affecting educational use in a negative way.  They had some technical suggestions:
  • create a special wireless network for their class and give them some guaranteed bandwidth
  • limit the network bandwidth students use for non-educational purpose to something small
When I had to leave I asked the kids if they had any further questions or comments.  I was asked straight-up, “when will this problem be fixed?”.  Ouch.  I couldn’t give them a definitive answer but suggested that we need to fix it before the next school year.  Incidentally, the principal told me the frustrating experience was negatively affecting enrolment for the class for 2010-2011… 

Yikes!  This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.  Something is seriously wrong with the network infrastructure.  Or is there…  This experience is becoming quite common place in our secondary schools (grade 9-12) and somewhat at the middle level (grade 6-8).  We have an open policy that encourages students to bring their personally owned devices to use at school.  For middle and secondary schools we have wireless access available through-out the schools.  1000’s of students have embraced this opportunity.  Unfortunately the most significant use seems to be for bittorrent, facebook, video streaming (not educational use) and other questionable purposes.  These uses are outstripping the network infrastructure’s capabilities and they don’t necessarily relate to the purpose of the network.  We are philosophically apposed to blocking so are careful to only go that route when necessary.  We’ve tried to block bittorrent but so far unsuccessfully.  We need to find ways to carefully limit the social and non-educational uses so that this use doesn’t interfere with the work teachers and students are needing to do in a digital way to support their learning and teaching.

I would really appreciate hearing from folks that have solved this problem in a way that doesn’t require general blocking.  What technical solutions have you implemented and how have they worked for you?  What supervision and consequence processes have you put in place to minimize this disruptive use?