Friday, August 28, 2009

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd Drops In

This week during Kevin Rudd's visit to Lismore, he made time to come and visit OLHC Primary to have a look at the school's netbook program. He arrived without any fanfare (and with a surprisingly small contingent of security personnel) in the front seat of a sedan. He was very relaxed and made time to stop to speak to any children who wanted to meet him and was very friendly and interested in what they were doing. The Year 5 class he visited have been doing a unit of work on genealogy and using the Internet to research their family tree and to plan a virtual trip to the countries of their ancestors. He was very patient and considerate in all his discussions with the kids and laughed and joked with everyone. One of his aids was joking and teasing him and he gave back just as good. As he was walking around the classroom he noticed one student using the web cam on a netbook, so he bent down and put his head on the child's shoulder so the student could take a picture with the web cam. It was really a kind and considerate gesture and something the student will never forget. The PM commended the kids for their work and said he wished he had a computer when he was at school. It is a great testament to our country that a leader can stroll in to a school and listen to kids without pretence, scripting or the need for a huge security apparatus. I couldn't imagine it happening in many other countries. In all the excitement we forgot to take Kevin down to the Kindergarten room. Perhaps this was one place his security had advised him not to visit. I know through personal experience of the security dangers. Kinders also have the knack of asking very tricky questions. I am proud to say I survived as a Kinder teacher for one year but constantly having kids pulling at the hairs on my ankles while reading stories to them can wear you down. This was despite placing a security cordon on the floor around my chair with masking tape. What hope would Kevin have if I couldn't keep them in control?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Netbook Project Progress Report

Since May this year I have been working on a project with OLHC Primary School, South Lismore, NSW. The project is seen as an important trial for other schools in the region for many reasons. It is the first large role out of netbooks in the primary school environment where each child has a computer on their desk. Each of the 60 year 5/6 students has a HP Mini 2140 Netbook for use during the school day.

The netbooks are charged each evening in lockable trolleys (PC Locks). Each trolley hold 16 netbooks and only require one wall socket to recharge all 16. The Netbooks are fitted with 6 cell batteries to provide longer battery life between charges. Despite being used solidly for 3-4 hours a day, the netbooks are yet to run out of charge during a school day. This includes other younger grades, starting to make use of them during down time. The netbooks run a version of Linux called Edubuntu instead of Windows and are connected to the Internet using a Cisco wireless network.

So far the project has surpassed all expectations. The HP Minis seem very robust and we haven't had a hardware fault with one of them. The students took to the new operating system like ducks to water and already know more about it than the teachers. There continues to be bugs in some of the open source software that we are addressing each week, but overall Ubuntu seems at this stage, to be more than viable alternative to Windows. The ability to add programs across the network at will, without the need for expensive licences and time delays alone has many advantages. Added to this is the knowledge that reducing software costs has allowed the school to put more computers in front of students.

All of this is of no use, unless the focus is on learning rather than the technology. Although it early in the project, the devices are opening doors to learning that were not accessible before. Both teachers and students are beginning to see that they are now learning in a community not a classroom. I have been co-writing learning activities with teachers at the school and delivering these activities using Learning Management Software (LMS) called Moodle. This has allowed me to expose teachers to new pedagogy and web2 tools that they are incorporating into their teaching repertoire. This LMS is also allowing students to access learning activities and upload their assignments from anywhere that they have Internet access.

My advice to anyone embarking on a similar venture is to be ambitious and aim high in terms what technology can deliver in improving learning outcomes. I can also now see that the continuing reduction in price of the netbooks means that parents should be more than happy to co-contribute to such a program if it means their child will have a netbook of their own to use at both home and school. After all, students spend only 20% of their time at school and 80% outside and as adults we don't like sharing our computer with anyone else. Edubuntu also makes such an idea easier in terms of management and security. The infrastructure costs and overall planning is very important but a 1 to 1 netbook program should never be about money, but improved learning opportunities for students.