Janus, the two-faced Roman god of antiquity, greets people as they walk through doors, experience changes in life, and come to new beginnings. It is for him that January is named because he represents transition. As he looks forward, he looks backward. It was earlier this year (not quite January, but close!) that I was reminded about the importance of looking both forward and backward when examining the role technology plays in education.
In February, my colleague Rob Baker (Director of Technology at Cincinnati Country Day School) and I traveled to Seattle to take part in a new program sponsored by Microsoft. “Windows in the Classroom,” developed by Sean Tierney and Bruce Dixon and a team of inspired educators, is succeeding in Australia in helping redesign schools and assist school officials in making informed educational decisions about the direction of technology integration in their institutions. Many readers will recognize Bruce Dixon’s name, as he was the originator of the 1:1 concept in Australia. Sixteen years ago, almost to the day, two officials from Country Day were flown to Seattle by Microsoft to attend a series of meetings and workshops inspired by the work of Bruce Dixon and schools in Australia. Joe Hofmeister, our former Director of Technology, and Dr. Charlie Clark, our former Head of School were taken by what they experienced and, upon returning to Cincinnati, laid the groundwork for what would be the first 1:1 initiative in the United States. In 1996, Country Day put a laptop in the hands of every faculty member and every fifth through twelfth grader. The rest, they say, especially in cliché terms, is history.
The rest is also a futuristic vision of the role technology can and should play in education in the United States, for it was this impetus, not a desire to rest on our laurels, that Rob and I agreed to go to Seattle to hear what Microsoft executives had to say about their own vision. Over the next few months, I will be posting entries on the NTA site about the ways technology has been altering the learning environment at Country Day, and I will likely be using the voices and experiences of those people who make it happen—and have been making it happen—day in and day out, year in and year out. For now, however, I want to look into the dark and backward abysm of time, in Shakespeare’s words, to create a foundation for future postings.
We are not free from error at Country Day, even though hundreds of educators have attended our Tablet PC conferences over the past decade and a half. In fact, we recognize fully that any great educational initiative, be it technological, pedagogical, or curricular, is not without growing pains. We have learned a lot from our mistakes, but perhaps the most important lesson we have learned is that we cannot possibly know everything there is to know about a piece of hardware, about a software package, or about how technology might get used in the classroom. We are willing and eager to learn from our errors, from each other, from our students, and from the outside world. This spirit of innovation permeates much of what we do, and it is in many ways linked to those decisions that Hofmeister and Clark made back in 1996.
Do me a favor, and try to imagine where you were in the spring of 1996 and what kind of technology existed in your life. I bought my first laptop, interestingly enough, as an undergrad at Miami University, in the fall of 1990, an IBM Thinkpad. They were relatively new to the market, and few students had any interest in them. Computer labs were mainly places “to go” and often just massive word processing venues. Frankly, this was “good enough.” In 1995, after graduating with an M.A. in English Literature from The University of Alabama, I enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Kent State University, earning a Teaching Fellowship to support my studies. Half of my fellowship required teaching Freshman Composition, the other, working in Kent’s “Technology and Writing Research Classroom.” In the fall of 1995, I was teaching first year students how to left click on a menu item to italicize a title in Microsoft Word. Now, while I’m being reductive here, the world in 1995-6, was clearly not ready for technology to permeate the educational process. I had just gotten my first e-mail account, wireless was something for phones—big ones—and the internet was just developing up in Minnesota and at military and government facilities around the country . . . and, yet, Cincinnati Country Day was launching a 1:1 initiative. School leaders, faculty, students, and parents learned many lessons about hardware and software, but the most important lessons came from taking a look at the educational process from 50,000 feet.
Fast forward again to this February. One of the most inspiring features of the Windows in the Classroom workshop and training was the recognition that the role technology plays in education is itself changing from teaching technology (“right click here, left click there to widen columns in Excel” . . . or, “here’s how to format an essay in MLA style”) to using technology to make the kinds of changes in teaching and learning we’ve been wanting for years—student-centered learning (as opposed to faculty-centered teaching); in Singapore’s distilled phrasing, “teach less, learn more”; collaborative learning across disciplines; creative application of innovative ideas; learning that is more, not less, human; continued adherence to the best of traditional education (high-level research, excellent writing skills, active , passionate participation in a discipline); and much more. We’ve been seeing this sea-change at Country Day for many years, especially since the dawn of Tablet PCs. I hint above that the cultural environment of an educational institution clearly supersedes the hardware and network infrastructure deployed, but these, too, matter a great deal. Over the past six years, we have capitalized on lofty educational goals thanks to a strong and vigorous Windows network and Tablet PCs in the hands of all faculty and all students in grades 5 through 12. The Windows network allows for a dizzying array of communications and collaboration possibilities that simply are impossible right now in the cloud and in BYOD deployments. I will focus on this concept in a future post. The wide array of meaningful educational activities enabled by Tablet PCs (and the inherent program environments such as OneNote and DyKnow) is significantly greater than with other forms of hardware that lack keyboards, active digitizers coupled with a stylus, and, most importantly, the best in flexibility of form factors. I will post on this, too, in the future. Simply put, many technologies ignore the cognitive linkage between hand and brain that has evolved over the past ten millennia. A Tablet with a stylus, despite Steve Jobs’ best attempts to discredit the pen, is simply the best tool for the trade.
For now, I hope that readers will come away with something I want my Freshmen to understand when studying Shakespeare and Homer—“balance is best in all things.” We have struck harmonious chords at Country Day between teaching and learning, between innovation and tradition, between hardware and environment. Each of these influences the other in a symbiotic way, and, while there are natural tensions between and among these forces, there is also the possibility for strong bonds. In making technology decisions at Country Day, we continue to focus on pedagogy, learning, environment, students, and the future . . . all while embracing the best of the past. We’re doing incredible things at Country Day because we have a sound Liberal Arts philosophy of education and Tablet PCs. We can look backward and forward at the same time, something unique in today’s world.