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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

As I fly back home from Brazil, after working in nine countries over the past eight weeks, life is frankly a bit of a blur.

Just when you thought it was safe to chill back for a while, it can all catch up with you. I’ll make sure I take time over the next few issues to share my thoughts about what I am seeing, but for this time I thought the old Western film title summed it up. As we come to year’s end, I’ll indulge your time if I may, to talk a little longer with you.

Let’s start with what I’m inspired by. I’m inspired by the work that is now exploding out of the Maker movement, and in particular the impact that Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez’s book, Invent to Learn is having. Most of you know of their work, but this really is ‘an idea whose time has come’ for them, and the depth of understanding and experience they bring is unmatched anywhere. Next steps are the rethinking that it is causing as it reverberates through policy and curriculum leadership, who are finally questioning why they ever decided computing in our schools, should be secretarial, rather than computational.

While on that topic, Susan and I were heartened by the first steps we saw in New York last month, at the Conrad Wolfram Computer-based Math Conference. Here we have the embryonic signs of a respected cohort of mathematicians who are leading the thinking about what mathematics should look like in our schools in a technology-rich world; and it doesn’t involve ‘hand-calculating’. Conrad’s TED talk was obviously the big kick-off a couple of years ago, but slowly a globally group of leading mathematicians are challenging the insaneness of continuing to teach “hand-calculated mathematics” in a world where such functions are completely irrelevant.

On the other side, the bad continues to be the political opportunism around the shift to ubiquity in our schools, that I have written about before. Sadly it is, if anything gaining momentum, for the moment at least, so we are seeing poorly informed policy advisors, partnering with politicians whose goals are simply defined by the election cycle, reaching out for votes. While I don’t believe it’s my place or the Foundation’s to publicly list those places of concern, (although I did break the rule last month in light of the down-right stupidity of the LA decision) I am still in awe of the shallowness of some of what is happening.

As most of you would, I’m sure, agree, the shift to large-scale personal technology initiatives should be a cause for celebration. But when it is reduced to ‘tablets for votes’ we should all call it out. Readers of this column know the move to ubiquity is way too important to be trivialized by short-term political opportunism, so we must be diligent in keeping focus on the ‘main game’. While there is little we can do to intervene in this madness, (though not from a lack of trying on my part☺)… we should nonetheless always be looking for how we might collectively, as a community, be able to re-direct the energy, and funds, for more fruitful outcomes. I know it’s hard when the best point of intervention is often even before it becomes public knowledge, which leads me to the ugly part.

There has, for more than two decades, been an interesting, and at times a synergistic relationship, between the education community and technology industry around ubiquitous initiatives. At the outset the concept was met with straight out derision by the corporate technology sector, with the rare exception of innovative leaders such as David Henderson at Toshiba Australia, and Tammy Savage at Microsoft in the mid-90’s, who stuck their necks out and literally put their jobs on the line in fighting for corporate engagement around the emergence and vision of 1-to-1. Others have followed; corporate leaders who have recognized the vision we share, and have sought to do their best to support it in many ways. But, of course, that is not always the case.

I speak of the Tablet Vermin, and yet more opportunism coming this time from unfortunately too many technology companies who believe a circuit board with any size screen at the lowest price will fulfill every student’s dream…or at least every politician’s. The ugliest piece is the reflection it has on the worst side of capitalism; taking advantage of those often most in need. This is NOT a time to dumb down the technology to suit a budget, or poorly informed policy makers and politicians. This is NOT a time to forget the ‘basics’ of exactly why we believe so strongly, that every child should have access to their fully functional, personal, portable computer; and it is surely NOT a time to forget what that makes possible for young people, rich and poor, for their futures.

So let’s commit to 2014 as the year in which we all ‘come out of our shells’ ☺ and celebrate publicly just how far we have come, just what this ubiquitous access is making possible, to squash, once and for all, this trivialization of the capacity of what young people are capable of.

All the very wishes of the season; think of what we’ll be able to achieve in 2014, given just how far we have come this year.

….as always, I’m interested in your thoughts…

Best regards
December 11th, 2013 @ 1:20PM