eSN Exclusive: Thornburg: Ed tech curbed by ‘fear’

Dr. David Thornburg is an award-winning futurist, author, and consultant whose clients range across the public and private sectors worldwide. He is the author of The New Basics: Education and the Future of Work in the Telematic Age, a handbook on teaching the skills necessary for success in the 21st-century workplace, and Campfires in Cyberspace: A Guide to Teaching with the Web. He has just released a new book, When the Best is Free: An Educator’s Perspective on Open-Source Software, in which his goal is nothing less than spurring the educational use of computers in schools by promoting free software that is “at least as good as the expensive commercial titles it replaces.”

Thornburg recently sat down with eSchool News for an in-depth discussion about open technologies and institutional roadblocks to the successful implementation of one-to-one computing initiatives in schools, which he believes holds the potential to completely transform education. Along the way, he touched on topics such as how to convince parents and educators that ubiquitous computing is a good thing, why Duke University’s iPod experiment ultimately failed, and what a collection of letters from Alexander Graham Bell can teach us about technology’s power to democratize learning.

eSN: Dr. Thornburg, you’ve been candid in your belief that technology has yet to reach its full potential in schools. Why do you think that is?

THORNBURG: Technology is useful only to the extent that you don’t even know that it’s there. You shouldn’t even have to think about it. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. There are too many bugs in the software–you turn on the computer and things don’t work exactly as they should. But we’re getting better at this.

The main thing that’s holding technology back is … a fear–a well-placed fear, I might add–that if technology becomes ubiquitous, it will totally transform the practice of education. There are a lot of people who don’t want the practice of education transformed, because they’re very comfortable with it.

The student-to-computer ratio in American schools has been frozen at 4 to 1 for the past three years. During that time, the price of technology has dropped by a factor of two, performance has increased by a factor of maybe four to eight–[we now have] amazingly powerful machines.

Any economic theory involving price elasticity says that there should be more computers, but there are not. There’s a force that’s keeping them from being more fully utilized. We think that force is related to a reluctance on the part of certain educational establishments in transforming themselves.

That, by the way, happened when the printed book came into existence. The printed book completely changed education. In that case, it took about 100 years.

eSN: How do you see technology completely transforming education in a way that is intimidating to many educators?

THORNBURG: Too often, we destroy courses, we destroy subjects, by telling students everything they need to know about them, instead of providing [students] with enough information to allow them to come up with interesting questions that they can then go out and explore on their own.

Let me give you an example. Many years ago, I was interested in the process that led to [Alexander Graham] Bell’s discovery of the telephone, and what he anticipated it would be used for. I had read that his view was that the telephone would not be a device used for you and me to communicate with each other, but that it would be a device that would be set up in a concert hall. People like you and me would pay for a subscription at home and listen to concerts.

Bell thought he’d invented the radio.

I decided to do some research on this. I knew that the Library of Congress had the letters that Bell had sent to his wife during the New York World’s Fair, which is where Bell first showed his telephone. I arranged with a curator of special collections to see these documents. I flew to Washington, I went into a very dimly lit room, I wore a pair of silk gloves and a smock, I was allowed a pad of paper and a pencil–no pens–and then the curator opened these letters and set them in front of me. I wasn’t to touch them.

Now, all of those letters have been digitized, they’re part of the American Memory Project. Students could do the same things that I did, at zero cost, like that. Even children living in Washington, D.C., are not allowed to get into that. You’ve got to be 18 to get in there.

So, we have now democratized, in some sense, access to very rich primary-source materials. Teachers can now teach courses they never dreamed of teaching in the past, not because they didn’t want to, but because the resources were not accessible. That, to me, is so powerful, so important, and we just don’t talk about it enough. All too often, we see teachers who are using technologies today trying to do the same kinds of things they did in the past, only more efficiently. I’m not going to go back to using a typewriter now that I use a word processor. But those are examples of what I’d call doing things differently–and the real power comes when you do different things.

eSN: Speaking of democratizing access, another democratizing force is open technology, which dashes the proprietary software model that is expensive and locks students out of any direct manipulation of the code upon which applications are built. Open technologies are providing opportunities to get these resources into the hands of more students. They’re also giving students and teachers the chance to have more direct control over the design of the pedagogical tools they’re using. Could you talk more about why you believe open technologies are important to the future of education?

THORNBERG: Well, I had my computer plugged in last night, with my computer set up well in advance. I forgot to see if the extension cord was plugged in. My computer went to sleep, and when it came back on, it was on the same slide where I’d left off. That doesn’t happen in Windows. That happens in Linux just fine. To me, the argument for Linux [solutions] on the desktop is not just that they’re inexpensive, that you can share them without fear that the copyright goons will come after you, or whatever. It’s simply that they work better.

If you were making a tradeoff to an operating system that worked poorly, that’s a lousy tradeoff, because maybe the operating system is free, but it costs you a fortune in upkeep. But open technologies do work better. eSN: That’s a statement that proponents of proprietary software solutions would argue with. Any money you’re saving, you’re going to lose in service and upkeep, they’d say; open technologies do not necessarily work better, and they cost a lot to support.

THORNBURG: That’s not the case. For example, I’m using a programming language called NetLingo, which was originally created by some people at MIT. I found, not a bug, but something that was inconvenient in the Linux version of the software. I sent an eMail suggesting they consider patching the software in a particular way. I got an eMail back within 24 hours from the developer, saying that he hadn’t thought of that solution, [but he believed it was] a good idea. He asked if I’d like to write the code for the patch. I didn’t want to, but I said I’d test it. Within 24 hours, he had then sent a message to all those involved in this piece of software, alerting them to the problem and [telling them] I was the contact person. I know that when I come to my inbox, there’s going to be a solution. Within 48 hours, it’s solved.

I can’t get Microsoft to pick up the damned phone in 48 hours.

eSN: But what about a large school district? This might be a good solution for you, but proponents of proprietary software solutions would say districts can’t go on faith that a community of unpaid developers will support them in a timely manner. As a large district, don’t I need some form of contractual security? Do you think [the developers’ community] would be able to handle support for me better than Microsoft, for example?

THORNBURG: Yes. Absolutely. If you don’t believe me, contact Mike Huffman [special assistant for technology for the Indiana Department of Education]. He’s running 300,000 machines on an open-source operating system. It’s working great. The downside right now … there are a couple.

There are some applications that are really cool right now for which there are no non-proprietary solutions, or no proprietary versions that can run on a Linux-based operating system. I’m not against paying for software; if there’s software out there that works well, I’ll pay for it. That’s not the issue. This is not to say that free isn’t a big incentive for schools, I understand. Most companies have site-licensing procedures for schools to keep things as affordable as possible. So let’s not ignore the fact that the cost of developing stuff is humongous. I have no problem with people making back their investments. But the fact is there are a lot of cool education titles that do not yet exist on a Linux platform. That’s a chicken-egg thing. What Mike has done, since he has so many Linux desktops, the size of the installation is so big, he’s provided the incentive to make certain these applications do run on Linux. He’s made it so all of these proprietary applications have been translated to run on Linux, because if they don’t, they’re missing out on licensing 300,000 applications.

Definitely, in education, it’s a wake-up call. I’ve had some vendors, I won’t say who they are, but some have gone from saying they might be doing a Linux version next year, to asking if I’d like to see a Linux version next week, just as a result of what Mike has done. Then, if you believe in the $100 laptop ever reaching fruition–which I think is a great idea, but I’ve got some problems with the implementation–that’s a Linux-based machine. We’re talking about a million units for sale. That will definitely [provide some incentive to make applications operable on a Linux platform]

eSN: In addition to open technologies, a major issue for you is why one-to-one computing matters. Could you discuss more fully what you believe to be the obstacles to one-to-one computing in public schools? THORNBURG: There’s a realization that when you go below 4 to 1, as an educator, your world changes. I think that the teachers and administrators who are resistant to one-to-one computing definitely do understand the implications. These are very bright people. They know that the world of education as they know it will end. …

There seems to be some evidence that dropout rates and things like that are positively influenced by having access to computers. Take, for example, the Buddy System Project in Indiana, way back in the ’80s. Students were given Apple II computers–one in the home, one in the classroom. The reason for two computers was there were no laptops, so they couldn’t have the students bringing computers back and forth.

That program was implemented across the spectrum of socioeconomic status in the state of Indiana. What they found was that when students had access to computers at both school and home, it had the effect of adding 30 days to the school year by providing [students] with 24-7 access [to learning opportunities]. The cost of the whole program was less than keeping the schools open one extra day.

Or consider cost more fully.

An average textbook costs $75. Take any reasonable lease on the laptop, it’s going to be cheaper than all those books. So the challenge gets back to the idea of how the students are going to access information without textbooks and how reliable that information may be. The answer is that some of the information may be wrong. But don’t you think school is a good place for people to learn the difference between good information and bad information? They’re going to have to spend the rest of their lives doing it. Why not teach it to them?

Also, it doesn’t occur to [many who object to one-to-one environments] that, if you’re going to saturate an environment with technology, you need to give teachers a chance to think about what to do in that environment and experiment.

I think that this is the reason the iPod experiment [to give iPods to all incoming freshmen] at Duke [University] failed. There were some teachers who did brilliant things with it. There were others who didn’t. Part of the reason is they didn’t have time to think it through. They should have given them a year ahead of time to think it through. eSN: So you’re suggesting that, as much as it’s about getting tools into the hands of students, it’s about getting into the heads of educators?

THORNBURG: And getting into the heads of students, too. If you’ve been through institutional primary school, and suddenly you’re in high school and you’re going to do inquiry-driven, project-based learning, you may have been an “A” student up until that point, but it’s possible you were an “A” student because you’d learned how to psych out the teacher, and you knew just what to memorize to do well on a test. That doesn’t mean you’ve learned to be an independent thinker or problem solver.

Now, [on the other hand], some kids who don’t do well in traditional classrooms suddenly thrive in the new environment. … The kids who often have the worst time with it, when you change the pedagogical model, are the kids who were doing beautifully in that [old] environment.

The anxiety comes not only from the students and the teachers, but also the parents. We’ve seen some wonderful one-to-one initiatives that have been derailed by the parent community. That’s kind of curious to me to see that going on, because a mom or dad who wouldn’t dream of going to work and not having access to these tools is saying that they don’t want their kids to have access to these same tools. But the rationale for it is that they are also fearful that school is changing in ways that are uncertain for them or frightening for them. They’re saying, “Not on my watch. Maybe this next generation, but it’s too soon.”

eSN: You’re talking about deconstructing institutions, up and down–from traditional models of teaching and administration, to traditional models of study and parenting. How do I convince parents that’s a good thing? It’s about getting teacher buy-in, administrator buy-in, but also parent buy-in. Could you talk about how to get parent buy-in? THORNBURG: We like to start by having parents do a quick count on how many computer-based devices they use on a daily basis. One-to-one is almost a misnomer. I don’t have a one-to-one computing environment, I have a half-dozen computers. They’re different for different purposes. Right now, I’ve got a Palm, a cell phone–that’s really a computer; I also have a laptop, and that’s just on the road. At my office, I have a number of different devices.

Working in corporate America, the likelihood is you’re going to be using so many of these devices and you’re not conscious of it. That is a good thing, because it means they’re working very well.

I think that’s one of the first things you need to talk about, because, to me, one-to-one computing is not a technology initiative–it’s a pedagogical initiative. It facilitates the transformation of teaching practices in a way that really supports the needs of young people. That is essential.

I have another presentation that I’m working on called, “If the world is flat, why is my head spinning?” We live in a world that is spinning out of control. We’ve got a public that is in shock over a lot of changes that are going on. We need to develop resiliency in people for a very dynamic, global marketplace of ideas. That means the practice of teachers has to change. It certainly meshes beautifully when every child has access to those tools.

By the way, it’s interesting: When you talk to kids themselves, they’re cool with all these things. Most kids I speak to would classify “Google” as a verb if you asked them what part of speech it was. Some of them weren’t even aware that the word didn’t exist prior to the company.

They think cyberspace is a place. They talk about it as though there’s almost a physicality to it, because that’s a metaphor they can relate to. If you press them on it, they’ll say, “Yeah, there’s no ‘there’ there.” But it’s shorthand for communication. These are all very immediate to them.

When kids who are that fluent with these tools encounter an educational system that is predominantly driven by the awesome power of a sheet of slate and a stick of chalk, then they’re in trouble. Or the teacher is in trouble, more appropriately, because the student will just tune [the teacher] out and do this project at home. [He’ll say,] “It’s not worth my time to try it here, I don’t have access to the resources. I’ll just get through the day.”

I’d push the envelope even further. [Apple executive] Martha Rolley coined the phrase “ownership is more powerful than loanership.” I really resonated with that when I heard her say it. I went to a vocational high school, [where] all the voltmeters and stuff like that were in an equipment storage closet. When you had to do a project, you’d go to the closet, and you’d take a meter. Many of [the devices] were broken. As a student, you didn’t want to be accused of being the student who broke the meter, so you would just put them back in the closet. The number of working meters was getting smaller and smaller and smaller. I realized, back then, that electronics was going to be important to me for the rest of my life. I made a personal investment in buying my own volt meter, which I have a slide of in my presentation, because I use it to this day. It’s the voltmeter I use to check circuit breakers, outlets, et cetera..

There’s nothing from that era that’s with me anymore, but I still use that voltmeter, because it’s my tool. You take care of your tools. People say they can’t put the tools in the hands of students, because, well, they’ll sell them for drugs, or go through the litany of reasons, you know, whatever. But, if they own them, they’ll take care of them.

eSN: In closing, what do you think is the most important message to leave educators with?

THORNBURG: I would like to see these people … with a renewed sense of enthusiasm, a rekindled sense of joy. Educators today are being treated like they would be treated in a kennel. You’ve got this situation of the No Child Left Behind Act, which is perceived to be a hammer that is bashing teachers down. Whether that’s true or not, the perception is the reality for people who are under the gun. As a result, a lot of the joy has been removed from people’s lives–administrators especially. They’re just the walking wounded. They need the opportunity to explore new ideas, and go back with a positive vision of the future and with enough resources.

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