No More Laptops for You!

In which I rant about the impending demise of the Australian Government’s school computers program, and try to see some positives in the never-ending game of bait-and-switch that is education funding.

In 2007, the newly elected Rudd government in Australia began rolling out one of its election promises — to fund a laptop or desktop computer for every high-school age student in the country. Despite concerns about ongoing funding and maintenance, this was generally considered to be a good thing.

In 2013, we are facing the end of this program and the beginning of the inevitable bureaucratic chaos that will ensue as schools and education departments try to fill the gaps and replace the now ageing technology. The Age is reporting that some schools have already told parents they must lease computers, or buy them for students. No doubt other schools will try to muddle through with the older technology they already have, with ever decreasing success and student satisfaction. Still others will implement a Bring Your Own Devices program (BYOD) which may have some positive benefits, but which will almost certainly lack the support it needs to be implemented properly.

The long and the short of this is that once again, the schools are left without the resources they not only need, but have now worked into their classrooms, while our various levels of government bicker about who’s going to pay the bill. Inevitably, to paraphrase Seymour Papert, the result will be a poor compromise announced with great fanfare, and everyone will go back to making the best of a bad lot. Situation: normal.

All of this is so painfully, frustratingly, heartbreakingly predictable. It would be so easy to rant on about the fact that we never seem to be able to have anything educational funded beyond one election cycle, about the trendy nature of political discussion around educational policy, and about the way we all forget about it and move on instead of demanding that things be fixed. Let’s, instead, try to find some positives in this program and see where we might go from here. The school computers program did have some positive effects and it has, despite everything, changed the nature of the game when it comes to computing in education in Australia.

This was Never Going to Work

It’s important, I think, to remember that a program like this can never be as successful as we want it to be. The various departments of education in Australia are not known for their nimbleness or agility when it comes to making changes, particularly technological ones, and delivering over 900,000 computers to students across the country is an enormous task — one made harder by the necessary cooperation between state and federal governments, education departments and suppliers. It was inevitable that we would end up with a program that fell short of its lofty goals and delivered equipment, but not change.

There were a raft of problems and potential issues which didn’t quite get solved. By way of just one example, I’ve spoken to teachers in South Australia who lamented the fact that they were not going to be able to use the computers to anything like their full potential because the department had not yet been able to deliver a reliable internet connection. Internet connections were often so slow, they said, that it was necessary to plan backup lessons in case the computers had to be abandoned. How you are supposed to take full advantage of a 21st Century learning tool when you have to keep falling back on older teaching methods because you can’t use it.

When this program was announced, it formed part of the government’s Education Revolution. The degree of mockery that this choice of title received should have been a clue to us that revolution would not be the best choice of word to describe what would happen next.

Education departments exist to keep the educational machine ticking over (an enormous job which should never be underrated), and they do it very effectively. They manage a slow, steady pace of change. They are not equipped to revolutionise the educational world in the space of four years. Is it any wonder they haven’t?

And Yet, Somehow…

In many ways, the best thing about this program was that it had few ties to existing educational policy. It was always about getting the computers into the hands of students and teachers rather than about dictating how they should be used. The result of this is that, while we’re currently in the throes of trying to work out how to fund their continued use, no-one is suggesting that they be removed and abandoned. The most important achievement of the school computers program is that it has shifted the status quo. Having computers available for every high-school student is now the norm. The program did succeed in kickstarting that process.

Consistency Isn’t Always a Good Thing

Being steeped, as it was, in the pre-post-PC era, the school computers program didn’t deal very well with the reality of how we now use technology. It assumed that the best possible solution was for every student to have access to the same devices in the same ways. I don’t think this is necessarily the case.

If you’ve ever used more than one, you’ll know that computers have many similarites, but many more differences. These don’t exist purely for the sake of it — they are design choices made by manufacturers depending on a device’s intended use and interaction paradigm (whether it’s point and click, tap and drag, or anything else). If you want to be able to transfer your technology skills from your phone to your laptop to your tablet to your desktop, then you need to learn about design conventions and experiment with the different ways of interacting with your technology. You need to engage in meta-learning. It’s very hard to do this in a school computer lab — whether that lab consist of desktop PCs in a room, or laptops around a table. If every device in the classroom is different, then it’s very hard to design a lesson which avoids the meta-learning altogether by asking students to follow a predetermined set of steps to accomplish a goal.

To truly be integrated in education, technology must be as normal and varied as it is in our home lives. Yes, that means having to deal with not knowing how to do things from time to time — that’s the point.

An Opportunity for Variety

If the lack of ongoing funding for this program results in a Bring Your Own Devices culture in our schools, then this may not be an entirely bad thing. It may, in fact, be exactly where we need to go, given how drastically our use of technology has changed, and is continuing to change.