Why did I think that a digital learning library would be better than a textbook?

This past week I was helping my 4th grade daughter with her social studies homework  and I noticed that her textbook, Macmillan/McGraw-Hill textbook, North Carolina, was published in 2003. She was working on Chapter 11 which covers the state, local and national governments. Now, it doesn’t matter much that the general and historic information is from 2003, but the book shows photos of the then senators, Elizabeth Dole and John Edwards. The publishers are probably happy when people like Donnie Harrison, Wake County Sheriff (his photo is in the book as well), are re-elected. It really got to me that one of the mini activities was to have the students read a pie graph showing “Where Each State Tax Dollar Goes”, from 2001.

So, what would it be like for a teacher to not pick up books from the book room at the beginning of the year? What if he/she just said, “I’m going to use the book as a guide and use current resources and tools to wing it”? It may be liberating. It will likely be difficult because ‘winging it’ will require providing students with access to technology and the web.

Fortunately (so I thought), a couple of days after our homework session I noticed through eSchoolNews that Pennsylvannia had started a Digital Learning Library. I searched in the 4th grade curriculum for activities/resources on government. I was a bit dissapointed to find the following:

  • A link to an assignment where students create a mobile showing the 3 branches of government using paper, yarn and colored pencils.

Click the link at the bottom of each page

While these materials are linked to the state standards and benchmarks and they are easily accessible, they are very similar to what the text offers. The information is dated and, in terms of thinking skills, these are low level thinking skills. It appears to be more of the same.

I can see that it is going to be some serious work to provide students with meaningful learning experiences without using the textbook. What about these options.

  • Create a Resource on Local, State and National Governments for the PublicTake the structure of the textbook and the digital library resources and have the students create a wiki that can be viewed/edited by the rest of the world. This would guarantee that the information would be current.


  • Covering the Primary Elections – At the time of the unit there were primary elections going on in North Carolina. What if the students embarked on a project to cover the primaries with a focus on local, state and federal governments? The early voting polls were open for 10 days and the site was very close to school. What if the kids went and taped interviewed of volunteers, voters and candidates during this election period? The audio or video clips could then be edited and compiled to share with other 4th grade students around the world. The students could have researched the candidates, just like voters did, to learn more about the issues.
  • Analyzing State Budget Figures – Turns out that the it’s a bit more difficult than I thought to find out details on current state of North Carolina government budget figures. Maybe that is a good thing. With help, the students could locate the information, compile it into a spreadsheet and then present it in the same type of pie chart that the book uses.
  • Web Resources – Look for links to news reports, videos and other media that relates to the topic.

If I was a 4th grader, I know which I would prefer. Too bad that the teachers and the students don’t have the tools to provide these types of learning experiences on a daily basis.


Duh, If it Doesn’t Work…People Will Stop Using It.

Here’s the message. Make sure that the technology is up and running 99.9% of the time and that it’s easy for the teachers, students, administrators, and support staff to use.

This summer I learned about the research study of 1:1 high schools in North Carolina that is being conducted by a team from the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation. The team spent this past year studying 8 schools in the state that were implementing 1:1 laptop programs. While the initial evaluation report that was submitted to the State Board of Education has tons of interesting information, one of the key findings caught my attention today.

Attending to the details makes all the difference. Having ways to plug-in computers and
charge batteries, make printer supplies available, establish email class lists for teachers,
backup teacher and student machines, respond promptly to technical problems, and address
the many other day-to-day needs of making the use of 1:1 laptops go smoothly in
classrooms is essential for successful use of the technology to improve student learning.

Attending to the details makes all the difference. Having ways to plug-in computers and charge batteries, make printer supplies available, establish email class lists for teachers,backup teacher and student machines, respond promptly to technical problems, and address the many other day-to-day needs of making the use of 1:1 laptops go smoothly in classrooms is essential for successful use of the technology to improve student learning.

by James W. Bell Leeds
from Flickr by James W. Bell Leeds

Nothing can sabotage a 1:1 implementation quicker than failing to make the technology reliable and easy to use. Sometimes I think that if I prioritize the barriers for a successful implementation, that this should be the #1 barrier to address. If this barrier can’t be removed, then don’t bother moving forward. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen enthusiastic educators crushed when the technological glitches make it too difficult to do their work.  What happens in the end is that they just quit trying and they don’t bother with trying something new because they fear that it won’t work and It only takes a few instances when a teacher is standing in front of a class trying to figure out why the technology isn’t working properly for the person to give up hope.

I have a personal example from this summer that describes what happens. In June I went out and purchased a HP 2140 (which I love) and I decided to go out on a limb and only use open source software. I wanted to see if I could do everything that I needed with these tools. So, I enlisted the support of our school’s open source guru and within a week I was set up. It took a bit longer than I would have liked and there were a few quirks that made me a bit worried, but I was really looking forward to this experiment. It was OK that I had to use a headset to use Skype and I was even getting used to the music software which wasn’t quite iTunes quality. I even signed up for 2 of the open source sessions at NECC.

By the end of June I was talking up Ubuntu and all of the open source products that I was using at the time. I loved that the computer started up and shut down quickly, that I did not need virus protection, and that it was FREE. I kept telling people that I thought that schools could use low cost netbooks and open source to provide all students with tools for learning. I loved the whole idea…until, one day, my computer stopped booting up and I was stuck.

On my initial call to HP the representative told me that they did not support Ubuntu. I then went online and joined a forum to see if I could trouble shoot the problem. Now, I’m definitely not a techie so it was difficult for me to understand language like this,

“Replace sda1 with the appropriate device (a = disk, 1 = partition number), then mount the virtual disk therein”

My friend who setup the computer, the Ubuntu guru, was on vacation and not available to help me from afar. Just as I was about to panic I put in one more call to HP. This time they put me in touch with an open source specialist who helped me determine that my hard drive was bad. To make a long story short, I sent the computer back and asked them to reinstall Windows for me. I gave up. I just did not feel like I had the support that I needed to continue with Ubuntu. It’s too bad because I think that it would have worked for me.

Now I’m trying to figure out if I want to pay up renew my virus protection to buy Microsoft Office since my trial copy is about to expire.

At one of the NECC open source forums someone asked about the availability of IT experts in the field who can support schools that choose to use the platform. The panelists response is one that all of us should remember, no matter what platform you use. While there isn’t an overabundance of experts out there, it’s best to find someone who is good and then provide them with the training over the long term. Develop that person(s) professionally so that they can truly support your users.