The best and worst of 2007 Ed Tech

I can't resist another 2007 wrap-up post. Even my students have commented on just how much things have changed this year in the ways they interact with technology.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

I can't resist another 2007 wrap-up post. Even my students have commented on just how much things have changed this year in the ways they interact with technology. Their use of computers and convergence devices becomes more seamless every day. I have students with iPhones, Voyagers, Motorola Q's, and Palm Treos. Just when I thought my LG EnV was cool enough to keep up with my students, one of my most lackluster pupils (she actually, in complete seriousness, asked me if there was such a thing as a left triangle during a discussion of the Pythagorean Theorem) bounced into class and showed me her new smartphone; she was thrilled since her parents had bought her unlimited data and texting. Great.

What all of this means, of course, is that students everywhere (even little old Athol) have extraordinary amounts of information at their thumbtips (only my 5-year old thinks he can touch type on my EnV's QWERTY keyboard). For the kids who can resist the call of the text message, this sort of ubiquitous Internet access has proved especially useful, although most are finding that laptops serve their needs better overall than the latest Verizon has to offer. This leads me to my best of 2007 Ed Tech nominations:

The OLPC XO and the Intel Classmate tie for the best Ed Tech specific technology this year. I've long been critical of OLPC's mission and distribution model; however, as more of these little computers make their way into the hands of North American kids (as well as kids around the world), it's becoming very clear that OLPC has at least succeeded in creating a new breed of PC designed from the ground up to intuitively work for kids. It's rugged and runs a slick OS, although I have my doubts about the real utility of its much touted mesh networking. The point is, kids can pick these things up and begin using them naturally in moments. Much more importantly, this device is the first of a new breed of student-centric small computers that will, in the next year or two, make 1:1 computing sustainable, practical, useful, and widely available to districts and school systems that could not have afforded previous 1:1 initiatives.

The Intel Classmate, though labeled a copycat (among other less-than-flattering names by its detractors), is another really outstanding product that will achieve similar gains in 1:1 computing and will help drive technological advancement in the cheap, kid-friendly, ultraportable category. Intel was kind enough to send me a few test machines and it was incredibly clear to me (and many of my readers) that Intel has a hit on their hands that really needs to make it to developed countries as well as to emerging markets. Not only were the software and hardware impressive (plenty of expandability and a design that could take a beating), but the distribution model continues to strike me as eminently reasonable: supplement existing classroom infrastructures to bridge the digital divide without working in markets so depressed that the opportunity costs associated with rolling out the computers leave a bad taste in our mouths. Better yet, Intel will partner with any software developers to certify operating systems for use on the machines. Thus, I was able to test Windows XP, Mandriva Linux, and Metasys Linux on the units from Intel.

I can't help but feel that this is where we're headed: 1:1 computing with cheap, rugged hardware, easily jammed into backpacks, lockers, etc., and easily used in a variety of settings, both in and out of classrooms. Combine these with terminal services and web-based applications and they represent great opportunities rather than design/function compromises.

So how about the worst of 2007? Number 1 is Windows Vista. There just isn't any impetus to migrate, other than possible lock-ins from various OEMs as districts, colleges, students, and staff purchase new computers. Fortunately, most first-tier manufacturers offer enterprise customers (including schools) the option of sticking with Windows XP on new purchases. However, Vista generally can't compete with clean installs of XP in terms of performance, especially on older hardware; it certainly can't compete with the major Linux distributions, that have the added advantage of being free. You don't notice Microsoft working on versions of Vista for the Classmate or XO. What's the Asus Eee running? That's right, Linux.

A close second may seem to conflict with my "best of" list. However, a close examination of my rationale should clear up any confusion as to why I'm naming OLPC as my worst of 2007 Ed Tech runner up. Notice that I named OLPC, not it's product. The XO really is very cool and I can't wait to see where it (and it's competitors) take the hardware and software in 2008. However, until Nicholas Negroponte stops hawking these devices support-free in markets where basic needs are unmet and educational resources don't exist to guide kids towards solid educational uses for the XO, I just can't get behind the project as a whole. It takes a lot of digging on the OLPC website to get past smiling kids carrying little green laptops and find sketchy details on backend server requirements, funding for replacement parts (even if the kids can fix broken machines on their own), Internet access, mesh networking, etc. The product is at the forefront of classroom technology; a serious ego seems to be at the front of the OLPC group.

What do you think? What are your best and worst of the year?

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