One laptop for every childs progress or politics

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I intend to stick quite closely to the title stated above, 'One Laptop for every child... Progress or Politics in Trinidad and Tobago?' However, in no way can such a topic be addressed without first looking at the subject of technology and where technology is taking us. The 'where' is a difficult question to answer with any certainty, but one thing that is certain, is the fact that 'technology empowers those who own it and understand it, and can place others at a distinct disadvantage' (Tan Wee Hin & Subramaniam, 2006).

Throughout my primary and secondary school years, the World Book Encyclopaedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica were the resources I used to gather information for assignments given to me by my teachers. Encyclopaedias were the central means of acquiring information at that time. I summarised and paraphrased what I read and transcribed it in my notebooks and copybooks. Today, having more resources at their fingertips than children just twenty years ago, children can type their internet researched assignments on their laptops or their desktops.

In less than a lifetime, technology has taken giant steps and has made profound impact not only in the educational arena but in every aspect of our lives, fundamentally changing the way we live, work, learn and play, while concurrently introducing radical changes and assuming important places in both our formal and informal educational arena (Tan Wee Hin & Subramaniam, 2006). As the world today moves toward a more open and global society where international communications networks tend to eclipse the barriers of physical location (body, family, country, society) (Mc Luhan, 1964), we are inundated with technology - television, internet, video games, personal computers, camcorders, mobile phones, palm pilots and iPods are just few. The young people engage with and exercise competence in a whole range of these technologies, in the home as well as at school and in the wider social world, developing online communities in which 'the local and personal significance of age, ethnicity, gender or class are rendered irrelevant by these medium'(Facer, 2001; p.)

The increasing interplay between our children and technology poses critical questions about the impact such technological availability has on their everyday life. According to Hutchby and Morris (2001), technology

... on the one hand, can, especially when focused on information technology, provoke utopian visions of a childhood radically unlike anything known before; at ease with arcane knowledge, empowered, connected and freed from the constraints of locality. At the same time these very visions promote fears about the despoliation of childhood and the transformation, for the 'bad' of the relationships between the generations (p.x).

But these are not newfangled fears and anxieties. In the past, before the arrival of all these new technologies, adults were concerned about what children may see and know from the television. The same anxieties and concerns have now coalesced, as children interact with new technologies, generating considerable lay concern and mass media commentary (Hutchby & Morris, p.1). How then do we deal with this situation?

Adults, especially those who are at the forefront of educating our children, have to learn to see the world from the children's perspective and viewpoint, as theirs is a different culture with different values and a different future. Our students are well aware that they are more advanced with the technology than most of their teachers. In their world, technology skills are lived and learnt each day, 'it's an integral and important component of their quality of life' (Varsity & Glass, 2005; p.xi) and therefore technology connections should be a part of their school experience. As the youths will say, 'adults need to get with the program'. Teachers are aware of the pervasiveness of technology and we should seek to find a systematic and effective way to keep up with the technology. However, this itself is a 'formidable challenge given the pace of change in the industry and other demands on teachers' time' (Office of tech Assessment, p.8).

Every country seeks ways to enhance the quality of teaching and learning in schools. Governments throughout the world are making huge investments to equip schools with ICT. They are enquiring into the conditions that must be fulfilled in order to achieve improvement in students' attainment. Governments are eagerly pursuing the best way forward in this fast changing environment and are anxious to learn from the experiences of others (Organisation for economic cooperation and development, 2001).

The Laptop Initiative in Trinidad and Tobago - eConnect and Learn

Every child going on to secondary school from the SEA will be provided with a laptop to begin their secondary school education (Manifesto of the People's Partnership, 2010) [1] 

The People's Partnership Government, according to the Minister of Education, because of the

genuine socio-political principle in which the Administration is anchored saw it fit to choose

as one of its very first initiatives upon assuming office, the provision of laptops to secondary

schools, and in so doing, giving what he describes as 'power to the people'.

The laptop programme in Trinidad and Tobago - eConnect and Learn (eCAL) - has as its goal, to provide every SEA student who was successful in the 2010 Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) exams - 16,869 in all - with a free laptop, and the promise of ubiquitous access to the internet. Already, there are 133 public schools and 18 private schools with internet connectivity in Trinidad and Tobago, and the ministry plans to increase the bandwidth in these schools from 3G (gigabytes) to 5G in the very near future to accommodate the eCAL initiative. The product to be distributed is an HP 425 Notebook PC - 20,300 machines in total - equipped with, according to the Minister of Education, enhanced specifications to increase performance, connectivity and energy efficiency. These specifications include: faster processing speeds, improved wireless capability, Bluetooth connectivity, larger internal storage, faster hard drive speed, extended battery life, Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007 and Learning Essentials 2.0 for Microsoft Office. The laptops would also be outfitted with the tracking device - Computrace - and once reported stolen the laptop's Internet connectivity would be permanently disabled.

The genesis of eCAL took place on the People's Partnership Party's election campaign platform, as they crusaded to win the general election of 2010. The promise of laptops topped their list of promises to be fulfilled during their first 120 days in office, once elected to government. However, due to the circumstances in which the promise was initially made, the citizens had their doubts. Many members of the public regarded the initiative as a promise made on a general election campaign platform in order to win votes, and not everyone was convinced that the laptop initiative would come to fruition.

As fate would have it, the Peoples Partnership Party was successful in the 2010 general election and hastened to fulfill their campaign promise to all SEA students even as the debate continued. But, for so many of us, change is always so hard to swallow and the efforts to introduce the laptops provoked a variety of responses from the general public in Trinidad and Tobago. The responses ranged from enthusiasm and skepticism to apathy and downright opposition. The editorial pages of the daily newspapers were filled with letters expressing the fears and concerns of citizens. For some these fears and concerns were genuine, whilst for others, one could haer the voice of political antagonists and supporters within every sentence read. Concerns included theft, damage, security and durability of the device in such young hands. There were also many fears and concerns expressed because of a lack of information or the spread of incorrect information. The new members of the opposition, as well as members of the general public argued that putting a laptop in the hands of all form one SEA students did not make sense either fiscally, educationally, or philosophically. There were incessant calls to discontinue the plans to distribute the laptops, but the government strongly defended its decision regarding the eCAL programme, emphasizing that the laptops would enhance the learning environment for both teachers and students and vowed to keep its promise.

Consequently, the sum of $83 million was invested in the purchase of 20,300 machines, 3000 of which were purchased specifically for teachers of the form one students. But this did not stop the criticisms of the newly elected administrators, with one internet blogger going as far as stating that the newly elected administration 'were dipping into the coffers of the Trinidad and Tobago government simply to keep an election promise' (Taran Rampersad, August,2010). Whilst the laptop controversy brewed, form one students in the secondary schools were all eagerly awaiting their laptops. For many of them, having a laptop to call their own was a dream come true, and the Government continued to assure them that the promise of laptops would be kept despite the debates and would even continue in the following years.

In my opinion, the laptop goal is indeed a noble one, with the potential of improving teaching and learning in the form one classes in the first instance, and throughout the schools as the eCal programme expands each year. The devices will assist schools in engaging the digital generation by nurturing the one to one classroom experience. But, whilst the concept of ICT in education, through the introduction of laptops, is important in any school programme, several issues should be taken into consideration before the machines are obtained and deployed.

According to the Smart Classroom Bytes (2nd ed.) (SCB), successful implementation of one to one laptop programmes in schools occurs in four stages: planning, preparation, implementation and review. SCB suggests that during the planning stages it is important for the laptop implementation team to research 1-1 laptop plans in schools locally, regionally and internationally. The results of this research will assist in building a strong vision of how the programme will improve student learning, it will prepare the team to positively deal with those who are resistant to change by having firsthand knowledge of situations where the laptops were successfully introduced. It will also assist in the understanding of the range of complexities in successfully implementing a quality 1 to 1 programme. Finally after having accumulated all this information the implementation team will now have better ideas of how to model the programmes in their schools.

Governments are fond of claiming that it is their reforms that have transformed the educational scene for the better, and the present government of Trinidad and Tobago is no exception. Here they were, impetuously trying to fulfill their campaign promise, but, judging from the span of time between which the promise of laptops were made to children in Trinidad and Tobago and the delivery of the first laptops, it is relatively easy for one to conclude that no research of the kind described above took place before the implementation of the eCal programme. One wonders - Was the eCAL programme a plan for gaining political mileage or was it a genuine effort to improve learning and teaching in our schools?

The first batch of laptops -3000 in all- arrived in Trinidad on the 24th September 2010. Five days later the task of distribution began (Trinidad Express, October, 2010). Two Government Secondary schools and one Government assisted school were chosen to be the first to receive laptops with the Prime Minister was on hand to formally distribute the devices. The eCAL policy gave the students the choice of taking their laptops home or if they preferred they would be allowed to leave them at school as laptop accommodation would be provided at every school.

The laptop team was seemingly ignorant of the complexities of the eCAL programme. Laptop accommodation was lacking at most schools and this was just one of a series of elements that was left unattended in the planning stages of the eCAL programme. Students were forced to walk around with laptops at all times. It was apparent that no detailed readiness assessment was done at the schools in the planning stages of the eCAL programme and was even more apparent in the preparation stage. As the government, in its urgency, sought to fulfill their campaign pledge, one very important part of the educational equation was virtually overlooked - the teachers. No definite vision for teacher professional development was articulated, which is quite ironic, as teachers are at the centre of effective use of the laptops in the classrooms and are usually the final arbiters of what happens to technology in the school environment.

In an ideal situation, teachers should have access to the computing devices before the students (SBE) in order that they become sufficiently comfortable with the technology to adjust to the requirements of 21st century learning. Special training is needed to support teachers with the new laptops. The curriculum should be made ready for e-learning, and a community of mentors should be present in every school. The government has provided access to free computer literacy programmes for all teachers. However, being computer literate is not enough if teachers are to effectively make use of the laptops to extend and support student learning. Teachers need comprehensive professional development programmes which will allow them to boost their efficacy in the use of laptops as well as afford them opportunities to explore new forms of assessment, teaching and learning.

Both the intricacies of the innovation of a computer integrated curriculum and the absence of a fully developed implementation strategy for the laptop programme in the secondary schools in Trinidad and Tobago, indicates that a substantial amount of time and energy needs to be devoted to resolving implementation issues. This leaves less time to focus on substantial issues such as student learning. [2] 

Laptops as an agent of change

21st century civilizations have shifted to a profoundly interconnected, knowledge-based, global market place (Dertouzos & Gates, 1998). This evolution has been the genesis for a slow but radical change in all forms of societal institutions, including schools (Dede, 2000). The literature indicates that throughout the past decade, there has been an increasing presence of technology in classroom, in the belief that the technology will change teachers' existing practices and revolutionize education. Today, many schools in countries all over the world have committed to the laptop initiative, and Trinidad and Tobago is no exception. Teachers in Trinidad and Tobago are now being asked to integrate Information and Communication Technology (ICT), through the use of laptops, in their form one classrooms, an integration for which, as mentioned before, teachers are ill prepared.

The introduction of new technologies in schools is often seen as a stimulus or catalyst for change both in the pedagogical approach and the way the schools are organized (Rysjedal & Baggetun). However, one of the obstacles of a smooth integration is the teachers' lack of pedagogical knowledge which in turn leads to continuation of the traditional ways of teaching instead of their taking advantage of what technology affords. According to Cuban(1993),

The principal reason for the limited use of technology in schools is the dominant culture of schooling and teachers' beliefs about how schools should be organized and what teaching; learning and knowledge are rather than a lack of funds for technology,indifferent administrators and limited teacher skills (p. ).

The continuation of old practices, despite the introduction of new technology, does not augur well for change or improvement in education (Vrasidas & Glass, 2005; p.5). Reformation and or replacement of old curricula and pedagogical approaches are imperative, in order to effectively take advantage of the affordances of laptops in the classrooms.

The introduction of laptops in the classroom can be seen as either a tool to simply improve what we already do in the classroom, or on the other hand, as a tool with the potential to revolutionize what we do in the classrooms and how we do it. Means (1994) opined that 'history suggests that whenever a new technology is introduced … individuals' first inclination is to use it as they used the traditional technology it replaced' (p.3). Simply using laptops only to enhance everyday teaching and learning (e.g. to find interesting facts to add to a lesson, to create class materials and handouts, to take online quizzes etc) thwarts the powerful potential, learning experience laptops can provide in the classroom. Though the inauguration of the laptops in the classrooms throws many challenges to the educational process, how the ministry of education, teachers, administrators and all other stake holders respond to these challenges will be the deciding factor in the destiny of the laptop computer in the classrooms in the next millennium.

It is a terrible thing to see and not have vision (Keller, 1880-1968) [3] , it is wise therefore to think seriously about where we are heading with the introduction of the new technology in the classrooms, and exactly how are we going to get there. '[S}erious reform efforts must look not just at the classroom, but at the whole system within which education takes place' (Means, p.5). The laptop can act as a significant and perhaps a radical agent of change in the teaching learning process once teachers and school administrators are willing to rise to the challenge of 'reorganizing, reinventing and rebuilding pedagogical practices, routines and thinking in ways that reflect the changing technological and sociological climate in which our children are learning' (Girod & Cavanaugh, 20010; p.1) [4] .

For the laptop to truly become a change agent in our schools and in our classrooms in particular, fundamental change is needed. A lack of pedagogical knowledge often causes teachers to continue in their traditional ways of teaching, thus failing to take advantage of what the technology affords (Vrandas & Glass, 2005). Teachers have to move away from doing things as they were taught as students (Broooks-Young, 2007), they have to leave those old ways behind and learn to teach in new ways, ways in which they have not been taught themselves (Hargreaves et al , 2001; p.197) they must adapt to new methods of both seeing and doing things (Ertmer, ). There must be changes in epistemology, changes in psychology as applied to learning', as well as social and relational change, in order to foster successful students equipped with 21st century skills. 21st century skills for students (ISTE, 2010) are defined as creativity and innovation, research and information, communication and collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving and decision making, digital citizenship and technology operations and concepts (MOE, 2010).

For epistemological changes to take place in the laptop learning classroom, teachers must firstly, rethink their roles as didactic leaders, where the instructor's knowledge and evaluation are privileged. Secondly, teachers need to ensure that their dominant beliefs of what constitutes the factors of learning, teaching and knowledge, do not constrain their mindsets, paradoxically preventing the fundamental changes that can take advantage of new technologies and address the inadequacies in the current educational system. Thirdly, teachers must not rely heavily on textbooks but instead push new boundaries of knowledge resource and content.

As previously alluded to, the introduction of laptops in the classroom should be the basis of a significant change in thinking about student learning. Very often teachers are so busy thinking about how to teach that very little time is spent thinking about how students learn. Technology asks both teachers and learners to envision teaching and learning tasks in new ways. Teachers must design learning activities and students must design learning projects that make use of technology resources and subject matter ideas. Designing a project can help students bring together ideas about the subject matter, their own strengths and motivations n and communicative principles. Technology affords very different opportunities that may spark a line of inquiry previously unimagined. Teachers must embrace these opportunities and realize the implications for student learning. Rather than having a class full of students locked in one activity.

Relating to the notion of facilitating learning rather than dispensing knowledge are issues of power and social politics. If the teacher and text are displaced as the sole arbiters of subject matter knowledge, ramifications follow for power relationships in classrooms. Many students may feel empowered by the freedom to learn, explore and critique knowledge as it comes to them in new media. Students are often thrilled to realize that perhaps for the first time, they know more about the topic than their teacher. Students who feel empowered as learners are more highly motivated to learn and are generally more successful in their efforts to do so.

Through the use of laptops students must be prepared to become lifelong learners who can manage large quantities of information, solve problems, think critically, work in teams and use the technology effectively. Technology tools can help teachers design activities that will prepare students to deal with expanded workplace demands, but only if those teachers are willing to become more advance technology users themselves and implement new teaching strategies (Brooks-Young, 2006; p.6).