Technological Evangelism

In my last post, I mentioned an impending road trip; now that it, and its followup meetings, are handled, I can talk a bit about what was going on.

Quinlan (my younger brother, now a sophomore in Politics at Yale) heard about the OLPC project and decided that it was wonderful– and not only that, but that what really needed to happen was that Montana, with its low internet and computer access levels for children, high rural populations, and insufficient opportunities for collaboration in many schools, should have the same program. Off, then, we went to show the XO to a few people and see what they thought.

Because my brother is not one to start small, our first meeting of the day was with the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and their educational advisor– during which I got to take a fun picture of Governor Schweitzer with the XO’s webcam (in the Lt. Governor’s office, hence the sign on the door).

The Governor of the State of Montan

We spoke for awhile about economic stimulus (a hot issue in this state), and about the possibility of turning even Montana’s middle-of-the-road students into technological leaders (briefly: if students learn to write code as they learn to write papers, then we will have students who can write code as well as they can write English– making our C students major technological people). He seemed excited about it– and may, he said, make it a focus of his reelection campaign this year to give one XO to every first-grader in Montana, each year– and let them keep it forever, to use in subsequent grades.

From there, on to the MEA/MFT – the state teachers’ union. Their leader seemed to think that Montana wasn’t ready to push real educational measures– but he certainly agreed that the XO was, indeed, a powerful educational tool. His assistant seemed to be more confident in the goodwill of the legislature!

Our last meeting of the day was set up by the Governor’s office for us, and it was with the Office of Public Instruction, the state head of education. They were (as I would hope!) completely ecstatic about the possibility– and on the spot, invented new uses for it that we hadn’t thought of. For instance, in most of northeastern Montana, an entire school district might have only two or three children from the same grade, making collaborative possibilities limited; what if, instead of making school servers be for one school, we made them for one grade, so that the (say) 300 second-graders in the northeast 20 counties could all work together? Brilliant, say I– and another way that Montana could greatly benefit from the XO.

So then– if the governor wants to make this a successful campaign message, what he needs is some support from the field– legislators and educators. To that end, the day after the Helena trip, we had a party/demo at our house, with a variety of each there– senators and legislators in addition to teachers, and even the head of the local school district for grades 7-12 was kind enough to join us. While the governor can look at this device and see a boost to education and thus the economy he leads, these teachers looked at this and saw immediate change for their students– in the words of one Government teacher, “this device would be an answer to my prayers.” She, of course, would not be the first to be able to teach with the device– it would be 10-12 years before her students walked in with green laptops– but even so, it was great to hear such support; and the same sentiment continued around the room.

So then, what happens next? Well, we hope that everyone we talked to in the last week who is not a governor, OPI member, or MEA/MFT leader will write to those people and show them that there’s support for a real change in Montana. If you live here, writing to your legislators would be great too. If we can show grassroots support for making Montana an educational leader, then this can really happen; there’s nothing standing in its way other than apathy.

The biggest talking points we found over the course of these meetings were:

  • Educational tool-- teachers in every grade can teach with current events or online resources as is impossible now without every student having real computer access
  • Research tool-- every grade writes reports, but many students don't have computers at home, putting them at a severe educational disadvantage
  • Educational savings-- if every child has a laptop, we can do away with paper textbooks, which saves the state enormous amounts of money while simultaneously allowing the state to get more up-to-date literature. In addition, with every child having a laptop, we can stop spending money on computer labs that have only standard equipment, leaving more opportunity to get special equipment for extra opportunities
  • Gifted/talented education-- students who can work beyond the class now have immediate access to the tools they need to carry their education beyond what the teacher is teaching at the moment
  • Special education-- having individualized laptops lets each student with special needs work in an environment designed to let them maximize their potential, whatever it may be
  • Collaborative opportunities-- between classrooms, schools, and districts, in ways that simply can't happen without the Internet being in every child's hands

It only takes a minute to call or email those 3-5 groups; I hope everyone takes the time to help make Montana a national leader in education.