Bringing Netbooks into the Classroom – Part one (of several)

You know that any given technology has hit the mainstream when your grandmother starts telling you all about it. And so it well may be that most of us bare witness to the humble, netbook which has taken the technology world by storm since its debut in late 2007. Technology analysts forecast sales of up to 30 million of these pint-sized techno-beauties over the next twelve months, with exponential growth to follow.

So, witnessing this micro-miracle unfolding, it was with a somewhat smug sense of prophetic confidence that I told my boss early last year that netbooks would in due course surely mean big business for educators. Although it wasn’t hard to hedge bets in this area, I nonetheless acknowledge that the tea-leaves have been kind to me. It seems that governments, systems and schools are touting ultra-mobile, low-cost, low-power devices as the surest path to one-to-one computing in Australian schools.

So where does that leave us in the classroom? All too often, we see technologies being pushed by big agendas onto unwitting teachers and students – and of course, we know that often those agendas are more about profitability and everything supporting it (showiness, sponsorship, friendly deals, etc.) than about supporting learning and teaching. Perhaps for this reason, many skeptics argue that netbooks aren’t the best solution for technology-poor, cash-strapped schools.

I would argue that netbooks do have a lot to offer to those in education circles, particularly in schools that have an existing base of suitably powerful machines that can do specialist things like sound recording, movie making and photo-editing – when the need arises. Netbooks cost next to nothing, which makes the prospect of parents buying them more likely. Their puniness in size makes hauling the requisite class-set (for many of us, up to 32 or more in number) less onerous. They can do most of the things we do most of the time on bigger computers. However, because of their less-powerful nature, they actually make us appreciate all of the less wizz-bang things that computing technology has to offer (for example, instead of making a movie or recording a song, I’ll sit down and actually work out how to use Open Office).

For teachers and students, I believe the real beauty of netbooks lies in their being used to supplement rather than substitute good teaching. Let’s face it, if most of us had netbooks available to us every lesson, we’d probably think less about planning the occasional ‘technology’ lesson and more about getting on with the business of good old-fashioned teaching. If we get the teaching side of things right, netbooks could be a fantastic resource, sitting snugly on the corner of a student’s desk, to be used where and when appropriate. Most importantly, this kind of technology needn’t be all-consuming (like playing a video of The Wiggles to a two year old). Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for being immersed in the world of technology – when real learning is happening. Problem is: plenty of teachers are happy to book computer labs with lessons that involve little more than searching in Google, cutting from Wikipedia and pasting in Word.

Perhaps the tiny size of the netbook serves as a reminder that good teaching should take centre stage before technology makes an appearance in our classrooms? In any case, I’m a supporter of netbooks both in my classroom and in classrooms around the developing and developed world. It’s going to be an interesting time as we watch politics, the economy and governments’ agendas being played out.

Lucky for me, while all of this is happening, I have a principal that listens to my advice. We’ve recently bought a few Acer Aspire One netbooks to try out with the kids and if things go well, we’ll go ahead and buy our first netbook trolley. This should be a really interesting time as technology makes its way into more and more classrooms.

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About Michael

Cellist, singer/songwriter, school teacher, nerd, recent scooter enthusiast and failed philosopher.
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