Thursday, January 18, 2007

Home...and Back Again
Student Projects and the Death of the Disk

Today's knotty issue: how best to help students carry digital work effectively between home and school.

Once upon a time it was easy to make homework time an important component of project work. Students carried their notes and posterboard to and from home, borrowed books when they could, and used the public library to supplement school resources.

And it was good. Our ability to create a fluid environment between home and school, homework and classwork, especially as part of an ongoing project, helped students learn the organization, production and development skills which they need in high school and in life.

Then the possibilities of presentation began to include a virtual component. Student worked back and forth between paper and computer, posterboard and network; the sources and the spaces for development became more diverse.

And supporting fluidity of work between home and school became more challenging.

Posters and paper still have an important place in the work of our students, of course. But the broader set of presentation and development tools which digital technology affords, coupled with the rapid pace of change of those technologies over the past few years, can lay a bumpy foundation for what should be a vital aspect of student work and development.

Two or three years ago, however, even this was a mostly manageable challenge. With a few important exceptions, every student had a basic computer at home, and was able to use floppy disks to easily port work in development between home and school and back again. Our biggest challenge in those years was access -- how do we use computers in school, and how can we plan for their use?

But recent, rapid changes in technology have hit each student differently. Every kid has a kitchen table big enough to lay out poster board, but not every student has software or hardware compatible with our school technology. Most students have home printers, but some do not. Most students have computers with a fast internet connection, but some must compete for those home resources.

More generally, technology use has skyrocketed, just as computers themselves are changing under our feet.

And the labs recently ran out of recycled floppy disks. Which, it turns out, may be a good thing after all.

There are several reasons why we're long overdue to replace floppy disk data transfer between school and home:
  1. Disks are on the way out. Computers purchased in the past year or two don't usually come with floppy drives; as such, ironically, many of our students who have access to the newest technology are least able to use our current standard for moving data. In our worst cases, students are still using disks, but have no way to access them once they get home!

  2. Disks are too small. Projects are beginning to come in too big to fit. Publisher and Powerpoint projects, especially, often transcend the limitations of floppy disk size, due to their heavy use of images.

  3. Disks are too fragile. Magnets can erase their content; the physical object of the disk itself is too easily broken, and the content lost. While these physical issues have always existed, it was once thought that a new digital generation would be naturally more capable of protecting their disks. Instead, we find that disks are so rare for students outside of school, today's digitally-savvy kids may be even less prepared to take good care of their disks...until it's too late.

So what can we do?

One solution is to begin moving away from supporting disks to better supporting those media which are becoming common to all newer computers.

The recent addition of Windows XP workstations to our classrooms has made supporting flash drives and CDs a thousand times easier than before.
  • In a Windows 98 environment, using flash drives meant installing software (called a driver) for each type of flash drive, which was very time-consuming. Windows XP, on the other hand, is "plug and play" -- it automatically recognizes flash drives as just another storage space.

  • New CD burners allow us to send students home with stronger, larger, less fragile versions of their works-in-progress. (Hint: using rewritable disks allows students to keep re-using the same CDs throughout the year, rather than wasting all that plastic for a single word document.)

  • New network configurations, including the ability to "see" the student network under a teacher's network login, allow you to move student content fluidly from computer to computer throughout the building

These solutions are not ideal, yet. Moving documents around so much leaves us open to confusion. How many of us have lost track of which computer, disk or drive has the most recent version of our work?

But happily, using "sneakerware" -- an old tech term for "carrying disks, CDs and flash drives from one computer to another" -- is fast becoming moot. In the next few months, watch this space for a look at our plans to begin supporting student use of Internet storage spaces, which can be accessed from both home and school -- an even more stable, more simple, and more student-centered solution than sending emails back and forth.

Want to learn how best to manage moving documents from here to there? Frustrated by those constant end-of-day emails and attachment requests from your students? Need a network folder for your class projects? Instruction for your students to learn how best to store, move, and organize their digital work? Stop by the lab, or email us -- we're here to help!