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Future Vision

Educators gather at tech conference to swap stories of anytime, anywhere learning

Vision on ice is no different from vision that 21st century schools must have to survive and thrive, according to Angus King, former governor of Maine. In 2002, King used a state surplus to buy laptops for every seventh and eighth grader in Maine.

Gretzky's quote-which King used in his speech-summed up the first Anytime, Anywhere Learning Foundation conference in Boston in June that brought together 200 educators from Australia to Canada. The foundation is a not-for-profit association whose primary purpose is to serve as an advocacy vehicle for anytime, anywhere learning.

A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be. -Wayne Gretzky, Hall of Fame hockey player

Educators in private and public schools who already have or are starting one-to-one laptop initiatives are skating where the proverbial puck is heading. They compared notes to bring students into the 21st century, and simply, to keep up with youths and teenagers who are already multi-tasking outside of school-reading a book for homework as they listen to their MP3 players, play video games and Instant Message their friends on laptops. [Using e-mail, by the way, is considered old school, as it's not fast enough, one speaker pointed out.]

"Over three days the conference captured not only the spirit of one-to-one computing but also gave educators and educational leaders the chance to build connections across the wider one-to-one global community," says Bruce Dixon, president of AALF. "Many participants commented it was the most valuable conference they had attended in years."

One-to-one programs require passion, money and perseverance, but the payoffs are high. When well-implemented, one-to-one programs can bring students from boredom to real academic highs with skills that will help them compete in higher education, the job market and life.

"Our kids are lightning learners in legacy learning classrooms," said Charlie Clark, head of St. Edward's School in Vero Beach, Fla. He added that students must learn about other cultures, be prepared for the unknown and become data gatherers.

Teaching with such new tools requires that teachers step out of their "comfort zones" and learn new tricks, just as Tiger Woods had to re-learn his swing on the golf course because he outgrew his perfect swing, according to John Bransford, professor of education and psychology at the University of Washington.

Standing on stage, King, now president of the Maine Learning Technology Foundation, explained to the audience how he used $50 million of a state surplus to help fund 37,000 Apple iBook laptops for every seventh and eighth grader starting in 2002. He decided in a split second, after asked by a reporter, that students would own the computers, not the state. "Seventh graders became the most despised minority in Maine," King said, eliciting laughs.

After hate mail rolled in-one from an incredulous father who told King he might as well give a chainsaw to every seventh grader because he thought they were too young with such an expensive tool-King stuck to his guns, knowing it was the right thing to do.

The program is starting its fifth year, using 39,000 new iBooks. Students are writing better, attending class more, and needing less discipline. The laptops are also helping them think more critically, King added, as they learn to determine "fact from fancy" on the Internet.

The fact that only roughly 1,000 private and public schools have one-to-one laptops programs today ... "is puzzling to me," King said. Ten years from now people will step back and ask, why did it take so long? "Real change is hard."

Ronald Canuel, director general of Eastern Townships School Board in Quebec, which has a one-to-one laptop program, added that it's downright "scary." "It's a culture with a lack of risk taking," he said.

Although Quebec's program, for third through eleventh graders, is funded through $12.5 million in secured loans, with no government money, Canuel said he believes government officials don't want districts to learn about the successful program for fear it would create a mass desire for laptops the government would eventually have to help fund.

With the "explosion of information" in the world today, it's impossible to know everything, King said. So teachers are key in leading knowledge-hungry students to the right information-how to find it, how to discriminate if the information is fact or fiction, and then to use it appropriately.