Q&A with AALF President Bruce Dixon
The nonprofit group Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation (AALF), established three years ago as an advocacy vehicle for learning through 1-to-1 laptop initiatives, has partnered with schools worldwide and held leadership-building conferences to make their vision a reality. President Bruce Dixon spoke to DA about the group-which encourages membership based on shared expertise-and the challenges to overcome.
DA: Can you describe in a nutshell the work AALF does with schools?
Dixon: Our goal is to ensure all children have access to unlimited opportunities to learn anytime, anywhere, and that they have the tools to make that access possible. To achieve that, we aim to help schools develop visionary leadership and knowledgeable and innovative educators. So against those broad goals we run events, provide professional development, provide resources and build communities around those strategies so that we can ensure that we're meeting our goal. That means everything from promoting the benefits of every child having constant access to technology to giving them unlimited learning opportunities through running workshops, practicums for 1-to-1 leadership, and events on how to actually implement a program. The final pieces are then building critical conversations inside a range of courses or conferences to expand the discussion around sustaining successful 1-to-1 deployments.
DA: Why "anytime anywhere"? What are the benefits of that educational philosophy?
Dixon: There are a range of imperatives driving what is essentially a change in the way we view education, learning and, indeed, the institution of school itself. And they are coming to us now from the availability of information-being something that we don't go to school to receive and something that is available to us literally anytime, anywhere. And it's also acknowledging the increased awareness of the amount of informal learning that builds on successful participation in society, not just what we see traditionally as formal learning inside school walls.
DA: What is informal learning?
Dixon: Informal learning is everywhere. It's when I'm sitting down somewhere and someone asks me a question like "Why do I do that?" or "How do I do that?" Informal learning is something that can be as valuable and as rigorous as the sort of formal learning that might happen inside a classroom, but it doesn't happen in a necessarily structured way. It might be something I learned from my peers or a teacher in a more casual environment. It could come from online resources. It's a form of learning that we'll always have. It's the expansion of the availability of technology that has brought the reality of the benefits of informal learning to us. And that's the basis on which we're building.
DA: Are you advocating for informal learning in schools, or for better informal learning outside of school?
Dixon: Certainly outside is where we would see that. But our focus is to support what schools are doing, what teachers are doing, and expanding opportunities for students. The availability of technology at school gives students a far more diverse range of learning paths and learning styles than would be otherwise possible.
DA: What technology tools are we looking at? Multimedia, the Web, search engines?
Dixon: Yes. We see the core media tool as every child having their own personal portable computer, which would be a laptop. But we don't see that as the be all and end all. We believe there are a diverse range of technologies that are coming together. It's about collaborating and sharing ideas. The computer is the medium of their time. It improves access, it overcomes equity issues, and it helps lesser-privileged kids get access to information and share ideas with people they wouldn't otherwise have access to.
DA: What about administrators who may be reluctant to explore laptop initiatives, or question the need for 1-to-1 programs?
Dixon: We wouldn't want anyone to see this as an imposition, as something they had to have. Every time that we've done this it's been an initiative that the families and students have wanted to take up. All we're advocating and building is the power for that opportunity. This isn't an option, really. The days of us debating whether or not every child will have his or her own portable computer have passed. The challenge we have is more for effective use of that computer. It's not just something that you give to somebody and hope that good things will happen. It requires building awareness about the curriculum opportunities and the different learning paths that can be explored.
DA: Once you have the laptops, what is the key to sound implementation of the technologies?
Dixon: Unfortunately, you have people who take it for granted and literally just go out and dump a thousand laptops in the hands of kids. And that can be a disaster. It can cause a lot of aggravation, and unnecessarily so. We think the actual implementation process is reasonably straightforward. We run a two-and-a-half-day practicum called "25 Steps to 1-to-1 Success." A lot deals with the technology background, getting the infrastructure correct, looking at the equity and affordability issues. ... There are many answers out there, and part of the challenge with the foundation is to make those resources and that experience available to a wider audience. And we're doing that in a number of ways through events and through our Web site, aalf.org. But at the same time, the big challenge has to be inspiring teachers to believe that this is something they can lead. Teachers and administrators may not be familiar with the different technology ideas for building learning for kids, and we've got to provide them with guidance and support, not just in the form of courses but coaching. We must advise leaders about the value of coaching so that staff can have people on faculty that can support their ideas and help them develop better resources for kids.
DA: And does that tie in to the challenge of reaching educators who may lack the technology vision?
Dixon: The truth is that with more and more people we're seeing an exponential increase in awareness across schools, not only within the United States but across North America and across many countries. But there are still a lot of people who don't realize or aren't aware of where they should be going or don't fully understand the benefits. They haven't had the advantage of seeing exactly what this means for young people, and this is something that you can't drive people to. It's got to be always someone-whether it's a teacher, principal, superintendent, policymaker or government official-who has got to see the opportunity. Once they show interest we can certainly help them clarify their vision and give them strategies for effective implementation and support to work with faculty and students.
DA: What are the inhibiting factors or challenges facing school officials, and how might they overcome them?
Dixon: People can sometimes say that they're cautious about implementing 1-to-1, and they can give a whole lot of reasons. Generally, it just takes time for some people to understand the challenges or issues, be it their perception of technological barriers or basic competency problems. Once you can share experiences from people who have been through this over a number of years-and build it around the burgeoning evidence and research-you can certainly gain confidence with people like that and help them feel that it's something they can lead.
DA: You offer an array of consulting services. How does that aspect work?
Dixon: We're in the process of launching a coaching service, which is where we go in and support leadership in 1-to-1 so people who are implementing a program and looking for support can get it face-to-face or from virtual support. We have a number of people whom we act simply as a referral agency to, and there are people we know who have expertise and experience in various branches of their deployments of 1-to-1, and that's usually whom we refer people to. It's just a range of the services that we're trying to bring on board to support leadership.
DA: And that's related to your staff development and your professional development services, right?
Dixon: That's right. We're partnering with a number of professional associations and governments throughout the world who are running events or looking to run events, and we provide a network of experienced educators who can complement the content for conferences. So we're running threads through a variety of state-based and regional conferences and bringing together members of our global 1-to-1 community to share their expertise.
DA: Are some countries stepping up to the plate more than others? Is the United States ahead of the pack?
Dixon: There is momentum worldwide, across Europe-in particular, in countries like France and Portugal-through to countries in South America where both the Intel Classmate PC and the One Laptop per Child initiative penetrate enormous numbers of young people. The work from both those organizations is certainly driving opportunities for them. And in countries like the U.K., New Zealand and Australia, there are big initiatives. But there is essentially momentum across the world-across Asia, I should also mention-Singapore stands out. Most teachers in Malaysia have their own laptop in preparation for initiatives like this, and in countries like Korea and even Taiwan there is a lot of early work happening where 1-to-1 deployments are now becoming a normal part of expectations of students at school.
DA: How do One Laptop per Child and similar programs affect 1-to-1 initiatives?
Dixon: That work, and similar work from Intel with the Classmate PC and others, is to be applauded. It's extraordinary. It's the missing piece in that we need to have an affordable device for people in circumstances where they can't pay for a traditionally commercially available machine, and that has opened up a continuum of pricing categories for young people in schools. At the other end, of course, we've seen the launch of the Tablet PC, and that's become very popular. So everything from your sort of fully functional tablet to the $150 or $200 laptop means that affordability is no longer an issue. It's all moving toward "affordable computing."
DA: So the financial cost of such laptop initiatives is becoming less of a concern?
Dixon: Part of what we do is look at ways in which we can make access affordable for all young people and families. This isn't something that should be the domain of the wealthy. We've got to make sure that all kids who have the opportunity to learn this way have access to a computer. So you have to be a little creative and think differently about funding, but we have some basic principles and we have financial models that allow governments and districts to see how they can make it possible for all their students.
DA: What advice might you give to a district administrator interested in getting more involved in this?
Dixon: My advice would be very simple. The idea of every child increasing their opportunities for learning, anywhere, anytime, has now come. This is no longer something that people are discussing "if" it should happen; it is only a question of when. And I'd strongly advise district administrators who may be unsure of what they should do or how to do it to make contact with us. We can share with them some of our background and point them to research and then hopefully help them with resources and support them in bringing this to their district so their young people can have the opportunities that are now becoming invaluable to so many others.