Friday, November 6, 2015

Two Transformative Developments that Can Alter the Course of K-12 Education

Ronald L. Abate
November 5, 2015

The introduction of microcomputers in the early 1980s was met with excitement and skepticism by K-12 educators. Some complained about their high cost, others saw it as another fad, and some were simply intimidated by their perceived complexity. Others saw the great potential of these tools to facilitate education at all levels. Today, the voices of the skeptics have become silent. But two perplexing dilemmas remain: the high cost of hardware and the need to maximize the pedagogical benefits of technology to ALL students. Cloud computers and online courses can help.

Implications of Cloud Computing

The advent of cloud computing, (the practice of using a contingent of powerful, remote computers [servers] accessed via the Internet to process, manage, and store data), led to a much less expensive option. Google developed a web based operating system (Chrome OS). Various manufacturers have incorporated this system into their machines. These became known as Chromebooks. These laptops cost about two-thirds less than Apple or Windows based computers, mostly because they do not contain hard disk drives and fans. Acer, Asus, Dell, Lenovo, Toshiba and others market Chromebooks. Apple and Microsoft are reportedly in the process of developing cloud based laptops.
Many Connecticut school districts (including the seventeen technical schools) are converting to Chromebooks; a trend occurring nationwide. Many are aiming to provide one for every student ( 1:1 distribution.) A high-speed internet connection, a content filtering system, and staff training are prerequisites for successful deployment. Ideally, students would be permitted to take Chromebooks home where they can continue to work on assignments. Districts would have to take steps to assure that a home, internet connection is available to all students.

Features of Chromebooks

Light weight (most under 5 pounds)
Virus protection at no extra cost
Cooler operation; fans are not essential.
Fast startup and processing
Many applications (apps) included in the price (word processing, spreadsheets, slides, etc.)
Long battery life (about 9 hours)
A qwerty keyboard; desirable for word processing and test taking
Voice to text capability
Automatic updating of the operating system; expensive, time consuming updates are eliminated.
All student work is saved automatically in the cloud and is retrievable from any location where an internet connection is available.
Sound and a camera are included.
Free phone call capability (dialing and receiving within the U.S. and Canada)
District-wide management capability of all laptops from a central office location.
Lost or stolen Chromebooks can be locked remotely making them unusable.
Low cost (as low as $150 per unit.)

Benefits Provided by 1:1 Laptop Distribution

A “library” of resources via the Internet becomes available at anytime from any location. All students will have access to information provided by the Internet.
Less expensive, interactive, electronic textbooks can be accessed online. They can be readily updated. Unlike print textbooks, they will not get lost, wear out, or require physical storage space.
Forward thinking districts can enlist the skills of their faculty to create custom, online instructional units that will be made available to all their students.
The librarian’s role will transition to that of a technology support specialist.
Communication via the Internet between home and school can be facilitated.
The need for paper will be reduced as written assignments and testing are done online.
Students can submit assignments to teachers who can oversee, comment, correct and return work to students ALL via the Internet.
Safe, online storage of school records.
The need for local area networks (LANs) and computer labs will be reduced as each student will have their own laptop connected to the internet.
Assessing student achievement can be ongoing as progress is updated continuously through the use of moving averages. The need for report cards will decline.
Standardized testing can be administered on laptops. Results and summary statistics will be available almost immediately. Scoring cost will be reduced.

The Implications of Online Courses
Offering Massive, Open, Online Courses (MOOCs) is a recent trend at many colleges. These courses may be open to anyone, anywhere, often are free, are self-paced, and may offer college credit. Classroom attendance is not required except for proctored final exams if college credit is desired.
Very few K-12 school districts are using online courses due to: (1) cost of 1:1 distribution of laptops for use in school and at home, (2) lack of internet connections in some schools and homes*, (3) dearth of online, interactive instructional units and (4) unfamiliarity with the concept. K-12 school districts should undertake the development of online instruction. These units may be revised and updated as needed. Print textbooks will no longer be needed. Online texts may be offered as primary instruction, review, or for remediation. Students may do their homework before class, while in-class time is devoted to discussion, exercises, or projects, - the so-called “flipped classroom.” Online courses developed at the district level may, in time, become MOOCs open to all K-12 students world-wide.

*The Federal Government has earmarked 9 billion dollars to help schools develop high-speed Internet connections.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Can Online Courses Reduce the Cost of a College Education?

Credit bearing, online courses have the potential of reducing the cost of a college education. They may even be superior to in-class instruction. Courses can be designed and implemented by the best instructors available and be continually tweaked and revised. Courseware would be saved electronically and played repeatedly over time via the internet to successive groups of matriculated students. Unlike, in-class lectures, a student should be able to repeat online instruction repeatedly.
Costs savings occur because colleges will not have to compensate instructors for in-class instruction each semester. State run colleges are more likely to pass on these savings to students. Private, for profit schools may see this as an opportunity in increase their bottom line.
Instructors that design and implement these courses should receive compensation for their efforts plus royalties each time their course is taken. The sum of these royalties should be substantially less than what would be earned if taught in-class. This system would be comparable to the royalties earned by authors of textbooks. Exams should be taken in college classrooms monitored by proctors. Tests can be administered and scored via computers. However, essay type exams would have to be scored by those knowledgeable in the areas being evaluated. Economies of online instruction should be realized over a period of time.
Online instruction would probably be most suited for content heavy subjects like, science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM), economics, history, etc. Lab work required in some courses would be done on site. Courses in the fine arts, literature, the theater, physical education and others where participation is emphasized would be less amenable to online instruction.
Implementing online instruction would probably not be welcome by all. Some students might need or prefer the person-to-person interaction with teachers. Preferably, they should have the option of online education or in class instruction or a combination of the two. Many instructors would resist the expected reduction in employment. In the final analysis, we must ask ourselves if a reduction in the cost of education is worth the negatives brought on by this system of education. In the long run, students may decide.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

I have recently purchased the Samsung Chromebook, a laptop that runs on the Google Chrome Operating System. I was most impressed with its performance. Finding a computer for use in K-12 schools at a reasonable price has always been my goal. At only $249, the Chromebook realizes this objective. Products from Apple and Windows systems have been way too high if we expect to provide one computer per student. Also, students do not need the power that these systems provide.
The Chromebook has many other cost saving advantages: Word processing, spreadsheet, and slide presentation software is included as is continually upgraded virus checking. Many other applications (apps) are free or available at low cost. Also included is internet access and free online storage.
I was pleased with the fast boot up time and the responsiveness of its qwerty keyboard. I was able to use this computer for about six hours on a charge. Weighing only 2.43 pounds, it is ideal for even elementary school students. Below is a list of specifications for the Samsung Chromebook.
Some school systems have already purchased large quantities of this computer. As a retired educator and computer coordinator, I can recommend this system to any K-12 school system. We finally have a low cost computer that can meet all the needs of K-12 students and even many adults. Thank you Goggle and Samsung!

Hardware specs
Model Number: XE303C12
Display Size: 11.6-inches
Display: 1366x768 resolution; 200nit brightness
Weight: 2.43 lbs (
Less than 0.8 inches thick (17.5 mm)
Battery Life: over 6.5 hours
Processor: Samsung Exynos 5250
Memory: 2GB
Storage: 16GB SSD (Google is including 100GB free online storage)
Ports: 1 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, combo headphone/mic jack, secure digital memory slot
Bluetooth 3.0™ Compatible
Speaker: 1.5W speaker X 2
Keyboard: Full-size Chrome keyboard
Wireless: 802.11 abg/n 2x2
MSRP: $249 USD / 229 GBP

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Keyboard Training in Elementary Schools Moving Forward

On October 15, 2013 an article, For elementary students, keyboards trump pencils, appeared in The Hartford (CT) Courant newspaper. (The article originally appeared in The Washington Post and was authored by Lyndsey Layton.) Layton describes how a major shift is taking place in elementary school education: the teaching of keyboarding starting as early as kindergarten. This impetus resulted from the future implementation of standardized tests linked to the Common Core scheduled for 2014-15. These exams “... will require students to be able to manipulate a mouse, click, drag, and type answers on a keyboard; and, starting in third grade, write an outline.” Fourteen states have agreed to pilot a study to help “iron out the wrinkles” of the plan. Included is a creative writing exercise where students are expected to type a story based on experience or from their imagination. Obviously, students taking the Common Core exams who have mastered keyboarding will be at a decided advantage.
Some critics will maintain that elementary grade children are too young to master typing. I totally disagree. Failure to teach keyboarding at an early age will result in students learning inefficient skills where eyes are fixated on the keyboard and less on the screen. This causes more frequent eye shifts, typing errors and reduced speed. In 1993, I was placed in charge of a computer program in a renovated elementary school in Fairfield, CT. Third grade students would come to the computer lab each school day and receive keyboard training for about one half hour before beginning their regular instruction. The program was successful with the large majority of students mastering touch typing.
It is unfortunate that educators have to wait for something to be mandated from some external authority before it is put into practice. Many K-12 educators were too slow in recognizing the importance of the role computers would play in everyday life. Yes, there were exceptions; in the early 1980s some educators were brave enough to request placing computers in classrooms. Today, the new crop of teachers are decidedly more computer literate than those they replace.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

An Informative and Stimulating Day at UCONN

Yesterday I attended the CLAS College Experience, The Environment: Politics, Health & Nature – a conference provided by UCONN for their alumni. Faculty presenters included Prakash Fashwan, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science who spoke on “Green Consumption: Potential and Pitfalls of Market-based Environmental Goods and Services.” Debarchana (Debs) Ghosh, Ph.D., assistant professor of geography followed with her presentation, “You Are What You Eat – And Where You Live.” The final presentation, “Can We Predict Species Responses to Climate Change?” was given by Mark Urban, Ph.D., assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

I would like to thank all UCONN staff who made this program possible. All presentations were stimulating and informative. The hospitality was especially commendable. I would welcome more of these programs in the future.

Suggestions and recommendations:
The organization of the program should offer two presentations by UCONN professors detailing their research or lecturing on a timely topic. A third event that I would like to see is a discussion group on a subject of broad interest moderated by a professor or administrator. Some suggestions are: (1) the impact of massive open online courses (MOOCs) on academia, (2) the advent and implications of the “digital library:” dissemination of literature (including textbooks) via the Internet to e-books, laptops, tablets, phablets, etc. and (3) the ramifications of changes in sources of energy on the world economy. Other topics for discussion can be solicited from alumni.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Congratulations to Plainville Public Schools on their purchase of Samsung Chromebook computers

Congratulations to the Plainville, CT school system for their purchase of about 900 Chromebook laptops. These computers will be distributed to students in grades 8-12 for use at school and at home. Chromebooks can be purchased individually for about $250. I am sure Plainville paid less because of their volume purchase. These laptops can be used to access the Internet, communicate with staff and for completing written assignments. Too often school systems purchase computers costing well beyond the price of a Chromebook. Often this results in fewer computers because of their significantly higher unit cost. The decision regarding which brand of computer to purchase is too frequently determined by the personal preferences of teachers or administrators. The cost of hardware is simply ignored. Hopefully, in the future students will have access to all of their textbooks on computers resulting in significant savings for schools. If publishers fail to provide on-line texts, schools should take the initiative and have their staff create their own texts. Or these can be produced by the state and distributed to all schools. Another advantage of this undertaking is that textbooks can be tailored to meet the curriculum objectives of the district.
I believe the choice of laptops for students rather than tablets has significant advantages. Written work is facilitated when students have a standard keyboard. Students can be trained to touch type as early as grade 3. This may sound too ambitious, but I have taught keyboarding to third graders successfully when I was a computer specialist at an elementary school in Connecticut. Developing this skill early will serve students throughout their lives.

Monday, June 3, 2013

My grandson, Alek Abate graduated summa cum laude from Nease High School, Ponte Vedra, FL on June 1, 2013. He was awarded class salutatorian and gave the following speech at his graduation ceremony.

Salutatorian Speech

Before I begin, let me give some brief but whole-hearted thank you’s. Thank you to my extended family for coming out here to support me. Specifically, thank you to mom and dad, for giving your never-ending love and support to me; what I’ve achieved up till this point is entirely indebted to you two. Thank you to the teachers at Nease who have molded me into what I am today. Thank you to the men of Ronk City for being great friends. Thank you to the IB class of 2013 for keeping things interesting. Lastly, thank you to the senior class as well as everyone affiliated with Nease for making the ride extremely worthwhile. It’s been great.

Having ruminated over the contents of what I’m about to deliver, I’ve realized that speech writing is neither a practice in trying to be cute nor an effort to inflate one’s accomplishments. Rather, it is vehicle of inspiration. And as averse I am to arbitrarily labeling one as a bastion of wisdom, please lend me your ears as I glean what I’ve learned over the past four years and condense it for your consumption.

As a kid, my brain was always up in space – literally. Early on, I became fascinated with the cosmos; at night, I would tilt my head up towards the celestial show above and immediately become fixated by its expansiveness. What I saw transcended religion and race. Worries around me would melt away, and even the most pressing problems were reduced to trivial concerns. Immersed in the stars, my character was boiled down to its most real and essential elements. I felt comfortable. I felt safe.

Of course, the complexity of all our lives has expanded multi-fold since our idyllic childhoods. Emotional freedom wilted away as we stumbled towards achieving a self-made and self-desired image. Many of us were subjected to the archetypical high school experience, complete with small-town drama, suffocating vapidity, and social deviation. Our lives intertwined with others, our relationships became multi-faceted, and, for some, our characters degraded. Our existence started not to be marked by what we did or who we were, but by what others wanted us to be. So are the perils of growing up.

Personally, I learned that a human cannot be reduced to the three numbers in a grade-point average. Being able to game a system wasn’t a reflection of who I was or what I strived to be; it was a mere response to being thrust into a structure where success was based on a hierarchy. Unfortunately, this hierarchical conception got to me. I found myself to be a cog in a machinery that I previously disavowed. For a long time, I exuded a brand of rampant and implacable competiveness and intellectual elitism that, as I stand here today, I deeply regret – to the point where it makes me a little bit ashamed of being salutatorian.

You all, like I, probably have similar anecdotes of when you may have crumbled under societal constraints and morphed into something you never desired to be. Escaping such molds is, admittedly, a hard task; we do live in the 21st century, where day-to-day life isn’t quantified by the happiness we accumulate, but by the likes and retweets we accrue. Living in the modern age has come to revolve around perpetuating fake and contrived personalities in order to achieve higher social standing. And with this, many of us find ourselves at a turning point; we near romanticized adulthood, where we will find our lives become a pendulum between hedonism and nihilism, punctuated with malaise and self-loathing. We’ve got a tumultuous road ahead, there’s no doubt about that. Some of us will blindly try to carve out a quixotic career arc. Others will be tempted to embark on a self-destructive trajectory. Needless to say, this is all part of the journey. Success and, most importantly, our life’s purpose needn’t be defined by any single moment or experience. Let it all coalesce into what you want it to be.

Recently, I gazed at the stars during a perfect night. It felt like visiting an old friend, except this time I was rewarded with infinitesimal beauty. For a moment, I was floating. I imagined looking back at Earth, a light blue speck suspended in the enveloping fabric of space. There, I realized that we live a somewhat scary yet beautiful existence. Each day, we’re presented with multitudinous possibilities; and it’s entirely up to us to seize them. You all are beautiful people, or as Lil B would say, “golden million dollar babies.” And you all are capable of achieving beautiful things – regardless of what you have done in high school. Thank