The “Next Net Day”

by Jean Tower


I n Massachusetts there is some momentum around harnessing the energy and good will of businesses, individuals, state agencies, and other non-profits to partner with schools toward achieving some big technology goal for schools. This goal has yet to be determined, but the "shorthand" description I have heard is the "next net day." The name does not reflect that people think that schools still need volunteer wiring, but rather that net day is recognized as one of those pivotal volunteer efforts that started small, grew bigger, and accomplished something of value for schools. I think the idea of "net day" is that it will be an effort that uses the net day type framework to get various players to buy in, help organize, and to get the state to put their weight behind it.

Net Day was a volunteer, grassroots effort to get school classrooms connected to the Internet. It started back in the mid-nineties and was originally meant to take place on one Saturday. The first Net Day, March 9, 1996, saw volunteers show up at many schools in California to pull ethernet cable through the buildings to bring the Internet to students. According to Wikipedia , "20,000 volunteers helped to wire 20 percent of California schools to the Internet." The event was seen as a big success and was replicated in many more states and grew into a national effort and organization. And regardless of the fact that most schools have probably long since replaced that volunteer-pulled cable with newer, higher category ethernet cable, it is hard to deny that Net Day was indeed a valuable happening. Schools did get wired, computers were connected, and, perhaps even just as important, a new awareness of technology in education was generated. The photo of Bill Clinton and Al Gore standing on ladders and pulling cable lent validity to the notion that schools had to get wired and take advantage of what technology had to offer.

So is there another opportunity for a coalition of like-minded individuals and groups to accomplish something significant for schools and for the efforts of educators to use technology effectively? Is there some organizing goal that will galvanize interests? It seems to me that there is. My problem wasn’t thinking up ways that schools could use some outside help, but in limiting my ideas to just a few. At the moment, I’ve narrowed it down to three big areas: bandwidth, computers, and professional development. Everyone who has anything to say about education today is talking about and writing about 21st century skills and a 21st century classroom. But what does that mean?

The various accounts and many points of view seem to have a few things in common. They mention skills like collaboration, creativity, communication, and problem-solving, and they mention computer and information literacy. For example, The Partnership for 21st Century Skills says that students must use "digital technology, communication tools and/or networks appropriately to access, manage, integrate, evaluate, and create information in order to function in a knowledge economy."
So, as a rule, visions of a 21st century education necessarily include technology, Internet access, and using computers to collaborate, research, communicate, and solve problems. In order for schools to do a high quality job of educating students, we need high bandwidth, computers for students and educators to use, and professional development for teachers so they know how to integrate technology and 21st century skills into teaching and learning.

Bandwidth
Schools all over Massachusetts deal with their bandwidth issues separately, individually. There are a variety of providers, from telephone companies to cable television companies, that schools work with for Internet access, and erate goes only so far. I wish the state would work with businesses to negotiate really good deals for high bandwidth (synchronous 15, 20, 50, 100 Mbps?) Internet access that all schools could take advantage of.

Computers
I wish schools could, to some extent, get out of the business of providing computers (or some kind of computing device) for students and teachers. I think it would be a good idea if a "new net day" coalition created a student/educator computer purchase program that was more than a token discount. I think that if teachers and students could get really amazing deals on laptops that they would actually prefer to use their own laptop and bring it back and forth to and from school. This would free school computer dollars up for computers for the lower elementary grades, some specific application computer labs, administration, and to have computers on hand for those who, for any reason, do not have their own computer to use. This idea is not without its problems. Issues to resolve would be protecting school networks from viruses, spam and adware; making sure each computer has the necessary suite of software; developing a way for lower income students to also have a laptop, and probably a dozen other issues I am not yet thinking about. Still, I think that the more personal computers we allow into our schools and onto our networks, the fewer computers schools are on the hook for buying, maintaining, repairing, upgrading, replacing . . . .

Professional Development
It seems like there is never enough money for professional development. There are plenty of ways a "net day" group could help. One strategy would be matching fund grants for schools to get some money to use toward professional development for every dollar spent on technology. Another idea would be for a coalition to provide "train the trainer" training for corporate volunteers to develop them into a valuable support and mentor corp. Professional development might offer the most opportunties for partnerships – there is so much high-tech expertise in corporations, couple that with a desire to contribute to the greater good, a mentor training program, and a free way to collaborate and the possibilities start to become apparent.

These are just the beginning thoughts of one person, meant to get the conversation started. I would love to hear ideas from others. What might the next "net day" be and how would it work and what would the impact be?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Cheryl Oakes December 21, 2008 at 5:18 pm

Thanks for giving me a heads up about your blog. Computers! With our state and local budgets taking quite a hit , our school is discussing just this idea. We need to get out of the laptop business for high school. (We will start here.) Our school will look to get a group (really good) price on a mini notebook, we, (the district) will look to subsidize a family/student purchase with some amount. Then we are looking at Google Education Apps, an online suite, linux on the notebooks, and offering our district virus protection as a stand alone that my technicians would update on student laptops, (somehow). Anyway, this is what we are thinking.
The other item, Staff Development could include the k12onlineconference.org, there are 3 years worth of individual staff development presentations. There is also EVOnline, a yearly, online professional development project. Both of these items are FREE. (http://evo08sessionscfp.pbwiki.com/)
Good luck putting this vision.
Cheryl

Dave Solon December 22, 2008 at 8:53 pm

Jean,

Yes – I think the next “Net Day” idea is a good one. Not sure what it should be as of yet, though. I had discussions with a district today about student-owned laptops / devices on their network. It is only a matter of time before students and parents demand access for their own machines onto a school network – and that time grows near.

It really isn’t that tough to allow access, and still be safe. A simple virtual LAN can be setup with no way to get into/onto the ‘normal’ network. Students could then use Google Docs, wikis, Moodle – whatever – to move files, share and work – just like they’d do from home.

Perhaps the next “Net Day” should be a training/development session for students to maintain and support student computers on virtual LANs setup as separate student networks? This would help take the heat off district tech support and allow them access at school, without due risk to the school network.

Thoughts?

Thanks for the comment – I’ll post this as a comment on your original blog post.

E.J. Wilson January 5, 2009 at 6:28 am

I love any kind of group action project, especially when it involves students! My only beef with “wiring” is that we are already headed towards creating full-on wireless networks in our schools. This direction appears to be not only cheaper, but easier to maintain and less likely to be limited by the creation of “drops.” As a result I can see Net Day taking on some new forms in the future…

Mind you this is all relative to the school you are working at! Everyone has to move at their own pace, right?

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