High School: Visit to Another World

I’ve been working with our local software developers’ trade group to create a “virtual tech academy”; creating content for an online learning platform which can be deployed over the internet to rural schools throughout our state. The target is a replacement course for our antiquated one-course “computer science” requirement that is written into our state education standards for high-school students. The current requirement is heavy on Microsoft Office-type skills, and doesn’t begin to explain the depth and reach of computer science and IT that we want to convey to students.

After an aborted attempt to have my local high-school pilot the project, we were fortunate to find a more rural union high school willing to be our host. The development team consisted a CS professor from a local college, and a teacher and a librarian/media teacher from the school. They have been working on this throughout the year. 
The school has an enrollment of 4250 students, 94% white with 6% African-American, Asian or Hispanic. Median household income is $68973 almost 20K over the median income for the state. However, 9% of the students qualify for reduced/free lunches. Ninety students receive English as a second language services, and they speak over 30 different languages. 
Today I was invited to sit in on the final class which was devoted to ethics and computing. This is the first time I’ve been in a high school class in years. The class, taught in a seminar style with only 9 students went well. The students were very engaged. There were several interesting ideas thrown around. 
Cell phones and social applications like Twitter and Facebook allow students to stay connected in almost real-time to friends and family. Some of the older people in the room (ahem) described how going off to college cut off communication between a college freshman and their family in the days when long-distance phone calls were expensive, and a single land-line phone might be shared by an entire floor or dorm wing. Our college professor theorizes that new college roommates don’t really get to know each other for a semester or longer, because they are tethered electronically to their high-school friends and family. I recall I tried to call my parents once a week or so, but we kept our conversations short. I transferred my “life” and loyalties to my college environment within a matter of weeks, and developed several life-long friends during the first month or two at college. 
I asked whether students felt they had adequate access to computers at the school and they said that they did. We held our class in a well-equipped computer lab, and there are several clusters and labs throughout the school. 
When we asked how students would like to have their own laptop, like in Maine, I was surprised to find that they were less than enthusiastic. They were worried the machines would be underpowered. (“old Macbooks….”). They were worried about breakage and theft. The librarian/media person said that maintaining laptops is a nightmare during a project where they were loaning out laptops from the library. 
We asked about the digital divide. They all had computers and internet access at home. In a survey of the ninety incoming freshman, roughly 85 did have DSL or cable  (and a computer at home to use). Of the five others some had computers but no access (too far away for a connection), and two had no computer at home. 
They all agreed that they could not do their homework without access to the Internet. Their teachers provided alternatives and time for work during the school day for those students who didn’t have access at home. 
They love Twitter… but they think is “stupid”, and expect that they’ll be bored with it shortly if they aren’t already. 
They don’t want to give up their textbooks (!) Even though they have electronic access to many of the course materials online, several still said they appreciated having a textbook, “especially for math”.  Kindles haven’t made it here yet. 
I couldn’t help peeking…. the school uses Novell Zenworks as a desktop management tool. They use Moodle which interested us, because we’re looking to roll out versions of the courses that we develop on a platform which is based on Moodle. 

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