In the early days of the space race between the United States and Russia, Russia led the race at every turn. They were first to launch a satellite (Sputnik), they were the first to send a living creature into space (Laika the dog). They were the first to send a person into space (Yuri Gagarin). They were the first to take photos of the far side of the moon, etc. It was this string of Russian firsts that spurred the US government to resolve to be first to “land a man on the moon”. They had to be first at something… just to save face and win the next election.
The interesting thing about all this is that the Russians spent less money than the Americans and yet achieved so much. According to common lore the Americans spent $11,000,000 developing a pen that could write in zero gravity… whereas the Russians just used pencils.
When i look around at the way schools and education departments spend ICT money, it seems that very often they are developing “space pens”. I read of schools that are running programs (often as a “pilot”) and to do this they have spent a lot of money buying devices, redesigning buildings and purchasing software to develop programs when all along there are free web 2.0 tools that will do basically the same thing, or devices that students already own that will suffice.
But its about more than just saving money. The HUGE advantage of achieving a change in teaching and learning, using devices and software that students and teachers already have or can get for free, is that it is sustainable and reproducible. Do you understand what I mean? I heard recently of a school who is doing some really great stuff using expensive PDAs that were provided to them out of a grant. While that is great… it’s only possible because of the funding. It can’t be easily transferred to other classes or schools, because THEY don’t have the same funding to do it. So while the concept of what they are doing may be great, its impact on education is likely to be limited, because other classes don’t have access to it.
There are examples of this all around. Another example that comes immediately to mind is video conferencing. I visited a school recently that had installed a video conferencing suite including a high-def screen, camera, microphone, etc. It’s cool stuff. But it costs about $5000 to set it up. You can achieve practically the same result (pedagogically speaking) using Skype which is free and available to all students and teachers, in any classroom in any school. The image quality is not as good in Skype.. and neither is the audio. But good ideas for the educational use of Skype can be shared with colleagues and they can do it too. Today.