Saturday, July 3, 2010

How Timmy Got a Laptop

One of my favorite Bizarro cartoons, by Dan Piraro, shows a kindergarten class.  The children are sitting in a circle on the floor when their classroom door opens: it is a telephone call for one of the children.  Zack's father is calling from work: he needs help with his computer!  This would not seem so funny if it did not ring true.  That children know more about technology than their parents -- and certainly exhibit far less fear of it -- is simultaneously one of the greatest challenges and greatest opportunities for using technology more successfully in our schools.

Recently, my friend Barbara shared this real example.  (The names have been changed to protect the innocent.)  Timmy is twelve years old.  He is visiting his school library.  By now you know that this must be a private school, since it not only still has a library but it even has a librarian!  On his way out, Timmy spies what appears to be an Apple laptop computer in the trash.  He asks the librarian, "Excuse me, Ms. Lacey, but did you really mean to throw that computer away?"

"Yes, it went dead on us."
"Well, then, do you think I could have it?"
"Why?"
"Because I'd like to try to fix it."

So, Ms. Lacey hands Timmy the broken laptop, but without either a battery or a power adapter.  Timmy  takes the computer home and begins tinkering.  Soon, Timmy calls up his Big Pal, Joseph, to ask for help with the laptop.  Joseph, a doctoral candidate at a prestigious institution, comes over that weekend to try to help.  Next, Timmy and Joseph visit the Genius Bar at a nearby Apple store.  The Apple genius provides additional help.  Still, the computer is still not completely operational.  Back at school, the librarian asks Tim how it is going with the dead computer.  Timmy tells her about their progress and the help that they received at the Genius Bar, but he also mentions the difficulty of making further progress without a battery.  Impressed by Timmy's resourcefulness, Ms. Lacey says, "OK, as long as you really think you can fix it, here, take the battery, too."

Needless to say, having the battery results in huge leaps forward.  Joseph's brother, known to friends and family as a "computer whiz," joins the fray, jury-rigs a compatible power adapter, and before you know it, the laptop is operational once again.  Timmy becomes ecstatic, running around the house, jumping up and down like a maniac!  (It is left as an exercise for the reader to guess what happened once Timmy's school learned that the discarded computer had been revived.)

 One reason I like this story is that Timmy, while extremely bright, did not get the computer working completely on his own.  Instead, what he did was to draw upon his network of resources, including adults, to solve a problem that actually involved overcoming a series of sub-problems.  His ability to accomplish results through others suggests a bright future in management.  In earlier times, Timmy might have invited us to help whitewash the fence.

Readers might wonder how a computer that could be repaired by a twelve-year old, with a little help, could have ended up in the trash, in the first place.  Remember that grown-ups have neither the time nor the patience to fight with a computer that continues to misbehave after multiple repair attempts.  Inadequate technical support, even in private schools, remains one of the major barriers to successful technology integration.  The further  reality that the labor costs to repair technology often exceed the replacement value has contributed not only to growing landfills but also to inaccurate data about how much technology is really out there in our schools.  (Schools often keep their dead computers around for a while and continue to count them when reporting student:computer ratios, since better ratios make for better public relations.)  Student labor, however, is not expensive.  Even younger students have the time, patience, curiosity and motivation to just keep googling and tinkering until they get the darned thing working again.  Often, there is nothing to lose if they are unsuccessful, so why not let them try?  As one element in an overall strategy for improved technical support in our schools, student tech teams can play an important role.

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