• I Have Seen the Future of Education: The iBook

    August 27th, 2005

    The news that a relatively small Arizona school system ditched textbooks in favor of iBooks may seem a curiosity, but when you actually get to look at the system in action, you come away incredibly impressed.

    On Wednesday, I made a 140-mile trip to Empire High School in Vail, Arizona to see the fledgling system first-hand, and to say I came away impressed is an understatement. Within a complex of buildings that’s dusty from new construction lies one of the first educational systems to truly embrace the possibilities of the 21st century.

    First, let me repeat what many of you know from the published reports. Every student at Empire gets an iBook that contains all their lesson materials, plus copies of Microsoft Office. There are no printed textbooks. They can take the iBooks home with them, and, of course, their parents are responsible for its care, although a low-cost insurance program helps reduce the costs in case the laptop is smashed to smithereens.

    Unlike traditional textbooks, which are designed by committee and are often outdated, the Vail school system is regularly updating its instructional materials at Empire High School to take advantage of new technologies and information. Except for the presence of iBooks on each desk, including the teacher, classrooms like amazingly conventional. Network connections are all wireless, and there are 157 wireless access points located at strategic locations to keep signal strength high. There are also areas outside where students can congregate and compute. The network is managed by a handful of Apple Xserves.

    System management is less complicated than it may seem at first glance. The IT people, headed by Matt Federoff, the Director of Technology, create custom user environments for students on disk images that are deployed on every iBook. Students are limited in their access to software, system features and, of course the Internet. They cannot, for example, install their own software, nor can they run AIM or iChat to goof off during class.

    Despite being on the cutting edge, the staff also seemed conventional. I was taken on the “cook’s tour” by Federoff, and was granted interviews with the school principal, Cindy Lee, a teacher, a pair of students, and one of Federoff’s assistants. The students impressed me as bright, articulate, and my overall impression was one of quiet efficiency. The students I interviewed, by the way, had Windows PCs at home, and this was apparently their first exposure to the Mac OS. No, they haven’t committed to become switchers; at least not yet.

    In all, the system has nearly 2,000 Macs around the district. Empire has 350 students, and that number is expected to double by next year. As you might expect, homework, from submission to grading, is handled online.

    As you might expect, there have been minor bumps along the way. Despite the perception that most of today’s high schoolers have mastered most basic computer skills, teachers had to spend the early weeks training some in basic file management and organizing techniques. The network, by the way, is configured to automatically back up a student’s work, so in the event of a system break down, very little is lost.

    Typical of Macs, system problems have been few. Some of the iBooks had to be “re-imaged,” meaning that their drives had to be erased and a new copy of the drive data had to be installed. The process reportedly takes a little over 12 minutes, and is a fairly trivial operation. In fact, I didn’t get the impression that the small IT staff was particularly overworked chasing down problems, unlike what you find in a typical Windows environment.

    Clearly the world is watching. In addition to the media, Federoff said that he had been contacted by school systems around the world about the Vail district’s experiment in state-of-the-art education. He even receives calls from such PC makers as Dell and Gateway, but their conversations focus largely on selling boxes, not on enhancing the system’s educational tools. In contrast, Apple’s sales representative concentrates on the great things you can do with its computers.

    So far, the project has been in operation for about a month, and everything, to quote the cliche, just works. If you want to learn more about this pioneering school system, and other examples of Apple’s “1 to 1 Learning” initiative, check out Apple’s education site. You also can hear many of the interviews I conducted during my visit on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE.

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