February 22, 2011

The Little Techno Bus That Could

In an accomplishment sense, I am very proud of what Pope County, Arkansas is doing in terms of advancing education with technology on school buses for K-12 through the Aspirnaut program (photos from their site), founded and supported by Vanderbilt University.

Government Technology Magazine reports in February 2011 that Aspirnaut is transforming school buses into mobile classrooms, so that ”idle time is transformed into extended learning time with laptop computers and Internet access.”

The Hector School District buses are now equipped with computer screens, earphone jacks with headphones, wireless Internet, and scanning devices to record bus activity.

“The five 19-inch customized computer screens stream math and science content from PBS, NASA, the Discovery Channel, CBS News, and the Smithsonian Institution for students to watch on their hour-long rides to/from school. The screens also include video-conferencing capability.”

Students are seated on the bus in groups by age and grade to listen to their specific curriculum by plugging their headphones into jacks beneath their seats. The content of each bus-seating zone is then correlated to what the students are learning in the classroom.

Dr. Julie Hudson, co-founder of the program in 2007, is looking to improve student’s achievements, especially in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). These are learning areas where we have fallen dangerously behind in national rankings, and this is seen as harming our innovativeness and competitive capacity for the future.

On one hand, I think that this type of extended learning program is very valuable to our students and provides them the opportunity to get additional constructive learning time in. Also, it’s great to distract them from getting into potential trouble on the ride home. :-)

Yet, on the other hand, I am also concerned that we continue to put more and more pressure on our children to seemingly always be productive, learning, and competing. Some examples of this are not just extended learning days (on buses or off), but also extended school years, even summer school, AP classes, SAT courses, some wonderful volunteer programs, internships, oodles of extra-curricular activities, side jobs, and more. Certainly seems like it’s not easy to be a kid these days!

Now, even a simple bus ride to/from school/home is no longer a time to unwind, sleep, socialize, listen to music, play video games, or just be kids. Even the choice of video content on the buses is purely educational and there is nothing social, fun, or relaxing for the children anymore. How about an episode of The Brady Bunch?

While, I certainly understand the need for us to advance our education, skills, and competitive positioning, and the learning bus is a great concept to move us towards that. However, I cannot help but remember a more innocent and carefree time in my own childhood, where there was “a time and place for everything.”

Then (not that long ago!), we took learning seriously and worked hard—always with a focus on the future (What will I be…Where do I want to end up…How can I live up to my potential?), but we also made sure to have time for friends and fun—downtime and think time. Today however, with the high-tech, always on, 24/7 society that we are creating for our children and ourselves, are we losing a sense of balance, perspective, even our innocence (so to say)?

In relation to this, I wonder sometimes about the Kingdom of Bhutan’s concept of measuring Gross National Happiness instead of what we measure Gross National Product, and I ask myself, where is our school bus heading?


No comments: