Students power this open source high school

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I suspect that many of your days in high school looked something like this: An adult teacher stands in the front of a square room, lecturing or drawing, with a flood of facts, figures, and dates flowing into a well organized grid of neatly arranged desks. As the teacher lectures, students apathetically scrawled notes, which will be regurgitated onto a future exam. Every one of the students is expected to master the same information, regardless as to their individual ability, personal strengths, interests or aptitudes. Rinse, repeat, until the day of high school commencement, when the cycle ends and one's post-school life commenced.

This inherited story of what a traditional classroom education should resemble is often difficult to retread with a modern ending. To often, we hear the adage, "It was good enough for us as kids, why change?" Worse, modern school systems still cling to a model where teachers magically transmit sacrosanct, yet often arbitrary, curriculum into kids' heads by the power of shear lecture charm and wit.

The traditional education story is a one of a highly-structured closed system. It values what a student has purportedly learned, as demonstrated by her test score, on a linear learning path. However, we know that discovery, invention, innovation, and breakthroughs rarely follow a predefined trajectory. Learning is iterative, unexpected, collaborative, and chaotic. The side alleyways of failures, wrong hunches, and fortuitous mistakes present powerful learning possibilities.

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Side alleys can certainly look dark and intimidating at first. As we prepared for our open source high school 1:1 student laptop program and a supporting student peer help desk, my team and I knew we were off the main road, without GPS. Student tech support teams are somewhat uncommon in United States high schools. On top of that, Linux and open source software rarely makes an appearance in classroom desktops, let alone on 1700 laptops that would travel with our students in school and to their homes. What wasn't surprising is that when students are unchained from scripted curriculum and given the freedom to learn based on personal interests and passions, our kids rise to the occasion in unique and powerful ways.

As Penn Manor High School launched the Linux laptop learning initiative, our team deliberately created opportunities for our students to be deeply entwined in supporting their peers and the school-wide laptop initiative. What better way to help kids learn the art and science of technology than via an apprenticeship model? Our student tech team program is an honors-level independent study course, and students report for the class like they would for math, science, or art. Any similarity to a traditional high school course ends there.

Students technology apprentices work alongside district IT staff on hardware support, repairs, software setup, instructional tutorials, system imaging, peer training, and any number of tasks related to our school-wide laptop program. Daily work assignments are guided by the needs of fellow students and classroom teachers. On any given day, you might observe our help desk apprentices answering questions from students or staff, repairing a damaged laptop screen, experimenting with code, or diving into Linux configuration files.

We could never write a formal curriculum to match their daily real-world help desk experiences. There is no textbook; students use the Internet to discover solutions to problems or borrow code and ideas freely shared by the open source technical community. They learn and play with the same support tools, software, and techniques utilized by industry professionals.

My team and I are certainly present as mentors and facilitators. But none of us watch over the students and tally points or grade each task as an absolute success or failure. In fact, the errors and little failures, the bad guesses and small mistakes help, creating an even more vibrant student learning experience. Troubleshooting steps either solve a problem or cause the students to return to the drawing board. Code either executes or crashes. We have no simulations, worksheets, or final exams. The program is pure practical problem solving of authentic issues.

Of course, open source software is integral to our success. Our students could never experience this level of technology learning on locked down, closed source operating systems and applications. Better yet, all Penn Manor High School students, no matter their technical skill level, are free to explore, experiment, and learn programming, science, math, art, and music via a capable and flexible computer. What I love so much about the open source philosophy is that it flattens the classroom hierarchy between teacher and student. Open source brings a participatory, team mentality to the classroom. The focus is on crafting something new, not passing a test. One student may be playing with Node.JS, another with HTML/CSS. With that, a teacher may challenge the students to solve a practical problem. Together, the team collaborates to invent a whole new application for use in their school. And we did exactly that.

A Penn Manor Technologist, Alex Lagunas, worked with student apprentices to create a classroom URL sharing program called PaperPlane. The program runs on every one of our high school laptops and saves teachers from writing long URLs on the chalkboard. One simply pastes a website into the program and the address is automatically shared with every classroom laptop. PaperPlane may be a simple little program, but it epitomizes the power of an open learning philosophy that venerates students, not curriculum. How many standardized tests have this kind of reach and impact on an entire school?

And exactly how does one grade a student software project, hardware repair, or peer training session? Standard grade scales fall short of assessing how deeply a student's passion and soul is stitched into a tangible creation used by fellow classmates. To appraise these learning stories, we need to think very differently from the closed models of tradition.

Read more on the Penn Manor Technology blog.

More resources: What is open education? and Youth using open source (a free eBook).

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Charlie is the CIO for Penn Manor School District in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and the author of The Open Schoolhouse.


It's one thing to give students (or anyone) a computer running Linux and FLOSS, and another to have them help support their peers. The latter, I believe, can 1) show that Linux and FLOSS are for everyone and not just the techie or coder, and 2) give students an opportunity not only to learn more about the tools they use but how to help and communicate with others. The latter is really the basis for a strong community.

Thanks, Scott!
Community is indeed key; students helping students is incredibly empowering on many levels. Most compelling is that our apprentices are building leadership skills, collaborative experience and self-esteem through authentic problem solving. These very skills transfer to a myriad of careers, technology-related and otherwise.

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