Goodbye User Accounts

A couple things have happened over the last couple weeks that have me thinking.  It all started with the all-too-common news that more cuts were coming our way in the district.  Long story, short: if May’s levy doesn’t pass, our district’s technology department, consisting of a technology administrator and a recently-added technology assistant, will lose the latter of the two positions.  As our technology administrator cautioned the Board of Education at the March meeting, the loss of this position will force him to make drastic cuts within the technology hardware, support, and programs that are currently offered.  One such “program” is the fact that each student in our district (2,000ish K-12) has her/his own student account/login on our MacOS district server.  This allows students to login, configure settings (desktop pictures seems to be the favorite pastime of the month), store photos and documents, and personalize Dashboard widgets.

About the same time, the stars aligned and district’s technology assistant delivered six IBM Ubuntu-running ThinkPads to my classroom.  This was in addition to the two that I already had in my classroom.  I also have two iPod Touches (one school-owned, one personal), my MacBook Pro, and two OS X eMacs, an OS X Intel iMac, and six Ubuntu-running thin-clients (old, gutted iMacs).  In short, quite the hodgepodge! I’m proud to say that students leave my classroom experienced in multiple platforms!

On the iPods and “new” ThinkPads, the students aren’t able to access their user accounts (sure, they can FTP to them from their student dashboard page, but who really does that?).  Despite that flaw, I was able to setup an entire two-day lesson.  Here’s how it went:

Students were in groups of three with each group assigned to a machine/device.  They were given a guiding WebQuest packet (note: to all of you die-hard WebQuesters, I’m sorry, but I often break the traditional mold of what a true “WebQuest” is supposed to be!).  They accessed the appropriate

Ancient Rome WebQuest Answer Form

links on my classroom website and completed the assignment.  They then transfered their responses a Google form I has setup using GoogleDocs.  Each group submitted their responses and it made for easy grading.  The lesson turned out to produce some great exposure, educational dialoge (often arguing over and defending answers) between students, and great formative assessment for me before our final unit test.  Oh, and the kids enjoyed it.

Okay, the meat  of the post (for real).  I made a HUGE observation during each of my six classes.  The students who were on iPods, my laptop, or the ThinkPads were hard at work a good four or five minutes before the students logging on to the MacOS machines!  Seriously.  As each group went to their respective macine/device, some students only had to open the lid of the laptop and the browser was ready to go with the first website!  The other groups faced a variety of hurdles before their screen displayed anything educational.  These included forgotten passwords, misspelled usernames, students “locked out” because they forgot to logout somewhere else on the network or the last machine they were on had crashed, startup applications (at some point, many of the students have set iCal to open upon startup), etc.  Okay, now they’re logged in.  Next came group discussion over which browser to use, Safari or Firefox.  When Firefox won, there was the wait while the app checked for plugin updates, gave errors about past sessions, and restored tabs from said sessions.  MEANWHILE, their classmates who didn’t face user accounts were already adding Roman numerals and watching embedded presentations about gladiators.

The moral of the story:  Let’s dump the user accounts!  I certainly realize that from a managerial point-of-view, their are some essential components to user accounts that make them ideal for a school setting.  These include tracking/monitoring activity, storing usernames and passwords in the browser, setting bookmarks, and probably many others that tech administrators require.  That being said, my job is to teach.  Watching half my class become engaged in the content a full five minutes faster than the other half is enough of a selling point for me! With my students completing more and more word processing and presentation design using [online-stored] GoogleDocs, a personalized Documents folder on a student-account is quickly becoming obsolete!  With the elimination of our computer class next year (again, cuts), students no longer have a class dedicated to photo, video, or audio management and won’t be needing dedicated server space to house that content.

I love the idea of user accounts.  I love each child having a unique username.  I love the idea of students personalizing their computing experience with themes, desktop pictures, widgets, etc.  I love the idea of students securely storing their personal content.  But unfortunately, I also love the idea of time-on-task. Let’s maximize it.