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Reflections on the 25th Anniversary of 1:1 with Steve Costa, Methodist Ladies College
Author: Justina Spencer, AALF Communications | March 2nd, 2015

We recently had a chance to virtually sit down with Steve Costa, Deputy Head of the Junior School at Methodist Ladies' College, an independent school for girls located in Melbourne, Australia, who taught in one of the first 1:1 classrooms. We asked Steve to reflect on how 1:1 shaped his teaching practices and the current state of education. His insights are a must-read for any teacher or school leader in the field today. What is more, Steve connected us with a number of the first 'laptop' students at MLC, who share stories on how 1:1 shaped their learning and impacted their future. Their comments and insights are italicized below.

How did 1:1 impact you as a teacher?

Everything needs to be put into context and seen from a perspective of over 25 years ago. Teachers using computers were the pioneers or really the early techno explorers. They could sense that this device had the potential to develop thinking skills, social skills, and technical skills and was something that was exciting and special. Gaining new skills and learning what you could do and then providing opportunities for your students to do and experience it in similar or even different ways was significant in many. Not all teachers or all students at that time were using computers, so they weren’t doing what the ‘techno computer users’ were experiencing. But using technology in schools in small groups with a couple of computers and lots of students was very limiting though as well. So coming from those early stages of limited use to be in a position to see/imagine how much could be done, learnt and experienced if students had their own individual computer was mind boggling.

We, the original 1:1 school, and the computer teachers involved had the total support of the school, which was reassuring. But ultimately with the media and other schools all interested in our new technological venture, a good deal of pressure was on us to succeed. It was a new, bold scheme that we knew had great potential, but where was the proof that it would be beneficial to our students and their learning? We started with girls of 10 and 11 years of age. Girls weren’t considered to be as interested in computers and technology at that time. But maybe that helped to prove that it was valuable and that all students could learn and become capable and comfortable using and learning with technology.

"I often think how lucky I was to have had access to laptops/technology at such a young age- compared to my colleagues (And younger brother)." - former MLC student

We were also a bit fortunate in that we were at the fore front and had the freedom to try new things and not have a backlash from “experts” saying that, “You can’t do that with young students.’ Who really knew what the students could do? And we used that to our advantage. We had all the girls use a programming language and learn to code. Why not? They all learned to touch-type and become very efficient keyboard users; because they could and did. Word processing their stories, their written work, adding graphics, changing fonts etc., was a part of their Literacy program.

"There are many fond memories, I spent hours and hours playing, tinkering and exploring the possibilities that little machine offered me. It gave me creative outlet through multimedia and design. I was learning applied mathematical skills, programming without even knowing it and loving it!" - former MLC student

Making a database of endangered animals, using a computer and database or spreadsheet program was part of their Social Studies and Science projects. They learned they could control their computer. They were the boss. They could program it to do what they wanted from simple DOS commands up to sophisticated interactive programs like LOGO with text, animations, graphic, sounds etc. They could set the date and time, choose the styles and the font sizes. They could even lie to the computer and it believed her! As one student told me, she felt a bit cheeky that she set the date incorrectly and the computer thought it was 1999 instead of 1989! Maybe that started the worry about the Y2K conspiracy?

In thinking back to those early days, what impressed you most in terms of the impact of 1:1 on your students?

What impressed me most was the collaboration and genuine willingness to share and help others. If you could do something then you would show others…if you didn’t know how to, you could ask or just admit that you didn’t know how. Making mistakes and taking risks was part of the process. No one was the best at all aspects of using the computers, so a number of students were able to take a lead and show others. Self-image was given a big lift. They truly appreciated each other’s efforts and were happy to see what they and their peers had done or created. The atmosphere of, “Don’t look at what I am doing, do your own,” or not sharing knowledge with one another just evaporated. A true learning community was created as we were all learners on this journey. Even when they shared certain skills, the personal creativity of the student using her own computer produced an end product that demonstrated each student’s work and it still revealed their own individuality, her work, her ideas, not just a replication of someone else’s work. These young students knew more about using computers and technology than their parents and most adults at that time. I had students speaking to visitors all the time, with the aplomb of an expert speaking to those wanting to know more.

Also by providing them with their own laptop we openly and tangibly showed them that we trusted them and had faith in them to be responsible, mature and sensible users of an expensive learning devise. How uplifting would it be for a 10 year old to be told we trust you to look after your own computer 24/7? And that they did have a personal and vital part to play in their own learning. We often never really knew how beneficial or valuable using the computer would be, when doing some activities, but we did know that trying new things, pushing boundaries was OK. How could someone say it wouldn’t be of a benefit or valuable if it hadn’t been tried before?

"I think the 1:1 program at MLC was innovative and forward thinking. I cannot imagine what the opposition must have been back then and how driven you must have been to implement it. My inclusion in the program is something that I am proud of. I think that working with early laptops made me appreciate changes in software and the pace of technological change generally. I still remember using Logowriter to draw a map of Australia in your class! I think that having access to laptops probably just must make things a little bit easier because we weren't fearful of technology and had a general belief in our ability to learn how to use new tools and programs." - former MLC student

As a pioneer in the field, what do you think about the state of 1:1 today?

Today I feel we are often handcuffed by having to follow a myriad of guidelines and mandates from education departments, school boards, governments etc., that hamper true exploration and the prospect to see what a student can really do and learn if given the opportunities. If one doesn’t provide them with the time to explore and gain greater skills then most likely they won’t. Maybe that is why we may not have seen the true potential of what computers and technology can provide more widely in schools. We have heard or possibly experienced this situation that there is no time to spend “wasting our time” on these computer things. “We should be up to page 97, so we can’t spend more time on this.”

"Like most people, I use computers all the time at work and have to learn how to use new programs etc. and I think if I hadn't been exposed to computers at such an early age I would find these tasks a lot more daunting. I can already see how comfortable younger generations are with computers and new technology, and I guess this is because they were/are exposed to it at a much earlier age. As you mentioned, I think it has become a vital tool for learning and has allowed students to have access to unimaginable amounts of information." - former MLC student

I think that today the social use of technology is taking up a majority of the ‘computing time’. Also the computer is providing the information and directing the learning through different programs etc. Maybe the computer of today is too sophisticated! Years ago the user needed to direct the computer to do things, we created things with the computer, we were makers of our learning not receivers of what the technology wanted us to learn!

Everyone uses computers and technology today. That is a great thing; that the computer and technology is not feared and has become a common tool. So maybe by providing computers to youngsters years ago and proving that even the young can use them capably, has opened the way for its use throughout the community today. But once again I wish people knew more about how they work and took more time to understand all the opportunities a computer can provide if we used all its potential to create and not just as a “Google machine” or ubiquitous social link.

Did you face any obstacles 25 years ago as a 1:1 teacher that are still relevant today? If so, what advice would you have for those teachers today?

25 years ago a great deal of discussion and persuasion and time was needed to convince the community that technology was going to be a needed and a vital future skill for our students. That was quite understandable when we first promoted the idea in 1989. But I still hear the same issues being discussed and debated today. Teachers and schools today are still having these debates and discussions with parents and the community. The cost of computing has come down drastically. The power and scope of what a computer can do has increased exponentially, and most everyone has access and experience using them…but still there is a fear that it may not be worth it, or that it is too expensive, or an uncertainty that it will really help them to learn more.

"Having a laptop allowed me to contribute to my classes in a much more efficient and confident manner. It helped increase my productivity, research skills, organisation of ideas and most importantly, my engagement. I was never inhibited by any kind of gender or social stereotyping associated with computers." - former MLC student

Advice today to teachers is that you can’t sit back and feel comfortable saying, “They know more than I do. So I don’t need to really learn more.” Or comment that: “I don’t have time to learn how to do certain things, as I am already too busy or have to cover so much material.” We are teachers, we need to lead and to teach and show students what is possible. Of course we can never be the expert in everything, but we need to have enough skills and knowledge to help point them in the right directions. We need to have enough understanding to see potential learning areas and how we can take advantage of them for the benefit of our students. Of course students can and often do surpass us in their skills, but let’s at least take some responsibility in providing the BEST opportunities or choices or directions that they can or should pursue. They can and should be able to choose what or how they can best use technology, but as a teacher our role should be providing them with a number of options and choices and not leave it to serendipity to see what they can do or how much they can learn from using and accessing this technology.

"As MLC reaches this tremendous milestone, I hope you look back in satisfaction and with pride at what you achieved - there's no way the program would have succeeded without teachers like yourself who were not only competent in technology (rare in those days!) but dedicated and passionate about the cause too." - former MLC student

We have to agree with this statement, as anyone who is daring enough to take these chances deserves high praise! Our thanks to Steve Costa for sitting down with us to discuss MLC's legacy and the anniversary of 1:1.

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