The Premier says we have to innovate through thrift and creativity…”

Earlier this spring, along with my colleagues from the PEI Home and School Federation and with the PEI Teachers Federation, I had the pleasure of meeting with Premier Robert Ghiz to express our concerns about cuts to the budget for education technology (the capital budget was cut from $500,000 to $0 for 2012-2013).

While clearly a supporter of the idea of technology in education, the clear message we received from the Premier was “there’s no money.”

He told us this backwards and forwards and as the plot to a variety of stories. 

We came back at him in a number of ways, from the tactical to the emotional.

There’s no money.”

With no money for capital spending on technology, he told us, the education system must innovate through thrift and creativity.

Given that I have built an entire career around the practise of thrift and creativity, this was a something of an irresistable challenge.

And, indeed, a useful tool that I knew we could use to accelerate innovation at a pace that would have otherwise been bureaucratically impossible: “The Premier says we have to innovate through thrift and creativity” is a pretty good calling card to use when trying to sell people out of the box. 

The first project under this call to action went live a week ago: a home-and-school owned, funded and operated wireless Internet network for Prince Street Elementary School. We call it TeacherNet.

You can read the political, logistical and technical details here, but the short version of the story is this: wireless Internet in the classroom is coming, indeed in newly-constructed schools it’s already there. But with cuts to technology funding and an already-over-taxed technology division in government, it’s likely not coming to existing schools for several years.

Which is about a decade after it came to the local coffee shop.

As parents, we wanted to get wifi into Prince Street school sooner than that to allow our children’s educators to start experimenting with ways of using a wireless network in the classroom (keep in mind that these are educators who are used to using a slow, locked-down network on underpowered equipment, so in many ways “wireless Internet” for them means “Internet that actually works.”)

We were fortunate to have several important things happen to make this pilot project happen: the principal and staff at the school were early and enthusiastic supporters of the project; Bell Aliant came on board early with a 6-month donation of 20 Mbps Fibre Op to supply bandwidth to our network; we received an exception to the policy that would have otherwise prohibited third-parties from installing wireless into a government building; and Ken Williams, a home and school volunteer from Tyne Valley offered his services, and the loan of some gear, to get the technical side of the network up and running.

Here’s what the first week of traffic on the network looked like: 6 users transferred almost 1 GB of data. In the days and weeks to come, as additional educators start experimenting we expect usage to increase. 

We’ve committed to our peers in the home and school movement, and to partners in the education system, that we’ll document the project, both technically and from a user perspective. You can follow along the process as we update the documentation.

This has been a fun project to be involved with. I’ve had a lot of interesting conversations, got a chance to poke around the nooks and crannies of Prince Street School with wire cutters in-hand, the opportunity to learn a lot about inexpensive Open-Mesh wireless routers, and, most importantly, got to use some of my day-to-day work skills to support educators at Oliver’s school.

I encourage others to heed the Premier’s call to action (I hope he meant it as a call to action…) and seize the opportunity to innovate in your own schools. If our experience is any guide, you will find willing co-conspirators in principals, teachers and staff, a bureacracy willing to adapt as long as you are patient and forthright, and no end of interesting projects waiting to be carried out.


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