I’ve heard Bill Gates talk a number of times about how influential his middle school experiences with computers were in his life. (You can hear him talk about it a bit from his recent visit to the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia - The Bill Gates Experience ) The short version is that the mothers club at his school paid for a remote connection to a mainframe computer. Bill and some others were cut lose on the connection and left to figure things out mostly for themselves. They wound up doing some pretty impressive things including writing a student scheduling system for the school. This experience pretty much resulted in Bill and Paul Allan creating Microsoft some years later. The early experience and the lack of artificial constraints on their learning resulted in them learning quite a bit. And exceptional experience? In some ways yes. I was in school only a couple of years ahead of Bill and didn’t get my hands on a computer until college for example.
Today computers are pretty much ubiquitous and you’d think that a lot of students would have that sort of experience these days. Unfortunately that is not quite the case. In the first place there are a lot of artificial constraints and limitations on students, especially at school. No access to the C prompt for example. Little privileges to install software or to browse some very educational sites on the internet as well. Secondly there is a lot of advanced hardware that many students do not have access to. Budgets are tight after all.
The system lockdowns have some logic behind them of course. It is pretty easy to make a computer unusable or to do malicious activities on them. I maintain that at some point educators have to do some trusting of students. At least some students. It’s not good to hold back self-motivated and intelligent students who really want to put in the work to learn new things. I see great things when that happens. When they also get some extra hardware – WOW!
Students had Springbrook High School students have gotten access to Xbox hardware (controllers at least and I think an Xbox) and were one of ten finalists in the US Imagine Cup Game competition. They were competing against university students BTW. And then there is Plymouth Whitemarsh High School. Here is a video of high school students from there demoing the work they are doing with a Microsoft Surface. Now not every school can afford a Surface but clearly it is something students can work with. Give them tools, point them in a direction and get out of the way!
There are other unexpected (or perhaps just not well known options) that can lead students to more experimentation if given the chance. The Microsoft Multipoint Mouse SDK lets people create applications that respond to multiple mice attached to a single computer. XNA, already alluded to, allows students to create games for the Xbox 360, Zune, Windows PC or Windows Phone 7 phones. With screens that support it Windows 7 supports touch input (similar to but not quite up to what Surface has) that you can access through the Touch API for Windows 7.
Tech support may be timid about setting students lose on ever computer in the school and I understand that But I think there is a place for fewer restrictions on specific computer labs, perhaps with their own subnet and firewalls to keep them separate from the rest of the school’s network, where students have more latitude to experiment. I think that more often the surprises will be good surprises as motivated and unshackled students learn by doing, failing, trying again and succeeding.