Back to the Future with Technology

One of the personal ironies of the current push to “21st century learning” is that I would be happy to return to the technology of the 1990’s.

Back in those halcyon days, when I lived and worked in a small community along the Alaska border, our tiny rural school had one bookable computer lab fitted with Mac Classics. Until the final year of my tenure, these computers were not connected to the Internet, and offered only basic word processing and paint programs.

Oh, how I miss that lab! Even with fairly meagre tools, we were able to create many amazing assignments and projects, and the students responded with great enthusiasm and on-task effort.

The problem now is access. Since moving to a larger school district 100 km from Vancouver, I’ve never had consistent access to a computer lab. In my current district, bookable labs for secondary classroom teachers is such a low priority that these labs are hard to find (and simply don’t exist in my present school). At best, I am able to book a “specific purpose” lab (e.g. computer science, business) for one block a day, but this is a de facto non-option if I teach the same course in two or three blocks and half my students can’t use the computers. Another option is booking the library; I am fortunate that my current school’s library has just enough computers for one class. Unfortunately, we have to share the library with many other (mostly unsupervised) students right in the middle of the room. It is a less than ideal teaching situation, particularly if I need to provide direct instruction. Moreover, despite its drawbacks, the library is enormously popular with classroom teachers, and booking the library three weeks in advance requires extraordinary planning… or a lot of luck. It’s really difficult, therefore, to rely on the library as a computer-based instructional resource.

Many educators have trumpeted the use of a mobile lab, which is a class set of laptop computers on a mobile cart. Aside from the fact that I don’t have access to such a lab, I just don’t find it appealing. First, I currently teach in a portable: I could not lift the cart up the stairs safely,  it would take a long time to get the cart to and from the main building, and, most critically, there is no wireless access in my portable, and thus no access to the Web and cloud storage.* Second, in my limited experience with mobile labs, I have found them cumbersome to work with. The operating procedures, as this list indicates, waste a lot of time, and have always seemed more time-consuming than walking into a lab and logging in. Finally, the responsibility on the classroom teacher increases substantially, as he or she must ensure the students don’t mishandle or steal portable computers that are much more expensive, mobile and fragile than their desktop equivalents.

Are dedicated classroom labs expensive? Yes, of course! They take up space in a school where space is often a premium. They require, particularly in a large secondary school, the presence of a full-time on-site technician. And they need wiring, extra power, server infrastructure and, of course, computers. But what else are we going to do as we face the “21st century learning” agenda that views IT and computers as the cornerstone of modern education? If we are serious about technology and updating our practices – and 21st century learning isn’t just a smoke-and-mirrors con job – then more money will be necessary. The government’s going to have to pony up more funding, and perhaps reverse their tax cut mania from which, “[b]etween 2000 and 2010, BC’s tax revenues fell by 1.7% of GDP … equivalent to $3.4 billion”.

Nevertheless, I do think there are some ideas that can help reduce the cost of accessible technology. First, desktop PC’s are cheaper than they’ve ever been, and a fairly powerful PC can be bought for the same price as a base iPad. Virtualized server networks are even cheaper. [These options allow you the flexibility to tackle virtually any IT project you might be interested in, because you are not limited by hardware compromises.] Moreover, most of the software I would use is free, though I’d prefer not to skimp when it comes to the Microsoft Office suite (I could use Word, PowerPoint, and Publisher on a daily basis). Finally, to maximize the use of space, I’d like to make the following proposal. Why not select three or four teachers in each school, perhaps one teacher for each major department, and outfit their rooms with a basic computer lab? Make the deal contingent on three conditions: teachers must use the technology on an-going basis, provide technology leadership to the rest of the staff, and share their lab/class with other teachers in the department for set amounts of time per term. I think this approach has many virtues. For one thing, it provides a gradual introduction of technology into daily teaching practice; as a gradualist, I think any change worth its salt must be done slowly and be based on the experience of fellow practitioners, not “fanboi” hype or a political agenda. Also, if mistakes are made and retrenchment is needed, then the costs are not as great as, say, outfitting all the students in a school with laptops or tablets, only to find they aren’t cost-effective.

What do you think? I’m sure there are many viewpoints and personal preferences out there, and mine are pretty particular and specific to my own experience. I’d like to hear your ideas and thoughts.


*This is one reason why a BYOD strategy, particularly with devices that can efficiently create and transmit content, is not helpful. And I won’t even go into the reality that many students have no computers at home, let alone useful portable devices.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

4 Comments to "Back to the Future with Technology"

  1. Leanne's Gravatar Leanne
    December 11, 2011 - 9:40 pm | Permalink

    Even though the reality is that many students don’t have computer access at home, some teachers tend to forget that fact. If an assignment is given that must be completed on a computer, then enough time and resources must be available to the student at school. My son in Grade 5 is being pressured more and more to use a computer at home, which means he must have access to my laptop. That doesn’t make me very happy, nor does it mean I’m about to buy him one of his own. However, the fact that he has some special needs probably means it’s going to be in everyone’s best interests if he has his own in the near future. Until such time as the schools are willing/able to provide a computer for each and every student to have unlimited access to, they must be considered extra equipment, and not a necessity. Pen and paper rule!!!

  2. devinder deol's Gravatar devinder deol
    February 19, 2012 - 8:57 am | Permalink

    Hi – what an excellent blog !
    Sounds like you’re averse to BYOD, but there are several iterations of BYOD that seem to be building to something useful. At #bcedsfu, Chris Kennedy spoke about a personal-device strategy based on: 1/3 owned, 1/3 leased, 1/3 provided.
    I’m not suggesting that BYOD strategies are a panacea, but they are something cash-starved districts will be pursuing thanks to a decade of cuts by BC’s [neo] Liberal party. BYOD affords students the opportunity to access resources and peers 24/7 – unfortunately, this is something that a set of desktops can’t do. There is no question that BYOD has serious issues of inequity to address, but the benefits may be worth it.
    I work at DL school where a sizeable percentage of our students have high-end devices (Macbooks, Sony etc…). At the same time, we have students in our school who attend a program for rescued street workers. Needless to say, this group doesn’t spend a lot of time debating whether the new ipad will have a retina display – they’ve got other concerns. Previously, I worked in an amazing inner-city school, but recall it had a poorly structured lunch program that drew undue attention to the poverty of its subscribers.
    Within these contexts, we know that parents rich&poor still spend money on discretionary crap. How many of your students have a gaming console at home? If schools had a list of approved devices (the price of these seems to fall each year), then maybe the students in the ‘leased’ and ‘provided’ categories would be less singled out.
    I see the need for some desktops in classrooms (video editing makes a lot more sense on a big screen than it does on an ipad), and actually prefer them to clumsy laptop carts (or tablet carts for that matter). I’m simply wondering why the opposition to BYOD? Thanks to ever escalating class-sizes in DL (I’ll likely be working with (scrambling to service) 350- 400 students this year), I’m contemplating a return to the classroom. It would be helpful if students were equipped with the tools to access the digital resources that I rely upon in my work online.

Comments are closed.

1 Trackback to "Back to the Future with Technology"

  1. on December 18, 2011 at 9:26 pm