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.