Saturday, September 17, 2011

Education is going digital - yeah, right

Don't get me wrong, I'm a tech guy but I also teach math. I've been teaching using technology and computers since the time of the TRS-80 and the graphing calculator that came free with a ream of paper and a pack of Ticonderoga #2s.

Education has come a long way but the dreams and ideals of the "21st Century Learning" fanatics are going to have to take a backseat for a while. The realities of high-tech just don't make for easy dreaming.

Consider: The IT guy.

If you are lucky enough to have IT who are responsive and dedicated to supporting the teachers and students (and that's a big if), their jobs are usually way too overburdened - budget cuts that cut in the weirdest places, stupid administration making demands that don't parse, clueless users breaking shit constantly and students trying to get around the filters, wasting time, downloading games, listening to Pandora, etc.

How does that guy, all by himself, maintain the machines needed for the "21st Century Dream"?

He doesn't.

We all got an email from him the other day listing his tickets and to-do list. He was under a lot of pressure from everyone to "Do this job now" and "Fix my machine" and had weeks worth of backlog. I know he was also making his own job more difficult in places but that's not the point.
- The entire domain was lost this summer
- Not all of the faculty are up yet.
- The student accounts need to be arranged.
- Roaming profiles are NOT working yet.
- Elementary school Netbooks need to be imaged.
- Vendor printer driver issues.
- wireless issues.
- scheduled replacements have been dropped for budget reasons - meaning re-imaging and re-using old machines.
- Special ed laptops need to be finished.
- VP laptop needs to be finished
- Principal's laptop is dead.
- Software installation - MSOffice upgrades, Windows upgrades, anti-virus upgrades and updates.
- servers need to be setup, fixed or vendor calls need to be made.
- email server (we're changing our email system .. again)
- orders placed for supplies and equipment
- content filtering isn't working.
- He wants to completely change the grading and student information system.

Much of this should have been done over the summer, but it wasn't. Don't know why, but the usual reason is "Life intervened" and "Shit Happened." There's nothing to be done but move on and let him do what he can, when he can. Crap ALWAYS happens and the "Best laid plans of mice and men, yada, yada, yada."

Some of this list is federal and state mandates - we're really proud of the service and education we give to our special ed students here and the SpecEd laptops are critical. Probably 50% of the work lies in dealing with filling out the paperwork. (This is no shit.) If they don't work, lots of people have lots of extra work.

Some of this list is us. I can't tell you how many times I've gone to help the other teachers with an issue that left me shaking my head in wonder. (PEBKAC - Problem exists between keyboard and chair.) How is it possible that all the admin's laptops are dead? Seriously? Why do all the teachers insist on "I need training !!!" when they are really asking for someone to hold their hand? Is RTFM really unreasonable? Can't we just figure out the problem and let IT have some time? Apparently not.

Some of this list is our guy whining about things he knows he should have better organized. If I were doing this task, I'd have spent many nights until I got the scripts perfected -- "make student account, give student permissions for his network folder, give student permissions for Internet use, create email account, set starting passwords, create network connections ..." Then push the "Start of School" button and sit back. Creating the database of students would be the hardest part - typing.

Some of this is our guy refusing to let others take work off his hands. There are several people who could help but NO. Case in point, the school website. IT still insist on being the only ones who can edit it and everything has to be handed to them so they can put it up. Really? I want to post homework and I have to email it to them so they can check it and put it on a webpage? Even the daily announcements (compiled by the school secretary) are sent to IT daily to be posted. It's only a five minute task, but it interrupts and it's a needless extra step.  What's the phrase - bottleneck? Gatekeeper fetish? I would -- long ago -- have set up a way for the school secretary to do that automatically and have it completely out of my hands.  Instead, they fall back on "That would be too much trouble to implement and maintain."

School blog?  Nope!
Wiki? Forum? No!
Moodle? Not a chance.
Google for education? Nope.
Install winplot? Nope.
Connect my tablet to Wi-Fi? No.
Install Geometer's Sketchpad? Nope.
Install software on machines accessible to the teacher who will use it? Nope. (And we're talking Adobe CS here. Ten licenses ain't cheap.)

Video-conferencing software? Say what?
How about an online student information system? No.
Give the teachers an easy way to connect? Are you kidding?

Don't even get me started on the SmartBoards that teachers demanded and then pushed to a corner.

So the faculty who are pushing the envelope technologically are all spreading out and tripping over each other - this one uses Moodle on his own domain, another has a free Moodle site somewhere else, that one uses Moodle on HIS own domain. Three others use Google apps through personal gmail accounts, that one has kids going to an ad-serviced wiki site. This one has made a Facebook page, that one uses and the guy down the hall gives kids his cellphone number so they can call him at night. I've told all my Calc kids about Wolframalpha's iPhone app and the graphing calculator app ... and let them use them in class.  It's against the rules, but screw it.  Social media and collaborative tools are all over the place.  Anyone with a clue is doing his/her own thing using a different set of tools, or different locations for those tools.

I just wonder what the kids are thinking when they have so many places to go to just to get homework, or write in forums, or whatever.

One department paid $1500 for a school-wide license for a streaming video service. A second department paid $1500 for a school-wide license for a streaming-video service. You'd think someone would notice the correlation by the time the History Department requested money for an online streaming video service school-wide license.

I blame
  • the principal for not paying better attention to education instead of the fad of the week.
  • and the Superintendent for not stepping in with a vision for education, or implementing all of this in an organized fashion
  • and the School Board for focusing only on their own kids' needs and the fad of the week.
  • and Bill Gates and Eli Broad for pushing agendae that don't include education .. the fad of the week.
  • and the ed-reformers who are demanding that we all transform somehow regardless of the utility and worth of that change.
  • and IT who don't get it and who won't let go.
  • and ...
  • and us teachers for demanding all this change (we fall for the fad of week, too) and technology (I wanna SmartBoard) instead of just being teachers and teaching with what we've got.

We need to get our eye on the ball again.


  1. How did Thomas Aquinas write a 3000 page textbook without ... oh nevermind, whats the point.

  2. Every year, in order to continue getting some grant money, every teacher at my school has to complete an online survey about their own perceived tech skills and classroom usage of such skills.

    I used to be diligent about it, taking 15-20 minutes to read the questions and answer them thoughtfully. A few years later, I now just mark the middle bubble (between "always" and "never" or "no knowledge" and "metaphysical knowledge")and then get on with my life.

  3. I prefer no tech. When my chalk breaks I have two pieces that work!