Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Innovation, or not.

Alexander Russo had this to say:

Squared-Off Milk Jugs -- For Education

6a00d834515f0569e200e5537dc4d288338What if someone took one of the most commonplace objects in education -- pencils, say, or reams of paper -- and found a way to produce and distribute them at much greater cost and energy use? (sic) That's what's apparently just happened in the grocery store industry, where a new kind of squared-off gallon milk jug (pictured) is saving production, storage, and distribution costs -- even if it's not so easy to use at first (NYT).

The closest thing I can think of in education might be open-source software, which lowers purchase and licensing costs for basic software. Whiteboards seem like they're not much less expensive than blackboards. Ditto for newfangled artificial turf. But maybe I'm missing something. Ideas?

This kind of short-sightedness is fairly common in education. It's not that he's really missing so much as not looking at other parts of the package.

Open Source software is wonderful. I use it and it works well - as well as the commercial stuff. The problem is that I tend to be ahead of the curve. Most teachers aren't.

If you allow teachers to find OSS and install and maintain it, you will have 15% who do a good job and get good software and put it to proper use in the educational setting. You'll have 50% or so flailing around, grabbing half-baked projects from three or four sources, messing up the implementation or just not making very good use of it. You'll have the remainder installing ad-supported malware or worse.

If IT is in charge of securing, promoting, installing, and training, then you will never have OSS in schools except for the rare case. The IT guys don't have the same needs and priorities as the teachers. For them, and for the training staff, having an identical install on every school machine is worth the expense and most of the time that means Commercial Software that is also on the typical home machine as well. Better to have MSOffice on every machine than to try and train up OO on this crowd.

Compatibility is a big thing, since teachers share a lot of things. If it requires a lot of conversion, most won't bother. If Word can't open the Works file or the ClarisWorks file or the WordPerfect file, then the file won't be opened.

It is amazing how little most teachers are able to teach themselves and how much we whine and complain when faced with anything out of the ordinary. Every new update is met with enough wailing that you'd expect to find blood spilling on the floor. Don't even think about changing the grading program. I know of teachers who wouldn't even enter grades into the parent-accessible on-line gradebook until the last day of a marking period, and then only a final grade. Why? They didn't like it.

Now imagine the IT guy trying to switch everyone to OpenOffice. "We need training." "My files won't import." "How do you open a file?" "Where is Excel." "Why did you change; the old program was so much better." I can't see IT bothering.

Gadgets and gimmicks are a slightly different story in education. Everyone wants the latest and most expensive, even if they need "at least three days of training in order to learn the Smartboard." Because teachers generally don't learn on their own time, the school has to hire subs to cover classes while teachers learn simple tasks. It's okay, apparently, because the students "have work to do."

Bottom Line: The students can learn from a worksheet without a teacher present but the teachers can't. Makes sense to someone.

Whiteboards are cheaper than blackboards if you are buying one or the other and outfitting a room for the first time. Blackboards are cheaper if they are already there. I reject ripping out decent blackboards to install whiteboards for just "modernization". Ditto for Smartboards. In fact, the stupidest thing to do IMNSHO, is to replace boards. Simply add the new to another part of the wall. There is nothing quite like having 4 good blackboards and a whiteboard/ smartboard. Then again, I teach math.

So what about the great boondoggle of our age, astro-turf? Please. Schools have main fields for several sports, practice fields, little spaces in between where the track kids do sprints and it's all one big stretch of grass and easy to maintain. Mow it regularly and seed it and fill some holes judiciously and you're good to go for years. If the puddles get too big, drag the goals and the bleachers 20 yards laterally and viola!, a new field.

Enter the astro-turf gadget. It's expensive and it's only on the main field. Which then has to been maintained with sweepers, repair kits and 6 different sets of lines in a rainbow of colors (because fairness dictates that boys' and girls' teams all get access to the good facilities) plus a bunch of other expenses not mentioned in the installation guide or in the brochure thrown at the school board. And don't forget the rest of the fields are still in use ... you don't really save much on those costs.

Why is this good? Because one field of the ten around your building never looks muddy. That's the only reason.

What's the big kicker? Artificial turf needs replacement every 10 years, leading to a annualized cost of $40 to $60k. Hardly a good use of money in my book. Better to use that on the care and maintenance of 10x as much grass.

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