Technology in the classroom

Technology in the classroom is becoming a popular subject in my school.  The K – 8 principal wants to work towards a 1-1 laptop ratio in the middle school and have Smartboards in every classroom.  Many of the teachers want CPS student response systems (clickers) so they can give instant quizzes with instant results.  eInstruction InterMobi pads are also big on the wish list.  The use of iPod touches is a regular suggestion so teachers can upload lessons to the students.  I think all these ideas are great and would love to have them all but none of them fit into the reality of the present system of education at my school and, probably, most schools. 

Consider the laptops.  Initial cost of course would be a major issue.  A low budget netbook is about $250.  If we equip only the 6-8 grade kids then that is 110 netbooks for about $27,500.  In order to use those netbooks we would need a wireless network in the elementary building.  I have estimates from $11,000 to $30,000.  The $30,000 seems to be more realistic since I have had two different outfits give an estimate in that range.  With the right grant $60,000 can be covered.  That, I think, is the easy part.  Now for what I would consider the hard part: maintenance, lost computers and curriculum redesign.  The IT department here consists of one person, me, and I also teach half time.  To cover those 110 netbooks with tech issues, setup changes, teachers needing new software installed, and all the etceteras that are going to happen, the elementary school is going to need at least a half-time techie of their own.  Since finding a half-time techie is not really possible the school will need to hire a full-time teacher (or whatever) to be the half-time techie.  Good luck on finding someone who can actually fix netbooks.  There are also some more hidden costs in here; more Deepfreeze licenses and anti-theft software and/or insurance comes to mind.

In order to make this netbook thing work the middle school teachers are going to have to revamp their curriculum.  This will not be a case of reviewing textbooks to fit a need.  It would require a complete curriculum and pedagogy make-over requiring major research.  Having those $250 netbooks sitting in lockers or backpacks for weeks on end because the teacher does not have lesson plans designed around them would look really bad.  Hiring six or seven teachers through the summer to write a curriculum would not be cheap and those teachers may not be interested in losing their summer off.  And what do we do if some of the middle school teachers are not advocates of the 1-1 plan?  Firing and rehiring is a really bad idea.  I really do not think the average middle school teacher has the background to write a project of this type anyway.

When the 1-1 idea was initially mentioned I stared doing the usual internet research into who is doing what with what results.  An interesting result of my research was the number of schools that implemented the 1-1 plan and then in a couple of years discontinued the idea due to major issues.  The issues were varied but maintenance, curriculum, student apathy/neglect, and teacher unpreparedness were the major problems.  None of these are easy nuts to crack.

The 1-1 laptop project is probably by far the biggest technology in the classroom concept but with all the classroom technology it is the same basic issue, can the school get enough bang for the buck to justify the needed changes.  My wife teaches in a public school 7th grade.  The school equipped the rooms of those teachers that requested it with InterWrite interactive boards.  My wife is a workaholic when it comes to course planning and curriculum and it took her a year to get to the point where she feels the interactive board is useful enough to justify the expense.  All of this classroom technology requires a major time and philosophical commitment by the teacher and the school.  Bringing a new piece of technology in to a room and saying to the teacher “Here you are, now get our money’s worth out of it” simply is not fiscally responsible.  This is a really bad stereotype but most “older” teachers have a system they feel works and are less than willing to accept an innovation that “might” improve communication with students.  Introducing new technology in to the classroom cannot consist of a budget decision and an in-service by the vendor.

I am a computer geek who loves all the techno stuff for the classroom that is out there.  But I am also a teacher with a realistic concept of what I have time to do developed over many years of teaching.  If given a new piece of expensive classroom technology I know it is usually going to take me months to justify the cost and even then it may not improve the student’s ability to learn.  When I was just a teacher I wanted it all, but now that I am also the IT guy that has to purchase, do the setup and train teachers to use the techno gear, I am much less an advocate of technology in the classroom.  So much of it is like a little kid’s toy; it gets used intensely for a short while and then gets stuffed in the closet with all the other old toys.  Before I buy classroom technology now I ask the teacher how they are going to use it and how they feel it is going to improve their ability to teach.  The usual reply is “Uhhh.”

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