Wednesday, February 17, 2016

One-to-One Tech Barriers

We leapt into the one-to-one world in the fall of 2010, when my district put a netbook in the hands of every single high school student.

I was excited. The process of trying to get a class into the single computer lab or, worse, use the traveling laptop labcart, was generally frustrating and lacked-- well, a certain spontaneity. I want a world where students always have computers handy, ready to be called into action at a moment's notice.

Some of us went and got us some training. Some of us already had some computer skills. Policies were created, the netbooks were rolled out and, ever since, we have been a technology-linked school where students romp happily through a field of modern educational tech-supported possibilities. Ha! Just kidding. We've wrestled with a bunch of obstacles to one-to-one tech.

I don't present the following as anything but our own specific story; I'm not sure whether we're an outlier or an exemplar. I'm inclined to think a bit of both. But here are the obstacles that stood (and in some cases still stand) in the way.

Student's Deeply Limited Grasp of Tech 

When automobiles first became available, the average owner owned a set of tools and knew how to repair and maintain most parts of the vehicle. The steady development ever since has been in the direction of a car that anyone can own and use without even a rudimentary understanding of internal combustion. That's the usual trajectory of technology, and computers have followed it.

My digital natives for the most part understand how to use their favorite apps, and that's about it. A little over a decade ago, my students knew html and we built websites from scratch. Nowadays, when a question-- any question-- comes up in class, I frequently fall back on the same old refrain. "Gee, if only there were a tool that gave each of us quick and easy access to most of the accumulated information of mankind, where we could quickly locate an answer to that question."

I took computer courses in the seventies in which I learned how to program in BASIC on punch cards. My first home computer was a Commodore64. I am endlessly curious about a zillion things, and the fact that I live in an age where my curiosity can be instantly gratified by the small net-linked computer in my pocket is the third most miraculous thing for which I am thankful (the others would be my wife deciding to marry me and my grandson's existence).

My digital natives think they are carrying small Snapchat machines on which they can play games and watch videos. They literally forget that their computers have other useful capabilities. And when things stop working properly, they mostly don't know what to do about it.

And boy-- if I could just get them to absorb the two main rules of internet use: 1) Everything is forever  and 2) Everything is public. That would be great.

Student Alarm That School and Computers Have Teamed Up

This has gotten better over time, but I'll never forget the initial alarm. I thought students would jump for joy that they could have computers at school, but instead the reacted as if they had come home to find school holding class in their kitchen. The intrusion of school on the cyberspace that they think of as their own did not go well.

In fact, to this day, we have students and families who simply refuse to pick up, use, or take possession of their school-issued chromebook (that's what we're using since netbooks died).

Infrastructure Limitations

I teach in a rural district. Many of my students go home to places that have no internet, either because their families don't care to have it and/or pay for it, or because they live in a place where the internet does not reach. Yes, there are such places in America, and many of my students live in them. That means that our chromebooks are mostly shiny paperweights when the students get home. It also means that one of the great advantages of tech-- to be able to extend school beyond the physical and temporal boundaries of the school day-- can't happen.

Equipment Limitations

In six years, there has never been a class period in which I could say, "Get out your computers and we'll do X" and have every student actually do that successfully. A netbook won't boot up. Another one won't connect to the network. Every year at least one student discovers a new sort of computer malfunction that I have never seen before.

Some of this is students generated. Many of my students treat their computers with the same love and care that they use for their textbooks. And these are teenagers, so even when they mean well, stuff just kind of happens.

Some of it is not the students' fault. Our IT people are pretty good, and they do a good job of keeping our network working. But we are also a public school district in a rural small town area and we surely aren't running out to buy top-of-the-line equipment any time soon.

Either way, my students become hugely frustrated and dismissive of the tech. When I tell them we'll be using the computers for the next unit of work, they are not happy about it. That's partly because of the transparency of technology-- when it works 100 times, you don't really notice, but when it fails on the 101st use, that sticks in your memory.

Nevertheless, I Would Not Go Back 

I have tried to embrace many of the limitations. After all, paper is a fragile medium that requires special storage and maintenance and is very susceptible to all manner of malfunction, but we've just learned to adapt. And filters, firewalls, and constant monitoring are going to be part of my students' lives when they enter the workplace. Learning how to thwart those barriers coexist with limitations is a realistic, if depressing, life lesson.

And with all that, I can still send them on treasure hunts for obscure pieces of information or interesting images. We can pull a piece of writing up on the big screen and group edit it while the author makes changes in real time. We can create completely new types of research projects.

Yes, my students are still slightly tech-reluctant. They will compose an essay on the computer, but they still want to print it out on paper (and I prefer to grade it that way-- I have not yet found a piece of software that allows mark-up as simply and quickly as my pen). And book publishers need not worry; my students remain steadfastly uninterested in reading text in any sort of e-form.

There are things we did right. We didn't have a tight-bound batch of software in place, and we do not have a tightly-defined technology plan in place that tells each teacher exactly what to do with a classroom full of computerized students. That may seem like a mistake, and some teachers weren't happy about it, but it has turned out to be the right choice. Anything that we had adopted six years ago would be outdated and useless today, meaning we'd either be stuck with useless junk, or the school board would be repeatedly dumping funding into a money cyber-pit. Instead, classroom teachers (with the assistance of a district-hired tech coach) have been finding, developing, and honing the stuff that they need for their own teaching. Far better to figure out what tech support will aid you in your teaching than to be told how you must change your teaching to fit whatever tech tool the district bought.

That flexibility has been invaluable. If a teacher asked me about having their school go one-to-one, I'd say absolutely go for it, and do it with lots of resources and no plan. Expect it to be hard. But also expect to find new and interesting mountains to climb.

No comments:

Post a Comment