My journey through technology in education began with using a four-function plug-in calculator. it cost me $99 and I used it to calculate grade percentages. Then came the Apple IIe in the mid-80s. We shared one between 2 departments. We learned to write “hello” programs to format our 5 1/4″ floppy discs. Now we could do grades on the computer. Of course, we always had to run a hard copy with every update because the program frequently crashed and all the grades disappeared. In a few years we had a 20 station computer lab consisting of Classic Macs. What a glorious machine that was! The best Mac ever made. Of course, classes were 30+ so kids had to pair up and there was only 1 lab for 2,000 students. But we had entered the age of the computer and I was thrilled. When Apple stopped courting the educational market we switched to PC.
A new superintendent, out to add to his resume, organized the purchase of PCs for every classroom in the district. We were the first school district in the region to do this. This was a major coup for him, and did, in fact, add to his resume and propel him into his next job. Each classroom received 5 computers. Here is where my issue with technology expenditures began. The district had enough money to buy the computers, but budgeted no money for teacher training and no money for computer maintenance. Teachers were used to working with Macs and were unfamiliar with the PCs.
There was no training on ways to use 5 computers with 30+ students and teachers had no idea how to use them in class. In many cases the computers gathered dust until they become obsolete, or were broken when kids stuck objects into the floppy drives. Teachers asked if the computers could be combined into computer labs so students could word process. That request was repeatedly denied by the district because it would mean individual classrooms would no longer have 5 computers. All that money was wasted because the district purchased technology for the wrong reason and then tried to artificially force it into the curriculum. (They did this by requiring teachers to create their own 5-computer lesson plans.) A complete disaster. No one benefitted, except the superintendent who was long gone to a better-paying district by the time the computers broke down.
At this point, I know some younger readers are thinking, “Why didn’t you let kids use the 5 computers for research on the internet?” A very good question! This was before the World Wide Web even existed and the internet was very complicated to access and had no pictures. Email was a totally confusing concept utilizing programs called “Elm” and “Pine.” There really wasn’t very much you could do with a classroom computer other than word process and calculate. There were some very primitive education programs that weren’t really worth the class time required to use the.
By the late 1980’s graphing calculators started making their appearance. This was an example of technology that met an existing need. Graphing calculators allowed students to work with large numbers and more realistic situations. They solved an educational problem. This was money well spent and graphing calculators are still a classroom staple over 20 years later.
Our district next purchased laptops for all teachers. We were to take attendance and do grades on these. They also could be hooked up to TVs in the classroom, although there were still very limited ways to use it. The next step was replacing the laptops with desktop computers for each teacher’s office.
Finally, computer labs were created. We have 5 labs that now fill a viable need for research and document creation by students. But it took over 15 years and millions of dollars in questionable spending to get there.
What’s the moral of this story? My district tried to be on the cutting edge of technology and hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on a hopeless task. Schools have no hope of being at the current level of fast-moving technology, let alone be ahead of it. It’s foolish to even try. My fear is that this same process is going to repeat itself with iPads. Many schools and districts are snapping up these devices and then trying to force them into the curriculum. iPads are set to revolutionize education! Buy iPads and see your test scores skyrocket! See my articles “Is the iPad Ready for the Classroom? Not Quite Yet” and “iPad Sets in the Classroom? No Way!” for more information on this topic.
The best approach is to carefully look at the needs of the district and schools and add technology only where there is an existing need. Curriculum should always determine technology needs, never the other way around.