Month: November 2014

from Technology is a Curse

In 1978 the Apple 2E came to our high school. A handful of these babies sat in a little side room. Teachers were offered after-school training in how to program them. Computer students at my college laboriously typed punchcards that fed huge refrigerator-sized computers in the math building at the far end of campus. The cards would fan through the system for a day or so before spitting out long reams of paper results. English majors avoided that building, so I signed on to see what this new invention offered. I learned a little rudimentary programming, and it seemed a cool toy, but nothing I learned there applied to my classroom. If computers existed at my next two schools I never saw them. When I relocated in 1985, a full complement of Apple 2Es sat in a Writing Workshop in the English Department, and clear schoolwide commitment existed to eventually populate every area of the school thus.

Herein lies the comedy that is educators and technology. We had a lab full of computers, but no real curriculum to apply them, no philosophical basis for their location, and no teachers trained to use them! The English Supervisor recognized this, and encouraged some teachers to apply for appropriate courses, but no monies funded this effort . . .

When I left in 2010 there were 26 computers in these two rooms alone, and several computer labs throughout the school; this necessitated a complete rewiring of the building in the ’90’s. Never, however, in all those years, as the Apple 2Es became the GS, then switched to PC brands, never were teachers placed in the lab with any computer training. The one notable exception occurred the year the school transitioned to online gradebooks. One portion of one in-service day on three separate occasions was devoted to teacher training, in a large group. This meant two or three teachers to each computer. This training did not extend beyond How to Sign On and Here’s the Menu of All the Things You Can Do! Ever. These presentations invariably included promises of further training that never materialized. The first two sessions included a collapse of the network ten minutes after the lesson commenced.

Some school systems buck this trend. The county system in the south where I substitute teach does, in fact, couple its commitment to technology infusion with teacher training. Many of the jobs I get are to cover for that very thing. Students are issued ipads, and teachers are shown techniques to enhance their lessons using this new tool. Classrooms carry smartboards and teacher laptops so that the computer and internet resources sit central to every lesson. Students become accustomed to having questions they can immediately research; teachers know a map or painting or video clip or musical piece will be a few key clicks away to illustrate any unanticipated student question. The powerful world of information sits in every room, and every teacher knows how to access it. But even here, frustration, as the district does not issue its substitutes a laptop, nor any training, so those who retired just before the Smartboard’s immigration (or never taught at all) cannot offer that immediacy of information. Lesson plans become a pile of xeroxed worksheets, the hex of busywork looming large when a teacher is absent . . .

The first year a VCR hung in every classroom in our school one might think we’d be dancing, and on one level we were. But no one asked teachers what features might be useful; no one who was a teacher was involved in the purchase at all. You may ask, what’s the big deal? What key feature, based upon how teachers show programs, could be all that essential? Any teacher back then could slam-dunk this answer. Showing a feature film in English, for example, happens usually for two reasons. If part of the viewing strand and meant to be looked at as film, then there will be a view sheet so that students don’t miss essential elements that can be reviewed later, and the piece is seen straight through. But since feature films usually run 90 minutes minimum, and can be well over 120 minutes long, this takes two or three teaching days. Because one’s teaching load generally involves two or three, maybe more, identical classes Do you see where this is going? a teacher shows the same film in multiple classes over multiple days.

So, what is that essential feature? Rewind, fast-forward–common features, not a problem–AND A COUNTER!! How else can you denote where you stop and start?

Imagine our surprise in discovering the beautiful new classroom VCRs had no counter on the machines. And imagine, if you will, what this means. In the four minutes between classes, when the teacher must stand at the door to the hallway (the principal’s order: we ostensibly improve student behavior during passing times simply by our presence at the door), how can one rewind what, say, a Period 1 class just finished watching back to where the Period 2 class left off yesterday? With no counter to mark the spot?

Try this at home, if you still have a VCR. You may not, but schools do; substantial taxpayer dollars have been invested in not only the machines, but a library of VCR film versions. Watch a 40-minute segment, and then, in less than four minutes, rewind it back to its starting point, sans counter. Oh, and be sure several teenagers are asking you questions about last night’s assignment, or what they missed yesterday, or “Do you have another copy of that worksheet? I lost mine” over and over while you do it. Sprinkle in a couple arguing over who’s seat’s whose, or another pair chasing each other around the room. Then you’ll have the barest inkling of one reason we teachers wish someone would ask us what we need to be successful in the classroom before they go out and buy it!

The VCR purchase represents a broader common experience. School administrators bought thousands of dollars of computers, printers, copiers, faxes, gradebook software and more, without directing one questionnaire prior to purchase at staff–or one dime post-purchase for staff training on said equipment. It’s the “Figure It Out” game, in education. Or should I say, “Figure It Out and Make Do”? Because over and over again, that’s what we do . . .

Too often I watch teachers choose to break or ruin equipment rather than betray ignorance of its use. Entire class gradebooks, lost. Documents formatted incorrectly, or worse, saved over the template, spreading the mistake virally. Xerox machine parts, snapped. Jams in printers, abandoned. Ribbons of videotape spiraling out from some jimmied piece of a VCR. This was the greatest frustration I faced in using the many tools purchased to help me in the classroom.

As Millennials begin to populate faculties en masse, computer literacy among teachers will improve by default. But Millennials will invariably face new technology. Without some change in how teachers are encouraged to retool and retrain, this kind of waste can tumble into perpetuity. Those quick studies can and will figure it out, managing; but those less deft, left untrained, will leave the latest technological tool collecting dust at best, or at worst, broken to bits. Wouldn’t it be wiser to set policies in place that will put it to greater use?

*Every incident and person described in Becoming Mrs. L is real and accurate, according to this writer’s best recollection of each event. In order to protect their identities, the names of all schools, staff and students have been changed, including the author’s. Becoming Mrs. L is not about one specific place or time or person or incident, but about the real challenges every teacher meets in the course of a career.
Discussion Topic:  What technology policies are in place at your school that you appreciate? What could your school implement that would improve technology purchases and training, and so maximize student potential and taxpayer dollars?