We have some “kits” making the rounds in schools around the board. The intent of these are admirable. Too often we knee-jerk to what we know, or what has come before, and has been “tested” and “adopted”. This leads to tunnel vision when decisions are made about properly instrumenting a classroom. The worst example of this (in my humble opinion), is outfitting classrooms with interactive whiteboard (IWB) technology. This “must-have” tool is not without its virtues, and having had one in my classroom, I understand the benefits; but if given the choice of how to spend over $3000 on tools for my learning space (IWB, Projector, Laptop, Mounting Expense), I would opt for a bank of laptops instead (or better yet, six iPads). Given the basis in which schools are funded, adopting a strategy to outfit each classroom with an IWB at the (accelerated) rate of two or three a year, I can guarantee that by the time you have one in every classroom in your school, this single-touch interface will be completely antiquated in comparison with whatever else “new” has appeared on the horizon. I could probably argue that this has already happened.
I cannot deny that the IWB companies have attempted to grow with the changing landscape, enabling dual touch split-board interfaces so that two students can use the wildly expensive giant mouse/trackpad simultaneously, but they are looking more and more like the RIM of the educational technology world, resting on the expectation that every classroom should have one, just like every business-person should have access to BBM regardless of how smartphone technology has grown and surpassed the Blackberry interface. Their growth is slow. Their pricing structure (while every other technology gets cheaper every year) is stagnant, and their use as a collaborative tool feels forced: this is a single-touch device, and we shouldn’t need to take turns on a 25+:1 ratio of student to device.
So we have “buy this instead” kits. Kits of laptops, and kits of iPods, and kits of iPads. You can see how they are being utilized on the Going Mobile blog on the HWDSB Commons. It’s great work, but until we indoctrinate the masses, convincing them of the transformative power these devices have on the learning space, will they be anything more than projects: short-lived experiments before reality hits, with the return and re-deployment of the kits into another classroom. Again, the goal is admirable. We are trying to show schools the different options available so that when the money is there to spend, it can be spent wisely, after an inquiry of a month or so that proves the purchase is warranted. (But is the money there?)
The problem is making that job-embedded. Embedding pencil and paper tasks is easy(er). I can put new wine in those old skins without much required on the part of the school or its coffers (although changing practice is always hard, regardless of the medium). There are numerous high yield strategies that can effectively be implemented using paper. Every one of those strategies can likely be enriched through technology. Example: Exit cards are great. Electronic exit cards can be shared, data-mined, and sorted in myriad ways, and the thinking of the students is more easily made transparent to the other members of the class to lead dialogue and drive inquiry. With these kits, we are giving teachers and students more than just a glimpse of that technicolour learning experience, before we return them to earth, and the reality of their small school, and its small budget. What needs to change in order for technology at the point of learning to become a job-embeddable opportunity?
If I were to return to the classroom tomorrow, the first order of business would be to locate and install a bank of computers (a minimum of six) to create a centre for my classroom, by whatever means necessary. I’ve taught with technology, and I refuse to take this vital component out of my learning environment regardless of the state and availability of technology in the school I may return to. And yet every month we do this. We make available through these kits — through month-long inquiry projects — the revelation that these types of devices can change practice, can make rich tasks richer, and can enable otherwise impossible connections with co-learners, a global audience and expertise from around the world. Then we take them away.
The hope of course is that conversations around how these purchases can be facilitated begins. Thoughts about curtailed photocopying, and better resource sharing are raised. Unfortunately, the small school is still the victim. They are funded based on enrollment, and we have yet to change the definition of what bare-minimum resources a classroom requires in order to operate, and found the funding to perpetuate that new definition. It’s still chalk and blackboards and pencils in a world that has far surpassed those tools as standard operating items in lieu of projectors and laptops and mobile devices.
Some days it’s a hard role advocating for the optional necessity.