Is There a Need for Cross Platform Teachers and Teaching?

I tweeted a question yesterday that is one I have been kicking around since before my student teaching days:

“Are kids better prepared for life if they use multiple computer platforms in school? Who out there is cross platform?”

My first interaction with a computer was in 1980.  Mom and dad were at Sears and saw a TI-99/4 on sale for $99, they didn’t know quite what my brother would do with it but it was a 90% markdown and they figured computers were going to be important some day.  They bought the computer and brought it home for my older brother.  He unpacked it all, hooked it up, spent about an hour on it and then said, “Here, it’s yours.”  I taught myself how to write basic programs and dabbled with entering my baseball cards in to a database.  I could write data to my cassette tapes consistently, but I couldn’t always retrieve the data I had written. 

When I went to high school, there were a handful of DOS computers in the administrative offices and the Apple IIe had found its way in to the department offices.  I used to help teachers when they asked.  I got caught in the math department office once, trying to figure out if Apple had solved the problem of retrieving your data.  That’s when I found out about the 5.25″ floppy disks.  As a freshman in college, I had a friend who was taking Basic, so I was able to use her login information to let myself in to the school network.  Computers were still not used by teachers in class, but they were in use behind the scenes or for programming classes. 

By the time I finished my student teaching, I had used a Mac Plus with a mouse, Apple IIe/IIc, VT-100 terminals to access a VAX mainframe and write programs in FORTRAN, AT&T 6300 running DOS,a terminal to access the Basic server, and my brother’s TI-99/4. 

As a first year teacher, my school (a new alternative school designed in part by @pammoran) was outfitted with an Apple IIGS in each classroom.  We also received one of the first computer labs in the school district during our first year – a bunch of IBM 8086 computers attached via a twisted pair network.  When I left the classroom 6 years later to become an “Instructional Technology Specialist”, I had a Mac LC II, 6 of the IBMs, the Apple IIGS, and a few other computers I had managed to collect from other places.  My students knew which programs and peripherals worked on each machine and together we supported them ourselves.  I did have to have a math co-processor installed on my LC II in order to run a copy of Mathematica I won as a door prize!

When I see a computer, I have some level of confidence that I can make it do whatever I want it to do if given enough time to figure it out.  I am not married to a platform or a brand, I am able to focus on what the desired outcome is and to match the best tool to that outcome.  I liken it to being able to use a pencil or a pen and to even recognize sometimes a felt-tip pin is a better choice than a ballpoint one.

So, “Are kids better prepared for life if they use multiple computer platforms in school?”  I think so.  My twitterverse does, too, but it seems schools can’t seem to be able to afford “both platforms.” I actually pushed with the fact that there are more than two platforms. 

While my school district is “cross platform”, we’re not very strategic about it.  It’s more about personal preference (which isn’t bad as long as people remained informed and open-minded) and cool factors than matching needs to functionality.  I recently watched my 18 year old niece get her first Android-based phone and it became pretty clear to me that she has limited understanding of what an operating system is and does.  She appreciated me translating for her and I worked hard to stay at the conceptual level and not interject with “do this” kinds of statements.

What if allowed situations where students could use multiple platforms of devices every day?  The support folks are cringing, I am sure, but what if we also taught students and teachers how to better support their own devices?  Would we be wasting time and money or creating better prepared workers and learners?  What would a classroom look like if everyone were bringing their own devices in to the room and the district had a clear plan for how to connect them all?  How would this shift teaching and learning?  Are teachers who are “open” to multiple platforms for their electronics more open to different approaches to teaching?  How far does the notion of flexibility go?  Is there a need for cross platform teachers AND teaching?

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