I have heard the phrase “technology paralysis” used in two different contexts – one regarding why “technology stuff” remains unused (training, time, expectations, etc) and the other how people get caught in the trap of waiting for the next “new thing” to come out before they purchase anything. I think about both of these contexts often – and reflect on how they both play out in a school system of almost 13,000 kids, 1,500 adults, and over 7,500 “computing devices.”
Concepts like “total cost of ownership” and “return on investment” are not ones that get addressed a lot in education circles. Most school divisions take a hard line towards standardization and do not provide their “users” choice of technologies. “Replacement cycles” require consistent and guaranteed funding and are not very “sexy.” Some devices reach their “end of life” in one deployment but can be “repurposed” in another, receiving “hand-me-down” technology is not very “sexy” either.
This time last year, every principal in my district had a division-provided cell phone, a Flip video camera, a Palm, and a digital camera. These devices were replaced by a single device – the iPhone – and the surplus equipment (except the cell phones) was re-distributed to classrooms and media centers. How do we look for more opportunities like this? So, the iPhone camera doesn’t zoom and AT&T coverage is not the best in our area, but going from four devices to one has been a benefit for our principals. The Palms are being used by PE teachers to collect fitness data in the field and the Flips and digital cameras were either assigned to teachers or the media center by the principals.
Even in the difficult budget times we are experiencing, several schools and departments in my district seem to have “end of the year” money to spend. When I get the call or the email asking, “What should I buy?” I ask, “What problem are you trying to solve? How do you want to change learning?” I get a variety of answers like, “We don’t have a SmartBoard in every classroom yet” or “I have seen the iPads and they are cool” to “we really need to work on non-fiction reading” or “we need to do a better job with formative assessment.” Either way, I have more questions. I also have a lot of information. It is important that people making technology purchasing decisions make informed decisions and not just popular ones! How do we avoid the “Law of the Instrument” or “Maslow’s Hammer”? “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
I believe in small mistakes. Poet Nikki Giovanni once wrote, “Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the response to error that counts.” My school division created a “technology testbed” process that allows teachers to propose projects (with goals and deliverables) we call “seed projects.” Through the seed project process, we have provided iPod Touches to help with basic math facts development, English language acquisition, higher order thinking, one-to-one research and response, and other applications. We have provided Kindles to at-risk high school students who “hate reading” and netbooks to students working with two of our AVID teachers and to all physics students.
Our challenge now is to look at the “errors” in the projects and learn from them while evaluating which seeds, if any, should be grown to the level of Division-wide deployment. We are evaluating the “health” of the netbooks to see if they are a better value than laptops over four years. Four years seems like such a long time when it comes to technology, but think about the computer Steve Jobs announced on January 10, 2006 (thanks to Google’s Timeline feature I was able to quickly find this article) – http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2006/01/one_more_thing_/ – does it not have some place in a school some where at this point in time? Some teachers reading this are thinking it’s better than any computer they have in their classroom and others are looking at the 512 MB of RAM and wondering how we ever survived.
Our flexibility in spending technology monies is also limited by the state testing program. While we may have enough money to buy an iPod Touch for every high school student, iPod Touches can’t be used for the state testing program. So, we still need to refresh our computers available for this or think differently about how we are going to meet this need. By the way, the 2006 MacBook Pro will handle the state testing application.
How do we ensure our technology decisions are intentional, thoughtful, deliberate, and innovative? Should we strive for a balance? How do we look beyond the initial purchase to the long-term “total cost of ownership” and “return on investment” ideals? How do we weigh quantity vs quality? Who are the “deciders” in your district and how well informed are they to make these decisions?