Ferdi Serim
Just Say NO! to Technology That Doesn't Work
by Ferdi Serim • Editor, MultiMedia Schools
Volume 9, Number 2 • March/April 2002

On September 10, I signed the papers that brought me back to the classroom. A friend, who is principal of EJ Martinez Elementary School in Santa Fe, New Mexico, asked me to help her put the technology part of her house back in order. A day later, tragic events placed community service into a new kind of perspective. I don't know how to put out fires or rescue people trapped in buildings, but I do know how to use technology to enhance learning. I jumped at the chance.

I didn't know that I'd jumped straight into a tar-baby nightmare. I'd just completed a book, The Survivor's Guide to Technology Coordination, with 1,100 pages of the best wisdom I could gather. Within the first week, the realities I encountered have caused me to rewrite the first third of the book, and this editorial captures the essential points of the new first chapter. Because all the inspiring models, exhortations to systems thinking, data-driven instruction, and the rest don't matter one iota if the gear won't work. And the gear not working is not a technology issue...it is a social issue.

Re-Uniting the Tools and the Stories
My colleague and friend Jane Prestebak has shared insightful presentations on the history of standards at both Internet Librarian and Computers in Libraries conferences. In these sessions, she traces back to the moment when the introduction of multimedia technologies forced a break in our profession, where the tools went with the techies and the stories stayed with the librarians. A similar schism has happened between those who deliver and design curriculum and those who do the testing. Looking at these issues in a systems thinking way, we can see that this artificial segregation prevents each of these professionals from working together in ways that serve kids.

Mike Eisenberg has challenged our profession repeatedly to form IT teams at the building level, so that effective and powerful programs can enhance learning for every student. The absence of these teams in so many schools goes hand in hand with the technical problems that are the observable symptoms of a more serious and systemic malady. Our cover story demonstrates that the technical solutions are now available to reunite the tools and the stories, so that knowledge can be constructed in new and powerful ways—by students of any age, of any background. I encourage you to study the lessons resulting from the partnership the Lawrenceville, New Jersey, schools have crafted with Safari Technologies.

Why Can't I Print?
This is the most common gripe, one that most pundits casually dismiss. Until you've been faced with a situation where you literally can't print a single page anywhere in the school, you can't understand the frustration our teachers face on a daily basis. No business would put up with this situation for more than a day, but in schools it can become a permanent part of the landscape.

In the pre-network era, it was simpler. Make sure the printer is connected, that it has ink, that it has paper. In our case, the various problems I'll describe below had made it so long since anyone had been able to print, all the ink in all the printers had dried up. Soon after people stop being able to print, they stop using their computers as anything but glorified game stations.

So what's the problem? In a networked situation, the possible points of failure rise geometrically. An unplugged hub effectively takes out eight computers. A system software upgrade cancels out the third-party driver that makes the Ethernet card talk to the computer and the network. A new printer requires drivers that aren't installed on all classroom computers. You're beginning to get the picture.

Updating into Oblivion
Newer, better, faster! We always want our kids to have access to the best capabilities, and the technology world bases its growth on forcing us to buy new machines with increasing frequency. The hardware doesn't break down, so instead it must be rendered obsolete. Deliberately. I know I sound like an X-Files conspiracy theorist, but when it comes to schools, I find this strategy reprehensible. Just because a new operating system or glitzy software feature requires more RAM or a bigger hard drive shouldn't require schools to replace all their computers. The situation I found in my school showed that our working machines had become liabilities.

The network management system, which would allow the teachers (who get a small stipend to keep the gear working) to remotely update and fix problems in classroom computers, didn't work with the new server. Our machines were too old. The new browsers also pushed these machines beyond their limits, although the old ones worked fine.

Of course if we understood the educational purposes for which these machines and software would be used before we purchased or updated them, our decisions could be more firmly grounded in common sense.

Upgrade? Retro-Grade!
I'm going to include a chapter in the new book that looks back to the good old days—sometime within the last 5 years—when we actually could function with the machines and software we had. This means documenting which system software, which versions of word processors, which databases, which browsers, etc. The matrix will have tasks we want to achieve on the left side in rows. The columns will list the computers we have, from oldest to newest, and the versions that get the job done. In some cases we've found that restoring the machines to previous versions of the software makes them more useful.

End the Platform Wars
When the technician's answer to the question, "Why is this computer so slow to access the network?" is "What do you expect? It's a Mac!" (or it's a PC!), you know you are in trouble.

Our school has been a Mac school from the early days. Our teachers were among the first in the district to embrace technology...until it stopped working, that is. We have Ethernet running to each classroom and a T1 line into the school. Our internal network ought to be the ideal platform for a very fast intranet (100 megabit is fast enough for us!), except we suffer from the Mac vs. PC disease. I know that there are districts where "mixed platforms" have been figured out, but in the majority of cases, the expertise required to make this happen exceeds the skill level of the support staff. So they'd like the "other platform" (whichever that happens to be) to disappear from the face of the earth, and they do their best to accomplish this. They set virtual memory to the same size as the hard drive (that's a sure fire way to make the machine look like it can't work or be fixed) and then offer a brand-new machine of their preferred type as a replacement.

The decisions are made on the basis of what makes life easier for the support staff, not on the basis of what works best for teachers and students. Once the shiny new machines (under warranty) arrive, the tech staff goes on to other issues. The fact that there is no new software for these machines, or that the library of software the classroom teachers have slowly built over the past few years is now worthless, doesn't even enter into the equation. Or the fact that the district filter blocks access to the Library of Congress' America's Memory Project. Putting machines before people is a recipe for frustration.

We built a new lab of Windows-based machines, and that is where I teach. Unfortunately, these machines won't talk to the Macs in the classrooms. I have an iMac, which can be "seen" by all classroom machines sitting right next to the main Gateway I use in the lab. For small files, I use a floppy. For larger files, I use a zip disk or burn a CD to make the transfer. This is no way to run an intranet, but we do the best we can. No one asked us what we wanted or needed to do, and then designed the capabilities around that. That would have required a team following a shared vision. You can't get there from here.

What's a Responsible Teacher to Do?
I've learned the hard cold lesson that sometimes the responsible decision, from the point of view of effective teaching, is to turn one's back and walk away from technology that won't meet the educational needs in a responsive way. Only when the gear is working, is reliable, and is adequately supported does it make sense to guide teachers to gain the skills they need to work more independently. This means "live-in help" at the building level. Certainly teachers should know how to check if everything is plugged in, if the network can be reached, if the printer has ink and paper. But waiting 2 weeks for a "house call" to resolve these or other issues is a guarantee that 21st century teaching and learning are not going to happen in that particular classroom.

My theory on why printers won't print is that we don't consider that students will create anything worthy of the expenditure for paper and ink. How could they, when we don't ask them to do tasks worthy of the investment! Worksheets are just fine for that kind of throwaway teaching. If we are to raise the level of achievement, we need to start by raising the goals. That means raising the level of meaning in the tasks we assign, and then caring enough to provide the time, talent, and supplies needed to keep it all running. Until that happens, I will stop automatically criticizing teachers who "just say no!"

Communications to the Editor may be addressed to: Ferdi Serim, MultiMedia Schools, 11 Palacio Road, Santa Fe, NM 87505; 505/466-1901; fax: 505/466-1901; ferdi@infotoday.com.

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