From Now On
Vol 7|No 7|April,1998
There are many difficult decisions to make. And the menu overflows with conflicting values and confounding possibilities. We must sail like Odysseus between Scylla and Charybdis. We must chart a course between a rock and a hard place. We must steer between the devil and the deep blue sea!
This article can provide few definitive answers because answers and solutions must be custom-fitted to match local conditions, but the reader will find here many critically important questions that are too often overlooked in the rush to network before the neighbors. Along with these questions, the article suggests strategies to think sanguinely about this perplexing challenge.
There may be no right answers. But districts are learning that there are many wrong answers.
One can waste a huge amount of money and achieve minimal effects upon student learning simply by following the trend setters and the erstwhile salespeople who market Silicon Snake-Oil wherever they go.
There are very few experts . . . just a whole bunch of folks who claim to be. The opportunities for failure and waste are readily available to anyone willing to rush right in (with the neighbors) without giving much thought to student learning or purpose.
The educational landscape is currently littered with the growing wreckage of technology projects which arrived with plenty of gleam and plenty of polish but very little value.
Districts are caught in a stampede to demonstrate that they are modern, wired and technologically advanced. What matters in these stampedes is not how the technology is used to improve student learning. What matters is the speed of the network and the number of desktops which can connect with the Internet.
This rush to network schools is a bandwagon of immense proportions and drastic, recurring costs. The rush may be the most expensive boondoggle* . . . in the history of American government as politicians rush to put a PC in every classroom just as the French once promised a chicken in every pot.
The trouble is that we do not really know what we are doing when we network schools. We are not at all clear about purpose or method because it is all so new. We have very few models of good practice and almost no data or evidence to guide decision-making. What little data we have is often tainted by vendors and publishers' self interests and profit motives.
Some would have us believe that it is enough to be networked, as if connectedness were some state of Grace.
Speaking at NECC'97, Bill Gates likened (without any apparent irony) the current networking phenomenon to the Gold Rush of the 1840s. He either lacked knowledge of history, or he hoped that the audience did, since a large percentage of the miners found little more than Fool's Gold and returned home empty handed. Some of the most impressive profits were achieved by those who fed and housed and equipped the speculators.
Will the rush to network schools prove equally disappointing? Will the biggest profits be realized by Gates and his techno-brethren?
The answer to this question depends, in part, upon the ability of schools to ask the right questions, make the right plans, reserve funds for professional development and think before they leap.
Many districts sacrifice quality in order to buy more desktops. In order to increase the number of computers available for our students, they scoop up the latest "bargains."
In a period of rapid improvement (and obsolescence) in the speed and capacity of computers, there are always "bargains" available for schools willing to buy last year's model this year. Even though these units will soon function at less than half the speed of current units, the 30 per cent cost savings may make it possible to put three computers in every classroom rather than just two!
Few leaders buying "bargain" computers seem to weigh the true cost of installing computers operating at half speed.
Which is better? Two fast computers capable of running today's and tomorrow's software or three slow computers running at half speed which will be unable to cope with Bill Gates' latest system "enhancements" and "upgrades" within 18-25 months?
The best strategy is to buy a mixture of computers which provide balance. For basic operations, un-networked, inexpensive units like Alpha-Smarts make great sense. For more complicated and demanding tasks, it is better to invest in quality even if the price is dear.The true cost cannot be figured by price tag along. We begin with function and then buy the units which will accomplish our goals.
The greatest single failure of networking school districts is the under-funding of professional development.
Installing a network without providing robust professional development is like trying to plant a meadow on the school playground by tossing seeds onto the asphalt. If we fail to cultivate and fertilize the soil, we will be lucky to raise any flowers at all.
While the state of Illinois now requires that 25% of any technology budget is devoted to staff learning, most states remain silent on that subject and most districts commit few dollars to prepare teachers for use of the network.
Evidence keeps mounting that a very large number of the new networked computers will go unused unless districts provide 15-60 hours of professional development opportunities yearly so that teachers can turn around and blend these new tools into the daily life of their classrooms.
This professional development challenge is not a simple matter of teaching applications and software skills. We cannot simply provide Internet 101, Internet 102 and Internet 103.
In the last four years, From Now On has offered more than a dozen articles on how to invent and launch effective professional development activities for teachers. (Go to list). In a recent article for eSchool News, I summarized the lessons we have learned about professional development. (Go to article - link will be added May 1)
We must all do a better job of explaining to school board members, community members, superintendents and others the risks of underfunding such efforts. We must point to the glowing screens of unused computers and make the consequences clear.
To network a district without a full commitment to professional development is a sinful waste of taxpayers' money and a dramatic drain of scarce resources away from critically important alternatives such as library books, art programs, decent class size and many other programs which are often short-changed in order to fund the omnivorous technology beast.
When leading software and hardware companies contend that gifts of discounted software are corporate philanthropy, the reverse is actually true. Once they develop district networking dependencies, the flow of educational funds out of other programs into the corporate coffers represents a serious threat to the quality of our schools.
Networking well can create impressive gains in student learning. Networking badly is a bit like picking up a drug habit.
Since no one ever seems to have enough computers, we find ourselves having to set priorities. If a student can only hope for 2-4 hours of computer contact time, what would be the most profitable use of those hours? If she or he were lucky enough to enjoy 6-10 hours each week, what would be the most profitable use of those hours?
In some places the equipment and the labs are just about fully scheduled with instructional software which promises improved test scores. These districts should not waste any money networking and connecting to the outside world because students are rarely allowed access to the computers for anything approaching exploration or research.
In other districts, there is a ban on the use of drill and practice software in favor of student writing, research and problem-solving, tapping the network to gain access to rich information which is analyzed with powerful software tools.
Skill and drill programs are the easiest to install and maintain. They require little from the regular teachers. But they represent a major impediment for the classroom teachers who welcome the arrival of networked information resources as a boon to support student thinking. It is also doubtful whether such instructional software produce the benefits claimed.
Even though some would argue that we network in order to give our children access to the world outside the brick walls of our schools, some of the districts with the most impressive networks have remarkably little traffic going either in or out of the district. They are too intent on drilling and skilling to allow for exploration. And they are often too fearful to allow students access to either information or e-mail.
A network which is heavily filtered and heavily restricted is something like a golden playpen.
Many leaders ignore the true costs of the project and ignore the necessity of replacing computers every three years. They have no plan (or funding) to make sure that outmoded computers are replaced in a timely fashion. In many districts, the superintendent who launches the network leaves before the first wave of computers makes it through their third year.
When we add computers to a network, we seriously reduce their life expectancy. It is not that they actually slow down and die more rapidly. The network software and applications software programs simply demand more and more speed and hard drive space from the participating computers.
Most districts act as if they think the initial installation of the network and PCs is the beginning and the end of the project. Very few provide a comprehensive plan mapping out the routine and systematic replacement of all desktops once they have ceased to pull their weight on the network.
Unfortunately, there are too many districts which networked a few years back and now find themselves rusting because they fear the risks attached to asking the local citizens for more money. The same districts with no plan for replacement of outmoded equipment are also unlikely to have set aside adequate sustained funding to make sure the professional development and technical support is there to grow a robust program which is thoroughly infused.
A related problem is the failure to hire a large enough staff of technicians and network professionals to "develop" the network, adding resources, software and various updates to the system as the teaching staff calls for an increasingly rich menu of information and problem-solving tools.
Without adequate staffing, networks hum along with little traffic and little utility as each request for installation of new resources causes a crisis and aggravates an already excessive workload.
"Can't be done!" echoes through far too many hallways and conference rooms.
It makes little sense to introduce a complex network and then leave it unsupported and struggling.
Some of us have been saying for some time now that this is about information, not technology, but there are many network designers and technology experts for whom the technology is an end in itself.
In many places, the network becomes the goal. Until the district is wired, being wired is the Holy Grail. In some states business leaders and legislators join in arguing that networking is the path to a golden future, that the modern work place needs technologically literate workers.
The trouble is that the mere existence of a network does not prepare students for the work place. If they never get to use the network for problem solving and communication like their work place counterparts, they will remain technologically illiterate even while sitting within range of a great network.
Once the network is installed, we realize that it is simply a path or vehicle to carry us to our true destination. We must make it clear that installation of the network is only the beginning of a long journey. What matters is what we allow students to do with all of this information and communication power.
We need to balance the needs of the network with the desire to offer powerful tools, rich information and robust communication to both staff and students.
The fastest and smoothest operating networks are the ones with little traffic and use. Heavy traffic and use may undermine stability and performance. It is tempting, therefore, for network professionals to discourage some of the proposals of teachers and educators who might be inclined to promote heavy use of the network in the service of learning.
Student e-mail is one of the most glaring examples of this conflict. Across North America we are seeing huge networks installed which might support global e-mail exchanges and projects. The potential is enormous.
But . . . In all too many districts the network professionals will fight against student e-mail accounts, using every excuse from workload to Internet abductions as a reason to prohibit student accounts.
Imagine buying a Rolls Royce and keeping it in the garage!
In the name of equity, some schools spread their new technology resources out so thinly as to undermine their impact on the school program.
The danger in handing out the resources equally to all lies in the resulting dilution of program effects. Without a critical mass of computing and information resources, there is little chance that teachers will be able to make significant use of what they are given.
It is a supreme irony that fairness, in this case, can prove deeply unfair to the children. We must look for ways to cluster and combine and move the resources about (see wired classrooms) so that fairness and the curriculum are both well served.
We ought to put the computers where they will do the most good. Doing so requires customized design. In too many districts, someone arbitrarily selects one strategy or the other and imposes it willy-nilly on all the buildings throughout the district . . .
Some put all their computers in labs.
Others spread them out with a few in each classroom.
The wisest decision-makers put computers and other technologies where they will accomplish the most good for the most students. They have some labs of 30, some labs of 15, some groupings of 10, some flotillas and some classrooms with 6-8 computers used daily in support of the curriculum.
Student learning governs the invention and design process. Over time, we move from centralized collections toward more distributed arrays as staff and students both acquire the skills and the propensity to employ these tools daily in all of their work.
When we are sailing uncharted waters or when we are exploring new regions, we need to beware of certainties and bolts.
Since we have little real experience with wired classrooms, we should be careful about bolting anything down to the floor or into the walls. To prepare ourselves for the inevitable changes we will demand once we try out the equipment and then new resources, we must give flexibility a great deal of weight as a planning value.
Open mindedness is essential in times of rapid change and uncertainty. Rigid plans and liberal pouring of concrete undermines our ability to dart and weave and change course as we see what lies ahead.
The security of a network requires that some aspects be locked down. A totally open system would allow serious damage as well as invasions of privacy and other information crimes.
At the same time, overly rigid notions of security can seriously undermine the value of the network to the end users and clients. The cry of "security" can be used to block very important educational ventures.
The healthiest networks balance the need for security with an appreciation of the benefits which can flow from a reasonably open system.
What is the best way to know or learn what we need to know in order to do what we need to do?
The first time a district installs a big network, they probably do not have many skilled and experienced insiders to do the design and installation.
This lack of inside expertise leaves districts vulnerable to several dangerous traps.
Trap One - MegaBytes & MegaBucks
Hire an outside consulting firm which may design and install a network without much understanding of how new technologies should be used by children. These firms are often highly skilled at laying cable and installing networks but clue less when it comes to schooling and learning. They design robust networks which do not belong in schools. They connect all the classrooms and the schools with the biggest and the best infrastructure possible.
Long before the technologies arrive, these firms are hardwiring districts for streaming video and other razzle-dazzle technologies which are usually well around the corner.
Like a bad heart transplant, these networks will be rejected by teachers who have something important (called "schooling") to do.
Trap Two - Empire Within
Hire a skilled networking design engineer/supervisor from the business world as a district manager and give this new person (who rarely understands classrooms) more power than any of the curriculum savvy district administrators such as the supervisor of libraries or the director or curriculum. Further isolate this leader from curriculum priorities by having her or him report to the business administrator rather than a curriculum person.
Trap Three - Nobody Knows
Lacking local talent and expertise is no barrier for some districts. They go right ahead and promote a staff member from within with no prior experience to oversee the design and installation of the network. They figure this local staff member will be able to learn on the job.
If a district settled on this strategy two years before installation and invested heavily in the education of the new leader, this strategy might have some value. Given enough time and enough field visits to see who is successful, an internal leader might emerge capable of shaping the network to match district needs.
Unfortunately, the selection process is usually conducted within days (if not hours) of the installation itself, and the candidate is rarely given much in the way of training or preparation.
circumstance: awkward situation, catch-22 situation, plight, pickle, pinch, corner, fix, hole, jam, quandary, dilemma, predicament
dubiety: embarrassment, perplexity, bewilderment, bafflement, nonplus, quandary
predicament: nonplus, quandary, dilemma
in a quandary, in a dilemma, between Scylla and Charybdis, between a rock and a hard place, between the devil and the deep blue sea, doubting
question: problem, hard nut to crack, brainteaser, conundrum, poser, stumper, floorer, mind-boggler, headache, unsolved mystery, enigma
Unnecessary,wasteful, and often counterproductive work.
be busy: chase one's own tail, boondoggle, waste effort
be foolish: go on a fool's errand, go on a wild-goose chase, waste effort
be superfluous: labor the obvious, take a sledgehammer to crack a nut, break a butterfly on a wheel, hold a candle to the sun, waste effort
misuse: misapply, use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, waste effort
act foolishly: go on a fool's errand, waste effort
Credits: The icons are from Jay Boersma.
Other drawings, photographs and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.
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