As I discussed in part 1 of this series, Bad Tech, technology has become a common fixture in American schools, but the technology itself is often ineffective. Making technology useful and feasible in schools is a complex but still solvable problem.
Part 2: Feasibility
The barely fictional Mr. Jones just received a beautiful new overhead projector the administration bought using money from Grant XYZ. “Great,” Mr Jones is thinking. “How does this thing work?” “Do I even need it?” He has a decision to make. Spend his own time figuring it out, or put it in the closet?
The presence of technology in classrooms does not ensure its use. Teachers often have various gadgets sitting around but don’t have the means to add them into the briskly paced daily schedule. Given the shortage of support and the poor quality of tools, the challenge facing individual teachers can be insurmountable. Sometimes all that great gear—the subject of countless impassioned speeches and much me too hand waiving—lands in the back corner of the un-air-conditioned oven that is an urban classroom and just melts.
The idea of an interactive whiteboard is incredible! Computers in the classroom! But have you seen all the wires they come with? Have you seen the list of features on software like Infinite Campus or Blackboard?
The simple truth about education technology is that it is hard to use. Educators need better software and hardware. Computers without so many wires to connect. Software that’s intuitive. Improving technology will make a massive impact upon how teachers employ it in classrooms.
You know great technology when you see it. Look at an iPod. There are all kinds of other portable audio players on the market with more features, but when you hold an iPod, it’s exactly what you want. You don’t need to look at the manual or ask for help. Using the iPod is effortless, and that’s why it’s been the undisputed favorite for years.
We need the iPod experience in education technology. We need better products designed with teachers in mind. The right product meets a real need and solves a real problem. It works as soon as you get it in your hands. Great technology doesn’t rely upon a laundry list of features or lofty claims about revolutionizing this or that, but makes you question how you lived without and why no one thought of it sooner.
The Problem with Training
Basic theory of human to computer interaction (bear with me here) and user-centered design says that the computer should adapt to the human. Technology that requires hours upon hours of training does not adapt to the human. This is a problem!
Technology vendors love training packages because they can hide a poor design and provide more opportunities for profit. Educators: treat tools that come bundled with such packages as suspicious.
Of course every user does not have the exact same skill level and aptitude for technology, so, reasonably, some users might require training. Regardless of noble intentions, it tends to devolve into a hideous monster. Not only are most sessions needlessly long and mind-numbingly boring, but they are often irrelevant to the entire group. Attendance is often mandatory regardless of skill or aptitude.
Training can ruin users’ perceptions of tools because it is condescending by default. It presents the assumption that the tool is perfect and the user is ignorant. In reality, how often is this true?
Tech Support Staff
Technical support or Information Technology (IT) staff is critical to implementing technology in schools. Many schools do not have professional, full time, and on site support available. Sometimes a school might designate a teacher as a technology lead or divert a paraprofessional to tech support temporarily. However, these are not qualified or experienced support staff, and there is only so much they can do. Phone support and mobile support staff that travel to multiple schools are not enough.
The people making decisions need to understand that quality support is just as important as the product itself. Leaving teachers to fend for themselves has become too common a management tactic in our schools. Teachers have enough responsibilities, and they’re already experts in one field. Politicians and administrators: you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You cannot purchase technology for schools, omit proper support, and still expect progress.