Monday, March 12, 2007

response to technology issue

A response to a developing technology issue in my district... the plan to make elementary schools go to a single platform ("minutes" related to this decision are in the previous post). I publish my thoughts here as a personal record and in case it serves to inform others.

Who am I and where am I coming from on this issue?

I’ve taught in SD57 for 11 years and have been an active user and teacher of technology and advocate for choice & experimentation. I have sat on and chaired school tech committees, acted as a teacher rep on the District Tech Team (DTT), served as a tech trainer for 4 years, serve as a Key Tech Contact (KTC) and hold the “POSR” position at my school (D.P. Todd) which provides technology leadership and facilitates school planning. The 40+ workshops I have conducted in the last 7 years on technology for transformative learning have included topics like blogs & podcasts, audio and video editing, web design, and the connection between student identity and the new digital world. This was also a key focus during my last university degree, and has guided the use of technology by students in my classes. My school (D.P. Todd) and district 57 (central administration and the DTT in particular) have been very supportive of my work, in terms of professional development, grant money, release time, hardware & software, and opportunities to lead, share, and learn.

I understand the rationale behind the funding and evergreening plans, but the single-platform issue warrants my feedback. It has already been the subject of 62 posts to the teacher’s union folder, and 22 posts to the district-wide Technology folder. Within the context of mass-delivered tech services, some decisions based on efficiency are necessary, but I believe the nature and costs of efficiency are often overlooked. I also understand that there must be a compromise between maximum efficiency and maximum choice; also a compromise between the ability of techies to administer a system and the ability of teachers to direct their own use of educational technology.

Nonetheless, I have concerns about the district’s past commitments and the current lack of inclusion on an educational decision.

A long-term commitment to being a dual-platform district was publicly made by senior admin this year and last at Key Technology Committee meetings and the previous year at an open Tech Conversation meeting. This commitment is also described in our published District Technology Standards and has been one of the diversity themes which has distinguished our district and helped make it a technology leader in the province. This commitment was also reiterated when the Debian server was introduced in the district. The DTT was told that the choice of servers was not a judgement on platforms and was specifically chosen for its purported ability to work with both macs and pcs.

The decision appears to have been imposed without adequate consultation or respect for existing processes and users; only an incomplete and group of elementary principals were involved to some (unknown) extent. The teachers on the DTT, the KTC, and the tech committees at elementary schools were avoided for decision and/or input. This issue of consultation without actively considering other frameworks (i.e. one represented by teacher/user-input) is problematic and does not lend itself to “buy-in.” Teachers, not tech support or principals, are the ones most closely tied to daily implementation of classroom curriculum and adaptation of technology.

It is not too late to consult on this issue, consider impacts, allow flexibility or room for variance. Perhaps some of this is already in the works, but just needs to be communicated to affected educators? In addition to the commitment and lack of consultation mentioned above there are other reasons why this decision warrants a second look.

Was efficiency the criteria for making the decision? It may be simpler for system technologists to conceive of a single-platform management environment, but this will not guarantee that tech problems will go away or that their jobs will be easier. The migration to a new platform and software set will require a vast amount of time and help, and will not shorten the workloads. Teachers have developed curriculum based on software which is platform-specific and is not available on pc without considerable expense or support which is not currently provided. Finding, installing, licensing, debugging, training, supporting replacements for mac's iLife suite alone would overwhelm our tech support, unless there are no plans to match level of "service" provided by existing computers. A plan to lower level of service will result in teacher frustration and cynicism as a trade off for efficiency and centrally administered delivery.

Was this decision made for financial reasons? When some of our techies studied costs this last year, they found (and published) that similarly stacked & equipped macs and pcs cost about the same; this initiative won’t save much money, but it will create work for those who are already well-served by their platforms; to start with it would fall on teachers to find replacements for software currently used and convert their files and projects. Many teachers have purchased their own computers and peripherals to match what they use at school with the belief that the district had a long-term commitment to supporting dual platforms.

One only has to see the teaching & learning projects resulting from the numerous TLITE (SFU’s tech ed diploma program) alumni in our district to see an explosion of innovative work in the last four years. A significant portion of this innovation relates to media-rich, platform-specific software beyond the cross-platform “Office”-type programs and internet browsers. What is said about this work when the tools are taken away? Teachers have been very busy spending school time and free time developing curriculum based on software which is not available on pc without considerable expense or support which is not currently provided. Finding, installing, licensing, debugging, training, and supporting replacements for mac's iLife suite alone would overwhelm our tech support. A recent case involved a teacher at Heather Park looking for a pc alternative to Mac’s iMovie which is commonly used by teachers and students for video editing. Tech Support here was limited to suggesting names of other software; the work of getting an alternative will fall on the teacher. How much extra work will teachers need to do to in order to archive and reformat years of teaching material? What will the district offer in the way of re-training, assistance with file-migration, and purchase of new software to allow new pcs to measure up to the educational uses provided by macs in the past? WIll they allow schools to purchase intel-based macs which can handle both platforms? Limiting the kinds of work teachers and students can do with technology is not a progressive move, even though I’m sure it will be marketed as “moving forward.”

Standardization and reducing the variety of configurations available to students might make tech planning easier and tech support conceptually simpler, but it does not necessarily help us teach and learn. In my school, we have a variety of tech needs: teachers with media-rich tech demands, teachers with basic computing needs, physically and mentally disabled students, film students with huge storage requirements, mini-labs with recycled computers and scaled-down configurations, "locked down" labs, wide-open workstations, office staff and admin with particular needs, and so on. Our “techie” works skilfully to accommodate these different platforms, software-sets, configurations, and generations of computers. He shares the vision of the transformative use of technology and knows how unwanted and unstudied standardization will kill programs and projects in our school.

1 comment:

Malka said...

Well written article.