Saturday, November 22, 2008

Affordable - Sustainable Technology

In my school district we have a modest budget for technology expenditures. Among school districts in our region, we don't have the largest budget and we don't have the smallest budget. Perhaps it's just right :-) I don't know. But the fact is that we have a pretty tight budget and one that we have to live within. Another important detail is that technology expenditures are not controlled by the district office. At the time we established regular technology expenditures, we decided to distribute a substantial amount to the schools to spend according to their priorities. At the same time we asked them to complete a technology plan that described their goals and a plan showing that their expenditures are sustainable. It makes sense to me that, given the short life of technology, we should consider obsolescence and the replacement of resources over time. I have read about schools who have failed to do this long term planning and who end up with an assortment of computers and software that are outdated and in disrepair, without the money to continue programming.

In our district we are finding that the 5 year replacement of computers that we planned is inadequate to provide the number of computers needed for our students and teachers. Schools are hanging on to 6, 7, and 8 year old computers in their classrooms. On one hand I think this is great. I don't want to rush good computers to their grave. If it serves a purpose for someone I think we should keep it in service. At the same time, we have found that the maintenance and support of older computers can eat up a substantial amount of staff time. These aged computers can also cause a high degree of frustration when they are depended upon and placed in a mission critical task. And when a critical computer crashes, the expectation is that the technology staff will run to the rescue, save the data and restore programs. This is simply unrealistic.

So, like other resource we rely on - water, fuel, food, air - we live in an age where we are reminded of our limits. We cannot spend and consume like there is no tomorrow. We need to assess what we really need, ask if we can afford it - can we afford to acquire it, can we afford to maintain it, can we afford to replace it when it expires. Since the 1950s we (Americans on the whole) haven't been very worried about the impact of our consumption on our community or the planet. To the contrary, we created a culture that depended upon increased consumption. When the Twin Towers fell in 2001 and our economy shuddered, we were told to go out and spend, show those terrorists that they can't thwart our way of life. Well, here we are in 2008 and our economy has been attacked once again but the enemy is us. Our desire for more and our habit for spending (other people's money) has put our economy in crisis. We have gone back to the capitalist drawing board for a new play book. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

Sorry for the economic rant, but I think it has significance to our microcosm called technology. It is time for us to be strategic about how we spend our precious few resources. We cannot afford to throw technology into the milieu and pray that it comes out right - that teachers will understand and use it wisely, that students will make constructive sense of it, that achievement will be advanced. It is time to get serious about spending. It is time to focus on the results we are aiming for. It is time to realize that we can't accomplish everything through technology, but we can accomplish something - if we narrow our expectations to the most important target.

For example; What if we decided that our technology would be focused on writing. Let's consider all the ways that technology could be employed behind to goal of writing. The most obvious tool is word processing. All of our computers come with a word processor. If we wanted to provide a word processor for every student, there are affordable tools available to this task. Beyond the word processor, we could develop an audience for student writing through blogs, wikis and email. The content that kids create on their computers could be saved on the computer or it could be saved on the web. Spend a little more money and you could purchase writing software that will give students feedback on their work. These wouldn't replace a teachers touch but they could provide immediate and constructive feedback to students that would be helpful to the writing process. Extend this further and we could adopt writing tools in spanish, translation tools. We could use the built in tools on a Macintosh to read the writing aloud to students. We could train student to create audio visual presentations with the focus on writing scripts. While it would be difficult to hold them back from the camera and the computer, we could build an expectation that good presentations must have a detailed script. Perhaps this will help them find a strong writing voice.

There is much more we could include in a "writing-technology plan" - literacy and safety in media and technology, research, grammar, spelling, etc. My point is that based upon this plan we could create a list of the resources (people, technology, time) that would be required to make the plan work. Based on the number of students and the other activities in the school, we could build an affordable, sustainable plan.

Most important to our plans is that the majority of people are pulling in the same direction. Everyone doesn't have to have the same level of understanding, but the plan needs to be simple enough and significant enough (have meaning) to most of us that it will be carried out. When we attend a conference, we are successful when we take and implement one or two ideas to fruition. I'd like to apply this kind of simplicity to technology - some constructive limits. Some teachers will continue to experiment with a variety of approaches and techniques - no problem. But their experiments will have to be supplementary to the main idea.

Will this bring our spending and fragmentation into line? It's hard to say. Perhaps the conversations that we will have will help bring some rationality to our process of purchasing and implementing technology. To look at technology as a means to the end, an expensive means that requires conscious tending.