In both day-long seminars we introduced people to the tools of the new century. We discussed new curricular needs, such as helping students distinguish between the already familiar Yahoo! web directory (a library catalogued with the Library of Congress system) and the year-or-so old Google idea - a true search engine. Understanding the differences, we suggested, was an essential new research and life skill. We also demonstrated how to get students to benefit most from built in computer tools - spellcheck and grammar check in Microsoft Word - organizing themselves with Outlook - using outlining tools to help notetaking on laptop computers.
And in both we demonstrated new "Assistive Technologies" to support the needs of differing students. We had just installed - on at least two computers in every university computer lab - WYNN for text-to-speech, ViaVoice for speech recognition, Zoom-Text for screen magnification and screen reading, IBM's original talking web browser, and Graph-Link - which connected your Texas Instruments calculators to the computer - allowing screen enlargement and copying of information.
Then we brought out our new hardware. Sophisticated headsets with noise-reducing microphones. Scanners capable of converting printed text into digital - readable - text. BigKey keyboards and Dvorak keyboards. Trackballs and alternative "mouse" devices. Laptops with infrared communications systems.
We talked about how we felt that tools such as these were going to revolutionize our ideas about ability and who might succeed in post-secondary education.
And so for the GVSU Freshman English faculty we discussed how a teacher might see a student struggling - what to look for - and what to recommend. For our K-12 participants we discussed how IEPs might be re-written to introduce this technology to students so that access to curriculum didn't slip away.
And I remember that we went further - suggesting that the days of "computer labs" in schools were already past, and that standard machine set-ups made no sense. Our university Academic Computing director talked about "laptops for everyone," or at least student network log-ons which allowed personalized software for every student. He pointed out that we had learned that computers were not just the "fantastic notebooks" we had envisioned when we began our research a year before, but also, "the textbook and library of the future."
People were dazzled. The buzz in the rooms was amazing. Oh yes, people were legitimately concerned about costs - legitimately because, in 1999, these were expensive things. Expensive memory, expensive sound cards, $120 a piece headsets, massive CRT monitors, even special attachments which allowed for front-side computer audio connections and multiple keyboard plug-ins. Wireless networking wasn't yet available, T3 lines were extravagances, laptops easily cost $2,000 or more.
Dr. Michael Wesch and K-State state the obvious
But still, people saw a future, and they were excited.
Now it is August 2009. And I'm not reminiscing for old times' sake.
In the ten years since we held those summer events everything we talked about has become easy. Under $200 netbooks and mobile phones can now do most or all of what we were discussing back then. Wireless systems have cut the cost of networking classrooms by 90%. Broadband has become stunningly cheap. Microsoft Vista (and Windows7) computers come with speech recognition included. Click-Speak and WordTalk offer Text-To-Speech for free. Ctrl-+ magnifies your Firefox screen. We have proven research into the advantages of 1:1 computing and simple text-messaging plans can deliver educational content to cheap mobile phones anywhere on the planet.
And yet - the transformation has not occurred. In fact, education has, in too many situations, dug in its heels, screaming that it will not be dragged into this future.
Schools still depend on "computer labs" and resist 1:1 computing, hand-helds, and mobiles as "distracting." Schools still install computers - tens of thousands this summer alone - which are not equipped with even the free access technologies - the moral equivalent of building inaccessible school entrances and school toilets. Schools continue to deny students access to curricular content and school success because they refuse to suggest and/or offer proven technology solutions.
We weren't genius futurists back in the summer of 1999.
We were just a group of curious people who were paying attention to what was already going on. We read the work of Lynne Anderson-Inman extensively, we read court cases and Office of Civil Rights opinions, we used the phone to call the Liberated Learning people at IBM, the TTS folks at Arkenstone, the people installing student computers at UCLA. We saw the future emerging because we had decided to open our eyes.
And when we saw that future we also looked around our own campus. We saw that students wanted internet everywhere - so, back in those pre-wireless days - we put dozens of data drops in every public area and made sure that there was one dorm room drop for every bed. We saw that students wanted personalization so when you logged on to our network, you got your desktop, not anyone else's. We saw that "disabled" students were tired of going to "resource centers" and so we put access everywhere we had computers. And we already knew that few students typed with ten fingers or wanted to study in "clean rooms" devoid of food, drink, or music, or knew how to effectively search. None of this information was hidden either. It was as obvious as walking across the campus.
I understand that progress comes slowly.
But as I lie in bed here, recovering from knee surgery, I look back on a decade of arguments which seem to get increasingly disconnected from the emerging realities. Back in 1999 the cost was a factor, but now it is truly not. Schools actually ban students from bringing their own technologies, and spend a fortune on blocking software and on email systems they could have for free. Back in 1999 ideas like Google were new and confusing - now ignorance of these systems requires willful intent. Back in 1999 one might have been unsure of where this information revolution was leading - now we know our students will not survive - academically or economically - without the skillsets which support these technologies.
These realities have pushed most education beyond the point of irrelevance. Our economic stars are now all dropouts - at one level of schooling or another. Our inventors are all self-taught. And we have made no actual progress on closing achievement or salary gaps, or on getting more students through post-secondary training or education.
In the summer of 1999 we were talking about the future. Now that future is the present. Next summer it will be the second decade of the 21st Century... is it time to move out of the past yet?
- Ira Socol