07 July 2009

Refusing Free, Depriving Students

On one of the Becta lists a conversation broke out regarding solutions for visually impaired students who use Microsoft's Internet Explorer. CleanPage was suggested, and Keyboard Shortcuts noted. And this was all good to see, good to know.

But I commented to a teacher on the list that I still thought FireVox, the 'blind browser' add on to Firefox, would be a more effective solution for her students, because it is a full, robust browser which can be operated without sight, and with the many other supports available in Firefox.

"Yes," others told me, "but Firefox just isn't available in many schools, libraries, etc."

This is undeniably true. True in the United Kingdom, in Canada, Australia, New Zealand (to name a few English-speaking nations), and even 'more true' in the United States (to name another).

Firefox - entirely free, totally accessible, far 'safer' in terms of web browsing, far more supportive of differentiated instruction - remains a rarity on the computers used in schools, in public libraries, in adult education programs. And thus students, and others, are denied the ability to learn and use essential tools such as FireVox (the blind browser), Click-Speak (FireVox's cousin for dyslexia and other print disabilities), gTranslate (right-click translation), Dictionary Switcher (a fabulous tool for ELL students, Second Language Acquisition, and all those who communicate outside their home nation), and many more.

The result? Students do worse in school than they need do, they struggle more, they even drop out more. All because schools won't take the two minutes to download something free.

Google Apps for Education - entirely free, with no advertising - is available to every primary, secondary, and post-secondary school. It provides a highly accessible and organizable email system, student calendars which teachers may share, word processing which can be used singly or collaboratively, spreadsheets, presentations, and much more. Combined with, say, Click-Speak (above) it provides reading and writing support for a wide range of struggling students. But most schools refuse to use it, choosing to spend (at least) cumulative hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars (quid, Euros) operating third rate email systems.

The result? Less money for the important technology investments - netbooks and wireless, high-level disability supports and alternate keyboards, tablet PCs and polleverywhere licensing. And thus, higher rates of student failure and disengagement, all because schools won't send an email to Google.

From Ghotit (the world's best English-language context-based, text-to-speech Spell Check system) to WordTalk (turns Microsoft Word into a talking word processor), from OpenOffice to Linux (stop paying for Microsoft licenses), from Google Earth to GraphCalc (free complete graphing calculator), from Click-N-Type (the best virtual on-screen keyboard) to PowerTalk (reads presentations outloud), schools could be providing their students with a world of software and supports at zero cost, but are refusing.

The result? Rich, white, Protestant, normally-abled students get what they need at home, and vulnerable students fail.


I keep struggling with this. I can really no longer accept the answer, "ignorance." At some point being completely ignorant of the tools of your trade becomes either "willful ignorance" or simple "stupidity." These tools have now been available for too long, are too easily 'discoverable' for this excuse to hold water anymore.

And I won't accept the answer, "fear" anymore either. If an electrician was too afraid of electricity to touch a wire, he'd be an electrician no more. So if an educator is afraid of the information and communication technologies of his/her age, then he/she can no longer be an "educator" in any meaningful way.

I have come to suggest that the answer is actually political, that too many in charge of education do not want universal success, do not want the increased economic competition which might come from those who are currently excluded from educational success. Many people have been shocked when I suggest this, but few have offered a coherent alternate theory.

So, why?

Why, when schools cry about a lack of funding do they spend more to exclude students? What is it about administrators, policy-makers, educational technology workers, which causes this bizarre, and socially destructive, behavior?

Not a rhetorical question - I'm getting desperate to begin to find an answer to this question, so we can start to work on a solution...

- Ira Socol

next up: Why would schools purchase the iPod Touch rather than (less expensive) netbooks? Why would schools propose Apple-based handheld solutions rather than universal solutions which could be used on the students' own phones in school and at home? (a related question)


scmorgan said...

I have the same frustration, though this morning's announcement about Google Docs kind of throws me. I have been trying to get our school to use FF instead of IE for a couple of years. I think the laptop coordinator is familiar with IE and doesn't want to use something different. I keep installing on kids' machines myself. Political? Perhaps. Wanting or needing more support than free apps provide? Probably. But geesh, there's so much available.

Chris said...

I understand your frustration and in the interest of trying to help, I'll tell you why I don't support Firefox in my school. The number one reason is it doesn't play nice with the filtering software I am required to have. It is more frustrating for staff and students to have to jump through several hoops to get to their Internet sites, than not having the tools you mention here. The second most important reason is because there is just one tech, me, I need standardization of systems, platforms, and software where ever possible so that when I sit down at a computer to troubleshoot, I know quickly what I am looking at and where to start. I would love to have the luxury of supporting differentiated machines with individualized programs; that not being possible, I do the best I can to allow as much web access as I legally can and provide as much support to individual users as I possibly can. I have WordTalk on every computer and am working hard with the folks at Ghotit to get that program to work on all our computers as well.

I appreciate your voice, your questions and your suggestions. Keep talking...

HomerTheBrave said...

There's an old institutional joke in IT: No one ever got fired for buying IBM.

Now it's the same with Microsoft, and Apple (as you allude to).

The real irony is that free software like Firefox and linux come out of the educational sector. All the way back to BSD; the B stands for UC Berkeley. The infrastructure that hosts all this free software is in no small part within university system domains. Linux itself was Linus Torvalds' masters thesis.

And of course, the ultimate example of what you're talking about: Google's Summer Of Code program gives students a stipend to work on open source projects. How better to teach a comp sci major about the real world of large project development than to hire them to work on something they might do as a hobby anyway? That's a true educational experience.

jsb16 said...

I have no idea why Firefox isn't used more often in schools. I spent all of last year telling my students to use it at home, simply because Leechblock can help them avoid being sucked into Facebook for an entire evening.

I can speak to the question of why an iPod Touch and not a netbook, though: the iPod has an accelerometer in it, which makes it science lab equipment, as well as internet technology.

Unknown said...


I understand that (often poorly designed) filter and firewall software is a huge problem, as is a total lack of tech support. Of course this reminds me of the long attempt to block wheelchair access through architectural design questions. Schools put a system in place which makes access difficult, them complain about the cost of access.

I know you are fighting the fight. This is so much easier at universities where "blocking" is not an acceptable idea.


Of course, but America suffers horribly from its non-integrated education system. K-12 schools have no idea what is of value at universities.


Thanks on the accelerometer. That's a good use. Do you have 1:1 iPod Touches at your school?

- Ira Socol

jsb16 said...

I wish we had 1:1 anything in my school. The accelerometer is just the reason why the science teachers may be getting a set of iPod Touches instead of a set of netbooks...

Unknown said...


Thanks for responding. Which brings up another question: I always think of 1:1 as student-linked, that is, students carry devices which are their books/notebooks/communication tools all-in-one. But jsb16 suggests something more common in schools, that individual tech remains teacher-linked, tied to a specific classroom or school. Any thoughts on that?

- Ira Socol

radicalgeek said...

When I talk to other educators about using new technology in the classroom, the response I almost always see is a panicked stare. I think a lot of people just have a gut-fear reaction to new technology. They see it as adding complication. It's another skill they have to learn, it's something else that can go wrong, it's one more political tightrope they have to walk to avoid grief from administration and parents.

I agree with HomerTheBrave 100%. "No one ever got fired for buying IBM." Educators try to play it safe by adhering to strict rules and traveling the beaten path. To paraphrase Barry Schwartz, they avoid disaster, but ensure in its place, mediocrity.

Educators need the freedom to experiment without fearing failure - they need to be encouraged to experiment. That means they need to be given more freedom by administration, greater access to training, and schools need more support staff (e.g. technology resource teachers).

Unfortunately, when things go wrong (even slightly), people (especially in the USA) panick and in their short-sightedness, introduce more and more rules to prevent problems in the future, even if these rules also prevent progress. It's all about covering your ass.

Anonymous said...

Is it ignorance or fear? Most parents do not want their children out on the web. How does School Leadership guarantee safety for children? How do they report what activities their children are doing on the web to concerned parents? Can parents trust their school to keep child safe? How do parents feel about teachers doing their "own thing"? What about compliance issues?

Unknown said...

radicalgeek and anonymous represent the two sides of the education debate in America (and elsewhere). One wants to prepare students for a future through exploration, through attempting new things, and through using that ultimate teaching technique, the opportunity to fail. The other side wants children bubble wrapped if they are to leave their homes.

These are, unfortunately, incompatible visions, and the bubble wrap side has been consistently louder, consistently more sensational. But, of course, "your child will be unemployable" is nothing compared to "your child will see naked people!" when it comes to what The Today Show chooses to cover.

Fear, anonymous, is what stops societies from progressing. It is indeed an honest human emotion, but it is also an emotion which ensures one's own destruction.

- Ira Socol

Wicked Teacher of the West said...

I'm with Chris. I do provide access to as much free software as I can; certainly I encourage teachers and students to use Firefox and other safe, easy alternatives. But we have limited staffing. New alternatives require support - I can put MS Word on the computers and teachers know what to do. Even though the Open Office word processor is intuitive, it's still different and taking away Word would mean dozens of hours providing training, answering questions, supporting users, figuring out how to do obscure things "that used to work with Word before you took it away."

Educators would need more than the freedom to experiment - they need time and support to experiment. Teachers have limited time - there are always papers to grade, lesson plans to create, parents to call. Given the choice between learning a new piece of software when you have one that already works vs. developing an exciting new project that will engage students (or for that matter, taking a bath, watching a movie, or reading a book!), why would teachers choose learning new software? For geeks, it's unimaginable to be uninterested, but for many teachers, learning new software is drudgery, especially if there doesn't seem to be a compelling reason. Without tech support to provide the compelling reason, teachers won't just find it.

Don't attribute to malice that which can be equally explained by stupidity. People are comfortable with the familiar, and that's the software and hardware provided by companies with the big advertising budget.

Karen Janowski said...

"So, why?
Why, when schools cry about a lack of funding do they spend more to exclude students?"
That is the million $ question. I tend to agree more with Wicked Teacher who says "don't attribute to malice that which can be equally explained by stupidity." Ignorance is not justification, but it is an excuse. And remember, as you often point out, those who teach were typically good students so they have not experienced the frustration that comes from being a struggling learner denied free tools that remove the obstacles to learning.
Keep up the good fight.

John Gale said...

I'm lucky - my district is one of the (apparently) few that encourages Firefox and other free alternatives (I use Chrome mostly). We do have a very bad internet filter: Bess, but IT has been good about unblocking anything requested; I think they sympathize. Also they leave my home proxy unblocked ;)

Hopefully the next wave of Android phones and netbooks will reduce the temporary dependence on Touch apps - I really don't like that Apple makes me have a Leopard-capable Mac to build iPhone OS3 apps.

radicalgeek said...

"For geeks, it's unimaginable to be uninterested, but for many teachers, learning new software is drudgery, especially if there doesn't seem to be a compelling reason."

I found the above quote interesting. It makes a distinction between geeks and teachers. For me, a geek is just an extremely enthusiastic learner, so I would hope ALL teachers would be geeks - at least when it comes to improving their teaching. For a dedicated teacher, I don't see how there could possibly not be a "compelling reason" to learn how they might improve their current teaching methods with innovative tools, technological or not.

Mary said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I would vote for some practical steps assisting in deployment and practicing of an open-source and free usage software.

A collection of HOWTOS and tips per tool could be hopefully helpful. As Firefox was mentioned, like how to configure filtering, how to migrate from IE, install FF-plugins etc.

If somebody could arrange such directory (and manage, reveiw postings) with sections per tool?


David said...

To me there is a big difference between a geek and a teacher. A geek, at least in this context, is a technologically oriented person. While I'd like to think that teachers are passionate about technology I do not feel that it is a requirement.

v said...

i'm with one of the posters above. i teach kids how to use free stuff on their home computers. i installed naturalreaders on a spec ed teacher's classroom computer, but she still didn't use it. so i went through with the kids i pull out from her room how to install it on their computers at home. one kid did it together with his dad. i'm also part of a massive state grant to get udl in our huge school district. when the project director was going through all this software they were thinking of buying, i brought up the fact that a lot of money could be saved with all the free stuff on the web. she just said that with all the grant money, they don't have to worry about being frugal??!! My big thing is i have to work on not getting depressed by such leadership cuz if i do get depressed i have no fight in me.

SiouxGeonz said...

"geeks" are notoriously good at thinking that everybody's got time and the natural inclination to become a geek. Why is it so hard for teachers to leap forward to taht cutting edge? Why can't we have students exploring and daring to fail? Notice the rather loaded language in the post comparing the two "types," too.
Too many students have entirely too many opportunities to fail. While they are failing, many of them, believe it or not... aren't learning, except that they're failures.
That, I think, doesn't really have a lot to do with the "Gotta be IE" decisions. I think that's part of choosing the path of least resistance. Political? Not exactly. Just that Microsoft won in the "ubiquity" category, despite Apple's best efforts to be "the educational computer people." I think if we keep being pests, though, that we can erode that. slashdot.com had a report that some measures have IE falling off in popularity last month.
Hmmm... p'raps some really creative souls can find a new angle on the schools and Internet.

v said...

that's right. it's not political at all. it is inertia.

Jim Dornberg said...

I found this comment from "Wicked" rather ironic: "I can put MS Word on the computers and teachers know what to do. Even though the Open Office word processor is intuitive, it's still different and taking away Word would mean dozens of hours providing training, answering questions, supporting users, figuring out how to do obscure things "that used to work with Word before you took it away."
because the newest version of MS Office is SO much different from the XP version. And now I see that we'll soon be "blessed" with Office 2010!!!!

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