02 August 2009

Ten Years After

In August of 1999 in Mackinac Hall on the campus of Grand Valley State University, a small group of professors, students, and tech people - the Center for Research in Educational and Adaptive Technology-assisted Environments (create@gvsu) - hosted two large seminars. One for interested area K-12 teachers and school librarians, the other for all those faculty members teaching Freshman English courses.

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


Miss Shuganah said...

It's not just technology, Ira. I am continuously having to defend my decisions of alternative therapy despite the fact that there's no proof that the more "medieval" therapies like serial casting work, either. After ten years it's very wearying as an army of one (even with back up from husband). Even so I persist.

Technology remains a bugaboo to many people. You need to demonstrate and keep on demonstrating. People think technology and they automatically start to develop flop sweat and look for a place where they can comfortably curl up in a fetal position. Now the thought of demonstrating repeatedly what you have already proven might distress you but only way to reach people in the school systems. Change comes one person at a time, and there are a lot of "one persons" out there.

Also might be better to approach the community at large, ie, address the problem of the stupid networks. If you get the people connected at a community center, say, then the message will spill over into the schools in a more organic fashion. Show the community how simple and cheap it is, and then let them talk to the schools. Why not connect with grassroots organizations that was to see that all have access to connectivity? Make orgs like CTCNet an ally? That could be a win-win situation. Otherwise you are operating in a vacuum. If you show the kids and parents how easy and cheap and accessible the technology is then might not the schools follow? Get the parents to support these ideas and then they will do the rest.

Anonymous said...

Excellent Post as usual. I will admit that before this past school year, I had incorporated a limited amount of technology into lessons. This year was different because I FORCED myself to think differently and teach differently. My class worked in a computer lab where the equipment had not been used regularly for about three years. With an all boys class this was a wonderful thing and I had young boys teaching other students tech. skills that I didn't even know! Unfortunately, we still had to endure days that internet was not working or the firewall was so strong, that we couldn't access a lot of information because the sites were blocked.

HomerTheBrave said...

Perhaps the best targeted audience for this kind of 'blog entry is teaching schools. Or perhaps state education boards which could require continuous/supplemental tech ed for teachers. States could require their teachers to know how to use a netbook, for instance. Or even a mobile phone.

But even as I consider next week's travel plans using a wide array of Google products, I can't help but wonder where and when and how the internet will end.

assistivetek said...

Hi Ira:

I concur with your sentiments-it is hard to believe that we can go into schools today where they are still unfamiliar with assistive technologies. All of us in the field have worked hard to educate other about the benefits of assistive technology for all students yet it is no more mainstream than it was in 1999. I guess we are going to have to work harder and smarter to get schools to buy into using these technologies to the benefit of all students. Thanks for your informative blog post and your keen insights.


Carl said...

Vice-principal informed me that I was the leader of the Tech-team this year. Neat, except we have a very old staff, not just in years, but in thinking.

As I walked around the school, I peered into the classrooms as teachers were preparing for tomorrow. Without an exception, all had their desks in rows, it made me want to scream. Is this the school that is getting laptops for most of the 7th graders? I am wondering... what is going to happen?

I did get two teachers signed up for blogs, which is two more than the past five years. I have taken the time to set up a Moodle server, only two teachers, (besides me), used it last year.

The vice-principal said that we even might be having students use cell phones in some classes, (I didn't tell him that I have, two years in a row).

So, leave my lab to me, its about the only place students get to use whatever I can squeeze under the radar.

Dr. Sanford Aranoff said...

Students and teachers must focus on understanding basic principles and logic, not on how to do. "What shall I do now?" is the typical foolish question. See "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better" on amazon.

Dan McGuire said...

Principals aren't taking on the responsibility of creating change-they're delegating it to people without authority or money (see above.) But then, why should a school leader change? They're getting paid to do things the way they've always been done.

Look at the new stimulus money: there's nothing new being rewarded. You get the stimulus money if you can prove you test a lot and are tough on teachers.

When we start rewarding teachers for creating and using pedagogy using current and new technology, we'll see change. If we continue to reward teachers for doing things the way they were done before, we'll continue to not see change.

Miss Shuganah said...

If you demonstrate technology to parents and not just to colleagues, then the parents will feel engaged in the process. If they gain understanding of the technologies that are available, they will in turn be supportive of the teachers they feel are doing a good job. They will push for change within the school. If the parents feel excluded from the process, they will not feel cooperative and inclined to lend support. But for good teachers they will move heaven and earth.

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Anonymous said...

Very thoughtfull post on alternative therapy. It should be very much helpfull

Karim - Creating Power