Not Being Overly Enamored With Shiny Boxes

kayproI have been working with some kind of tech since 1979. Before that I was student who loved to doodle and write. When it came to actually bringing technology home, I remember window shopping in the early 80’s and happening to walk through a ComputerLand store where they were displaying the just released IBM PC (note: this was the floppy disk only PC and not XT version). The salesgirl dutifully intercepted me before i could escape back into the mall and asked me if I was interested in taking one of these machines home. I thought that it would have been really cool but I didn’t think that I could afford one so I said no and quickly left the premises.

A year or two later, having I discovered the wonders of “income averaging” I ended up getting a large enough income tax return to venture into the world of personal computer ownership.I researched everything that was then on the market: the Commadore 64, Coleco Adam, a number of almost-IBM-compatibles, and the Macintosh. My younger brother had been working with computers doing CAD/CAM work and recommended against me going with the just introduced Mac but go with a company with a proven track record: Kaypro out of Solana Beach near San Deigo, CA. My whole purpose was to buy something to help me with my writing, so having the newest thing wasn’t that important (besides, at the time, I still didn’t think that I could afford an IBM PC).

So for $1,900 I bought my first personal computer, a luggable 20-pound Kaypro II with two 360KB floppy drives, 9 inch green monochrome built-in CRT and 64 KB RAM. It got the job done but another year or two later the CP/M market (the OS the Kaypro used) was evaporating and it was getting very difficult to find any new software or hardware add-ons in the local retail outlets. It was frustrating but it also forced me to become my own “tech support” and learn how to replace components because I couldn’t just go to the local computer store to get support. Eventually I did purchase an IBM compatible, but it was during my Kaypro CP/M days that I’d learned command-line interfaces, to not be afraid to open the thing up and swap out hard drives, and how to use BBSs and user groups for support.

Fast-forward to 1997, I’d been teaching for a couple years, using my growing collection of computers in my classroom (mostly for word processing and Age of Empires). Even though I was very new to teaching I got tagged to create the hardware/software wishlist as part of my school’s application to become a Federally funded Magnet school site. When my school ended up actually getting the grant it became my responsibility to see this wishlist become a reality. As I noted in an early journal entry, I had the correct measure of ignorance to not recognize how difficult it would become to accomplish this implementation. But one thing that I quickly recognized was that as much as I dreamed about creating this wonderful technology-rich educational environment, it was my task to dig in and literally install, test and support every bit of equipment that I was putting in every classroom. The number would climb to over 250 Macintoshes, two G4 servers, printers, scanners, webcams, and a complete video production studio.

I’d begun really using computers just so that I could write. I’d brought them into my classroom, first because technology made it possible for me to create and support a curriculum that I had to create to support my classroom full of second-language students, then for my students to create their own experience with the lessons. Technology was always only a tool to me and I only dug under the surface deep enough to support the intended task. Of course, at times, like when the original manufacturer ceases to exist, I was required to go much further under the surface. But I was never one to name my machines or personify them beyond having an understanding that they had a tendency to “eat” time and ones resources and that they also have an uncanny knack for failing just when one needs them the most.But that’s more Karma than intent, and I wasn’t going to let myself become infatuated with these little shiny boxes.

I noticed, at the height of the Magnet Program, when we were receiving palletfuls of computers, that my co-coordinator, who was responsible for creating the curriculum and the PR end of things, just loved getting all of the new stuff and didn’t seem to understand why I wasn’t as excited as she was about all of this. I guess she didn’t appreciate that I knew that every box represented about eight-hours of work to install, image and maintain. I loved that we had this opportunity to deliver this much technology to these students. I loved that we would be able to expand their horizons and expectations because we had the means to do so. But my feelings were also tempered because I knew how much work this was going to take. This experience also brought home the truth that technology alone was no real answer. In a low performing school with poor administrative leadership, zero community involvement, and low teacher buy-in, dumping two-million dollars worth of equipment wasn’t going to change any of that. In fact, the strain of pushing that school site into the 21st century had an interesting way of highlighting or bringing out the site’s pre-existing weak points.

So, technology is a tool to be used, not an object to be infatuated with. I use it because I understand and appreciate it’s potential (and I happen to be good at it). But I always expect its adoption to be balanced with the user’s perception of its actual usefulness, which is often muddied by the media and vendor hype. It is foolish for those of us who are in the business of creating the future (in the lives of our students) to ignore technology because of technology’s high price and inconvenience. But it’s equally foolish to believe that technology can do what we’re unwilling to do for ourselves. It’s a tool, not a savior. JBB