Education Opinion

Technology Barriers

By LeaderTalk Contributor — April 13, 2009 4 min read
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Rebuild or Remodel, that is the question.

There are many schools today who are asking this question in a number of contexts. This question pops up in the area of facilities, curriculum development, relationship building, technology infrastructure etc.
We live in an era where our current world is changing so fast those not able to keep up are holding on desperately to the past. This is understandable, as being cautious was an advantageous trait in terms of surviving not so long ago. Those who took risks in the past were more often than not reviled as heretics. of course there were those who were extremely successful and hailed as innovators. Most of the innovators were not remodelers, however, but rather builders of entirely new paradigms. In my teacher days I spent a great many summers working construction to pay the bills not covered by my teaching and coaching income. Often our little crew were hired to do remodeling projects as the new construction was gobbled up by those who made their living all year long in the construction trades. Why did they leave the remodel jobs for semi-pros like myself? I quickly learned that remodeling is much more difficult than new construction. In fact there were jobs where total demolition of an existing structure and then installation of a new one was far more cost effective for the customer than if we were to try to save and therefore work around the limitations of the existing structure. I know that this is straying somewhat from a discussion on leadership so I will attempt to make a connection. I truly believe that many of the reform initiatives I have seen over the past twenty years of my career have been unable to be sustained or make significant changes in how schools operate is due to our approach. We always make attempts to “remodel” our existing system and hold on to parts which act as significant barriers to a real shift in how we do business. We often replace old obsolete systems with new ones which, when you get right down to it, are not significantly different that the old. We try to make a series of small changes hoping that they will lead to a significant change in the overall system. When we really just get more of the same.
I have teachers who have badgered me for video projectors to be mounted in their room only to use them to present notes they used to write on the white board now using PowerPoint presentations. I can remember not so long ago we were using overheads for the same purpose and the low tech version at that time was writing on the chalk board. Yes there hase been a change in technology or what I am refering to as a “remodel” but no significant change in instruction. Whether we are lecturing and have them copy notes from a chalk board or a PowerPoint presentation, we are still lecturing and we are still asking students to far point copy. I am fairly certain that since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and was able to make multiple copies thus replacing the age old process of producing multiple copies of manuscripts copying by hand. This huge innovation was a “rebuild” rather than a “remodel”. It was not only significantly different in the process, but also had a huge impact on the spread of knowledge.
I have seen the same thing occuring in the use of technology in our schools. We are assimulating new technology into our current practices rather than using them as tools to change our current practices. We focus on putting laptops in the hands of every student but seldom consider the infrastructure needs this will require. We put the laptops in the hands of every student, but then limit their use to word processing. We put a laptop in the hands of every student, but rather than teach them responsible aquisition and use of information, we deny them accesss.
I see technology as an opportunity to rebuild our schools. Unfortunately, I also see many schools using these tools to simply remodel what we are already doing. We need to really stop trying to figure out the sequential steps to a smooth evolutionary improvement process and plot our revolution. Stop trying to remodel and instead tear down our existing structure/limitations and build a new system freed of the constraints of our traditional practices.
We need to convince our public that the wonderful old schools that they want to so desperately cling to, after all they worked when they were there, are no longer able to be modified to meet the needs of our students who will see a drastically different future. If we hope to remain competitive with the rest of the world, we need to get a fresh start like they are enjoying today. New factories have an advantage over old ones. To improve a process in an existing model you must first tear out the old technology to make room for the new. When building a new factory you get to plan the construction to accomodate the new technology rather than spending valuable time trying to find out how to fit it in.

I wonder how many communities are struggling with buildings which were built shortly after the second world war. What types of commitments have communities made recently to build new schools as compared to those who have simply tried to remodel what they already have? Which choice has allowed for more innovative instructional programs? Which approach has seen a significant increase in overall student achievement?

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