Opinion
Ed-Tech Policy Opinion

A Costly Gift

By Alan Warhaftig — September 30, 2005 3 min read
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You know the story. Four years ago, the boxes and wires were installed. The boxes were speedy G3 iMacs running OS 9 with 128 megabytes of RAM; the T1 connection was wicked fast, boding a limitless future. Today, those nifty boxes are, well, G3 iMacs with 128 megs of RAM, at least $200 shy of being able to run Tiger, the current Macintosh operating system—and, even then, running it slowly. Upgrading would demand more than $100,000 for a school with 500 computers, an impossibility in an era of shrinking budgets.

Four years ago, education technology appeared to be all upside; it had been bought with money allocated specifically for that purpose. Few understood that though the boxes and wires had been purchased with one-time funds, the costs of maintaining them were ongoing. The concept, well-known in the business world, is “total cost of ownership,” and these days schools are learning painful lessons about TCO.

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The problem is deeper than stretching funds to buy toner for printers and $300 bulbs for digital projectors. The former technology coordinator is back to teaching five periods, or, in other schools, math classes are three students larger because a teaching position has been diverted to technology. The nice young man who goes around fixing computers is now paid under Title I—money that could be used for many other purposes—and he still doesn’t have medical insurance.

Technology is a commitment with an embedded logic: Once installed, it must be maintained, so budgets have to include network access and security, software licenses, repairs, and, ultimately, hardware replacement. It’s a far cry from the initial impression of “free money,” placing technology on a collision course with other priorities.

A reorientation of priorities would be justified if the result were improved learning, but the effect of instructional technology to date has been far more modest, to put it kindly. Installing networks and hardware was a significant accomplishment, but what has been done with the capability they provide? Most professional development focused simply on using computers and applications; curricular integration was the holy grail to be pursued later. Constructivist bromides about project-oriented learning were neither helpful nor convincing.

Good ideas have surfaced occasionally, but several years into the rollout, just what constitutes an appropriate use of technology in the classroom has yet to be defined. Computers may be fabulous, but are webquests and similar online projects a means to achieve adequate yearly progress? To what extent should multimedia presentations replace the essay in the 21st century?

The now-graying technology in schools was rolled out without serious consideration of its relationship to a school’s core mission. True believers, dazzled by the possibilities, forgot what K-12 education is supposed to accomplish—and how they themselves had become educated. Superintendents and board members regarded technology’s benefits as self-evident, certain that good things would happen when computers arrived, a classic confluence of vendor hype and the “ready, fire, aim” propensity of the education establishment.

In Teacher’s August/September 2005 issue, Kevin Bushweller wrote about the absence of a national standard for face-to-face contact in online courses. The rush to implement technology in general has often been half-baked, with too little effort to identify effective practices and belated consideration of how much technology the schools can afford to sustain. My experience with nonvirtual schools is that many fine teachers don’t use instructional technology much, and not because they’re technophobes. Most have not been persuaded that altering their curricula will improve learning. First and foremost, IT must stand for “instructional time,” and the best teachers are frustrated by how little remains after days lost to standardized testing, final exams, and school activities.

So under what circumstances should teachers use instructional technology? I would like to propose a common-sense rule: Use technology in academic classes only if it allows you to teach what you’re supposed to teach better than you could do it without technology. If this dictum were followed, technology might find its proper place in education—as a beneficial tool rather than a monster demanding to be fed.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as A Costly Gift


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