Wednesday, March 01, 2006

More on Ed Tech in Rebuilding the Gulf

After I expressed concern in my previous post "Rebuilding Technology in Gulf Coast Schools" (27 Feb 06) about the missed opportunities to deploy used computers immediately into schools in the Gulf, I had a good email dialogue with Laura G. Ascione, Assistant Editor of eSchool News. Main excerpts:

LAURA:
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I appreciate your eMail, and it’s good to know that eSchool News is reaching people. This story was the result of a trip that I took down to New Orleans and Baton Rouge with the eSchool News publisher, and it focused on the Plaquemines Parish school system. The Intel effort will definitely be over the long haul, because these schools have a long way to go in terms of rebuilding. When I visited the Plaquemines Parish, I was confronted with a reality that TV and newspapers can’t really convey. There is not a single building that is not damaged in some way – businesses, schools, homes. These communities and towns have a long road ahead of them, and Terry Smithson of Intel told me that this initiative wasn’t formed with short-term results in mind. It will take a long time to help rebuild – not only to rebuild the schools, but to also rebuild communities. Intel hopes to help build those schools from the ground up, so that each school is in its entirety a 21st Century school.

At times it has been difficult to contact schools and to pinpoint which schools are receiving technology equipment. Some districts I’ve spoken with have received computers, etc. through local donations. Others are still waiting. I agree that, with the focus on those schools that have been totally destroyed, functioning schools in areas that were not as badly damaged are probably still waiting to receive computers and other technology equipment. Of course, immediately deploying computer equipment to schools IS glamorous and exciting to us here at eSchool News! I don’t even know how many schools are waiting for computers and other technology devices, but it’s been six months – entirely too long.

The portion of the story that refers to “schools that will receive networked laptops…” was taken from the Plaquemines Parish school system’s plan to rebuild schools – this is the school board’s technology plan for the district, and it isn’t yet clear where those resources will be coming from. I included that in the story because the parish has such ambitious plans to rebuild its schools and its technology. Still, that amount of technology is not mentioned in other districts’ rebuilding plans – the consulting team that presented a plan to rebuild the New Orleans schools made no reference whatsoever to technology. And even though the Plaquemines Parish hopes to have a great technology program, you’re right – other schools probably won’t. It remains to be seen whether the New Orleans schools will in fact be rebuilt better than they were.

STEVE:
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I just know that the "buzz" I have heard is concern that these kind of high-profile projects often fade away, and that one of the dangers of them is that their initial visibility detracts from other smaller, often more realistic, efforts.

Nancy Jo Craig of CACRC says that living in the New Orleans area is like living in a third-world country, and that the resources of those schools were often abysmal before the hurricane. I don't expect you to dig through my blogs, but one of my personal themes is that in the effort to provide cutting-edge technology we miss some significant opportunities. The local school district here raises, and then spends, an incredible amount of money on computers--but can't afford to fund many other activities because of it. And some aspects of teaching computers (networking, web hosting, programming) can be done on computers that are so old they are stuck in most people's closets. If you've read my posts, I'm repeating myself, but 70% of the world's webservers run on the free and open source program Apache--which can be taught on a Pentium one, would give a real-world skill, and even an impoverished student could continue to use the program after graduating.

Another good contact in this regard, should you ever want to go down this road, is Jeff Elkner from Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia, When I hosted the Open Source Pavilion at NECC in Philadelphia last summer, Jeff brought his computer students, who were your quintessential geeks. Geeks who had been trained in Linux and free software programming, any of whom I would have hired right out of high school because their technical skills were so high. I know that teaching computers is not just about teaching technical skills, but the point being that you don't need the latest technology to teach real skills.

LAURA:
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...Your comments raised an interesting point, one that I’d like to bring up in future interviews with Gulf Coast educators – when affected schools and districts receive computers to replace those that were damaged in the storm, are they brand-new or are they used. I’d be really interested to know whether educators have requested new equipment, or have requested equipment that is not necessarily new, but still works well.

You mentioned that teaching computers isn’t just about teaching technical skills, but that people don’t need to use the most cutting-edge technology to teach those real-world skills. I couldn’t agree more. Learning those skills on used computers might not be as “exciting” as placing a brand-new laptop in front of a student, but those skills are what make people attractive in the workplace. It’s especially interesting to me that the school district in New Orleans, which was so poor to begin with, is spending so much on new computers, yet the students are still suffering. I can think of at least 2 computers sitting in my parents’ basement that are still perfectly usable and could be donated (and probably would have, if my younger brother wasn’t in the habit of building new computers using the spare parts from older ones).

STEVE:
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I find that there are two main reasons why schools are reluctant to consider used computers:

1. They think they need the latest and greatest. On the one hand, this isn't always true, but the less you really know about something, the more comfortable it is to buy the newest model. On the other hand, this is real if you are teaching a program that is new and needs the latest technology. Certainly, my concern is that when you lump all computer uses into the category of needing the latest and greatest, you lose sight of the fact that learning to type, write a letter, browse the web, or create a spreadsheet are important tasks that don't require new technology. And the ability to understand how a computer work, to learn about networking, to set up a web server, and to program can be well taught on older computers.

2. They think that used computers are too much work to take care of. There is a lot of truth to this one. And it stems largely from the fact that replacing specialized parts that aren't consistent across all your computers can be a real hassle. It's so much easier to buy 25 or 50 or 500 of the exact same model, with a three-year warranty, and then not to have to worry about it. However, many schools just can't afford that, and with the right attitude and help, can learn to take care of a used-computer lab or installation quite well. And there is something to be said for the responsibility of doing so. Like schools that have the students help with the cleaning of the building, it builds an understanding of how we care for things and how they work.

I will agree that it is not really practical to accept donations of one or two computers here and there, that are all completely different models. But many businesses have quantities of identical computers that they can donate, and that significantly lessens the problems. Not to start getting too self-serving, but companies like mine specialize in selling large quantities of identical models (we specialize in the Dell Optiplex) for this very reason. You get the best of both worlds. The price of a used computer, but the quality, and standardization, of Dell.

OK, so as a liberal arts major who is also a geek, it is hard for me to watch how much we spend on computers, and then how quickly we discover we have to spend it again to keep current... There are no simple answers, but I would imagine that many schools and districts have already looked back and wondered if they could have used some of that money for other things.
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