Lessons from Sisyphus in a Technological Age
Schools around the globe appear to be locked in a technological arms race in a passionate quest to be the best, the fastest, the most economical, the most user-friendly and/or the most current. They are finding out, at their peril, that cutting edge technology is also the bleeding edge, that like Sisyphus, the desks-top or laptop boulder they have been diligently pushing up the steep hill to techno-enlightenment gets mighty heavy as they near the crest, and always comes rolling back on them just when success seems assured. And at the bottom of that same hill sits another model, another software bundle, another good idea that seem eminently pushable - but at a cost. So how do schools avoid technological damnation? How can schools enjoy the wonders of technology without the pitfalls?
There will always be pitfalls. No matter how well planned the integration of technology - whether it covers exhaustively the cyber-trinity of software, hardware and peopleware - something will always come up and bite schools in the bottom line. Striving for perfection in an imperfect and changing world, especially with regards to technology, is a mug's game. A little hubris will go a long way. Schools will be RAMmed on the Information Highway, as certain as Sisyphus's rock will tumble. What schools need to do, however, is to get some insurance to prepare for this certainty, and to be aware of some of the ground-rules before embarking on a short or long-term technology plan, project or program.
I should know. At Crescent, we have implemented a technology program that was based on curricular needs and outcomes, thought that we covered all the bases, were consultative, and were confident that we had put together a pretty fine business plan.
We still got it wrong. Not all wrong, thank goodness. (I'm not that much of a pig for punishment that I would enjoy hanging out our dirty technology.) Most of it we got right, but I wish that I had possessed a checklist - like the one below - of things to look out for before we began to push our particular border up our particular hill. My strained muscles and my crushed toes attest to my credibility.
IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL LEAVE
Any good technology program will be motivated by curricular needs, whether they be current shortfalls or long range desires. But philosophy aside, the implementation of a program and the planning necessary to make that technology work in a school is driven by people. People make it go. And people sometime do go - to other schools, to other jobs, and to other interests. So schools must not build a techno-dome because the beloved, articulate and cyberdriven teacher Mary Smith (who just happens to have the ear of the Head and several influential members of the Board) thinks that this is the only certain road to Nirvana. Chances are that in three-years time Mary will be head-hunted by another school and gone; you're left with magnificent equipment and no one who knows where the network on switch is located. The same goes for Board members whose appointment to a Board may be short, but think they have the panacea for technology in education because they have a particular software or hardware package at their places of business, and it works for them.
Build your technology plan around the present and future needs of the students, but lean more towards the present. Unless you're Tiresias, you cannot anticipate what the future will bring. Don't build for your zealots, but make sure that you bring them onside.
ONE CAN NEVER BE TOO THIN OR TOO RICH
I haven't much faith in the Duchess of Windsor as a prognosticator, but she's dead right when she suggests that for any technology plan to be worthwhile, it helps to be very rich - and certain of funds in the future. If a boat is a hole in the water that you throw money into, a computer is a box with unlimited access to the internet that knows the school's credit card number. No matter what you do, it will cost more. And this is not just with respect to hardware and software; people - teachers, administrators, office staff - all need to be trained, and all of this costs money. The cost of servicing computers is phenomenal, and the expertise necessary to fix the boxes or tweak the software is too often not in the building. At the going rate of $100+ per hour, the cost of running and maintaining computer technology in a school can make that boulder very heavy very quickly.
A school can hire a computer guru to oversee the network, but that's an ongoing operational cost, and you can be as certain as Prometheus stole fire that more technical staff will be necessary to deal with the rabbit-like proliferation of computers in the school. And you can never, never find that individual who is expert enough. The emergency call to CompuSomething will always be necessary, and upgrading the personnel will be an ongoing concern and cost.
Schools can never catch up to the current model; nor should they feel compelled to do so. Software, too, can be a bit of a trap. Schools need to plan carefully and purchase what they need, and not fall victim to the cyberflavor of the month.
As for being thin, there is a movement afoot that would suggest that the desktop is dead, and that the laptop is the wafer-thin wave of the future. I'll address the dieting of desktops below.
THE GATES OF PARADISE
Software, to paraphrase Elmer Fudd, is vewy, vewy twicky. The rule of thumb is to choose your software first, and then buy the hardware to support it. Unfortunately, there are just about as many educational software packages out there as there are stars in the sky. Don't be dazzled by packaging and promise. Choose your software packages to support and accentuate the curriculum - and the most current is not always the best (despite what the Mary Smiths of the world would have you believe). The newest software titles will be, however, the most expensive, and they will invariably need more network harddrive space and RAM than you had planned on. We have found that appointing an individual or groups of individuals to evaluate software has been an excellent way to curb SFP: software fever purchasing. Centralizing the appraisal and purchasing of software guards against two or more departments buying identical or quite similar items. This group has also been charged with putting together a software plan - in consultation with other departments - so that there are no surprises in the future. Well, at least not too many.
Most of the time, a school gets what it pays for, and Bill Gates has some of the best software packages in the world. A Microsoft platform is a good place to start, but the users - students, staff, business office - must all buy-in to the program and be trained on the software. And site licenses for the software aren't cheap, which leads me back once again to the Duchess of Windsor's sage advice.
SIZE DOES MATTER
When planning for the future, schools should over compensate where hardware is concerned. Reach as far ahead as fiscally possible, and once a decision has been made with regard to hardware and configuration, stay the course, because there will be temptations along the way to upgrade, upgrade and upgrade. Your techno-dome will not be completed overnight, and in the course of a project many things in the hardware world will look more appealing. Another rule of thumb is this: You will never catch up, so stop trying. Purchasing a gigantic server with fibre optic backbone and equipping your network with scads of memory is essential. When it comes to hardware, bigger is better.
THINKING OUT OF THE BOX
We carefully considered what to do when faced with the dilemma of running desktops or laptops. We researched what schools in our vicinity were doing, and then went far afield to search out "best-practice" in implementing technology in education. We found that each school had made a "best-guess" and were hoping against hope that the computer box path they had chosen to follow wasn't the Neanderthal branch of computer evolution.
We heard all the reasons for and against: laptop portability makes it possible for students to choose one computer for home and school thereby minimizing the cost to the parent. (A Board member and parent of a 13 year-old commented to me that if he had to buy a laptop for his forgetful son, he was going to personally chain it to his wrist.) Desktops were clunky and tended to overwhelm any classroom any number of them were clustered in.
As is our custom, we compromised. We still have labs with full class sets of desktops with all the bells and peripherals such as a printer that looks as if you could drive it home, a scanner that helps the students dream in color, and a projector that throws the teacher's work on a white board so that the students can correct it. We have also wired our school to allow for laptop plug-in to our network, just in case a student wants to work on his personal computer at school. We have a number of laptops - in a charmingly appointed trolley - for students to sign up and use. We've found that the middle way of blending laptops with desktops has been the better way - thus far. It's very like buying mutual funds through dollar-cost averaging. We know that we are not completely right, but we're not completely wrong either. And we like the desktops because they are eminently upgradable. (Remember, bigger is better.) While laptop Beserkers say that there will always be a space for newly developed hardware components, the internal architecture just might have some limitations in the long term.
THE MORE WE SING TOGETHER
If Sisyphus had attended any of the team-building seminars offered in Corinth, he would have realized that the way to success, especially with respect to enormous boulders, was to get a group of like-minded individuals together and push all at once in the same direction. The same goes for any technology plan. For it to work, a school needs to marshal together all its zealots, its finance people, its curriculum planners and its technogurus. While I would not suggest the Borg collective, I do think there needs to be a buy-in early in the planning process, so that the entire group can revel in the success of the program, and collectively grieve - or act to offset - any shortcomings. The adage runs that a camel is a horse put together by a committee; the configuration of a computer/technology program will look, despite your best intentions for Northern Dancer, suspiciously like a ship of the desert. If a school, has done its homework, however, it will run.
MAKING THE UPGRADE
For Sisyphus, this was his lot in the afterlife, and to a large extent, schools have to face a great many "upgrades" as they move up the hill of technological integration. For groups withing the school, the learning curve will be steep. Teachers, of course, must be given appropriate time and training to utilize software into their curriculum, and since there will be a mixture of technophobes and technophiles, their rates of acquisition and readiness will differ considerably.
Parents, too, must make the upgrade. Many will have already have faced personal upgrades in their technolives, both at home and at work, and will realize that there is a monetary and personal cost involved in moving along the road to cyberenlightenment. The school must help parents realize that to prepare their sons and daughters for the wonders of the next millenium, the school must prepare their charges technologically, and that comes at a price. An increase in fees - as unpleasant as it might be - could be necessary.
One final rule of thumb: Never forget to ask the students. They know what they want, and most of the time they can actually balance that with what they need. And if our experience is in any way universal, they will know more than any teacher, planner, Board member, futurist or guru about the future computer landscape. It may be the school's plan for the integration of technology, but it's their future, and self-interest often motivates self-education. Tap into that resource, and a school will not go far wrong.