Wish List

The overly large school district I work for is in the process of assembling it’s list for Santa Claus. Sometimes that’s what creating the "technology plan" for the next school year feels like. I thought about that process when I read the first installment of a new column on classroom technology for Teacher Magazine . According the writer, Doug Johnson, more than $60 billion dollars has been spent on educational technology since 1991, about $6 billion in just the past school year.

Our system has certainly spent it’s share of that cash and for a while few were asking if the money was well spent, if all the boxes and wires were actually improving teaching and learning. I know many teachers who would say no or offer a qualified maybe. Over that thirteen years, much of what we’ve spent has gone to the process of automating administrative functions – grade books, attendance, student records. All of that is necessary, especially considering how big the job is, but is it really "educational" technology? Does it improve student learning? It’s a question that needs to be asked before the money is spent, not after.

The current big, expensive plan being implemented by our IT folks (that I is information, not instruction) is to make every one of our buildings "wireless", that is put in enough wireless routers so that a computer could connect to the network from anywhere. I’ll be the first to admit I love wireless. I’ve become very spoiled with being able to open my Powerbook and connect without plugging anything in. I was a little cranky recently when we did a session in a corporate training center which didn’t have a wireless point (and only one internet connection at the podium).

Despite that, there is still the question that never seemed to be addressed: what is the instructional value of having wireless connections everywhere? Some principals like Tim Lauer understand the potential and can communicate that to their teachers. I suspect that most others (including many in our system) don’t and can’t. It makes more sense to install the wireless points as needed and in conjunction with the staff training to make the best instructional use of the tool. After all, what good is wireless in a building where most of the computers don’t move anyway? But wireless is sexy this year and sexy gets the funding.

I’ve rambled on enough to get myself in trouble so I’ll come back to a very good point from Johnson’s column: "Be skeptical, but remain open-minded. Unless a new technology promises increased learning opportunities for your students, don’t jump in." I would refine that idea by suggesting to teachers when you are presented with a use of technology in your classroom, ask two questions: does it allow my students to do something better than they could before? does it allow my students to do something they couldn’t do before? If the answer to both is no (or uncertain), reject the technology and find a better way to improve your students’ learning.