Blocked Web sites, IT staff that exist to hinder staff, and restrictive policies make integrating technology too hard to overcome
I recently spent a week teaching in a wonderful school. The school sits on a gorgeous sprawling campus. The principal is well read and charming. The students were delightful and the teachers generous with their hospitality. Every student has his or her own laptop. I was engaging the children in activities I love, and yet I found the overall experience excruciating. Why? Because of an information technology staff run amok.
The unchecked policies, practices and prior restraint exercised by the school's information technology team made it impossible for me to teach effectively. It seemed as if a surprise lurked behind every mouse click and URL. Despite the school's enormous investment in computers and networking, very little of it actually worked in the ways one would expect.
Non-educators implemented policies prohibiting teachers from downloading and uploading files, regardless of their content. IP settings needed to be changed when a user switched from an Ethernet to wireless connection. The streaming of QuickTime or RealMedia files was prohibited regardless of their educational value. Student work could not be published online because the school's "extranet" has yet to go live. I think extranet is some meglamaniac's synonym for the Internet.
I face similar frustrations at every school I visit-anywhere in the world. I need to beg a network technician for the magical network password, secret IP settings or request an act of Congress to make a presentation. Teachers enrolled in Pepperdine University's prestigious Online Masters in Educational Technology are routinely denied access to their own coursework by ridiculous filters that ban .edu domains.
It is worth noting that none of these obstacles protect children from the real or imagined threat of pedophiles from Turkmenistan or inappropriate Web content. These obstructions are the creation of control freaks eager to maintain authority they neither earn or deserve. The payroll and morale costs are inestimable.
The Looming Crisis
Computer coordinators used to say, "If I do my job, I won't have a job in two years." A decade later there seems to be a dozen non-instructional tech coordinators, directors or managers for each of their predecessors.
Haven't computers become easier to use and more reliable? Shouldn't professional educators be competent computer users after a generation of bribing, begging, cajoling, tricking, threatening, inservicing and coercing? If so, then why do we have so many support personnel employed by schools? How much do they cost? When will they be unnecessary?
Reasonable people may disagree over the role of Web filtering and schools have a finite budget for bandwidth. However, IT personnel are making insane, expensive and miseducative decisions. There is no greater threat to successful classroom computer use than the actions of the staff employed to support that very use.
The Web is not static. Plug-ins are not a cancer, they add functionality. I am grateful that Web browsers were built with an open architecture allowing them to be extensible. This has accelerated the power of the Web in ways unanticipated by its creators.
The power of the Web is in its ability to democratize publishing and offer students the potential for unlimited audience. This is a critical educational rationale derailed by non-educators. Such policies insult professional educators.
Administrators who give unprecedented budgetary discretion and policy-making control to IT staff are abdicating their responsibilities. School leaders need to summon the courage to face things that plug-in and become conversant in networking issues. They must supervise non-instructional personnel and determine their actual staffing needs. Failure to do so results in an enormous waste of money, teacher dissatisfaction and underutilized technology.
I have been using computers for more than 25 years. I use and maintain a cross-platform wireless network at home. I write computer manuals, program in several languages and yet needed to call for help every few minutes during my recent teaching stint. The average teacher juggling all of her responsibilities with a desire to use computers in the classroom does not have a prayer.
Gary Stager, firstname.lastname@example.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.