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Refusing Technology

This post (about other businesses aside from education, such as supermarket cashiers or stockbrokers, where the use of technology is not optional) is over a month old, at this point, but it’s sticking in my head. In fact, there’s a lot of stuff swimming in there – this is going to turn into more than one post.

In my previous life, I was a software engineer.

In the mid 80’s offset printing was a black art. There were these huge machines with lots of knobs on the front of them, and wizards would take film negatives, slide them into the machines, and twist knobs that did all sorts of mechanical things to produce beautiful images.

I worked for a series of companies that tried to build a better box. They all failed. It wasn’t me, really. I worked for successful companies later as well. It’s just that, at that time, this was an inaccessible market niche.

Those big black boxes were many hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ours were right around one hundred grand. Those boxes used a lot of expensive materials. Ours let you do stuff on a screen. Those boxes needed a lot of training to use. Ours could be wielded by the experts, but also yield decent results to amateurs. And none of those could ever break into the market. As frustrated as our sales and marketing people were, they couldn’t just force the customers to adopt the new technology.

Adobe and Quark eventually succeeded where my companies failed.

They succeeded not by forcing the companies to buy the technology, but by making it impossible for them not to. The products became cheap enough, fast enough, and practical enough that those big print shops started getting competition from small start ups.

If technology is going to pervade teaching, it needs to happen in the same way: I need to see another teacher take the 50 worst kids in the school into a classroom, and see them come out proficient in math, english, science, and history, without losing their social skills along the way. (The reason I got out of the software business? Those people forfeited their social skills for technology).

What I expect is more likely to happen is what happened with supermarkets and stockbrokers – the dull repetitive tasks will be supplanted by technology while the rest of the job remains. Computers make inventory control easier, but humans still man the cash registers and do the stocking. Stock analysts have stats at their fingertips rather than having to read a ticker tape, but the actual process of due diligence has changed very little.

Someday, I’m sure, we’ll have a technology revolution.

That day is not today.

{ 5 } Comments

  1. A. Mercer | February 10, 2008 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    I like your anecdote about the off-set business. I can see more tech happening just by having it “engulf” classrooms. I wonder if some of that will be happening as more an more assessment goes online (my district does benchmark testing there, and teachers have to look at and analyze the score data online). I can see where as more of the assessment moves there, more of the teaching will too. I think that personal relationships will make for a more pleasant transition to teachers using online tools (http://inpractice.edublogs.org/2008/02/09/kickin-and-screaming/)

    Two quibbles with your post…
    1. I would not make the success of any teaching tool dependent on something as extreme as bringing your lowest 50 students to proficiency. In my experience at program improvement schools, it is the RARE student that jumps more than a test band (FBB – > Basic, BB->Proficient) doing it with 50 in a school of say 500-700 would be unheard of. If you got 50 out of 500 students up one test band, that would great (I think you could even push that up to 100 out of 500). The hardest band to crack seems to be Basic to Proficient.

    2. I don’t feel that computers reduce social skills, I think that a lot of socially challenged souls end up in electrical engineering and computer science. I say this based on having a number geeks who are on the Autism spectrum in my family, etc. However, I understand your concern that student be well rounded.

  2. Mr K. | February 11, 2008 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the response:

    I’m well aware of the problems listed in (1). I have exactly those kids in my classroom (except in much smaller numbers), i think out of all of my kids, I have 3 that are up to basic.

    And that was the point – to get general buy in on adopting technology, you need that kind of a radical change. A 20% improvement is going to be lost among all the other factors that go into teaching. Some people will adopt, but you’re not going to get wholesale buy in until you get those kids of results. I think it’s possible, just not yet. (One of my back burner posts is about what my ideal technology setup would look like – it’s close to science fiction, but not out of the range of possibility 20 years from now)

    Technology is already making those other inroads into the classroom: our attendance is now all online. We are required to use electronic gradebooks. As assessments move online, the scantron will be fade into history. But those things are peripheral to the teaching, and I think that’s where the big debate about technology in education is.

    I’ll give you (2), though. I think my cow orkers were attracted to the career because they thought they’d only have to deal with machines, rather than humans. little did they know. Still, the point remains – as successful as social software is on the web, it is still a reduced bandwidth communication compared to face to face communication. That’s part of the appeal – I can sound much more intelligent and/or interesting when I have time to compose a response. There’s a reason that the few experiments with companies doing job interviews via second life have gone nowhere – it filters too much. For all the talk of having our kids be prepared to use technology, we need to teach them how to stand without it, as well.

  3. dkzody | February 11, 2008 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    For 18 years I, along with a team of teachers, have done something similar to your 50 students project…every year we take in another 50 students to our Academy. These are not the bottom of the barrel kids, they are the low midlevel student. Many have a 1.8 gpa. The bottom of the barrel kid has a 0.0.

    We work with them for 3 years, and when they are seniors, ready to graduate, they go through a portfolio day with business partners. The rest of the school marvels at this fete, and I have had many teachers say to me, “well, you Academy teachers get the best students.” Hah, far from it. We just take that below average kid and turn him into something remarkable. It is NOT easy work as we have to fight the school culture the whole 3 years we have the students, and each year we must recruit our next 50 kids. No one sends any kids our way, and there are even teachers on the campus who try to talk kids out of joining the Academy because we are successful and they would like that to stop. The Academy students have higher past rates on the exit exam, the California Standards Tests, and the local benchmarks than the rest of the school and even the rest of the district. It can be done with lots of hard work.

    We do 19 fieldtrips a year, we have a strict tardy and absence policy, we give Academy awards each month, we have guest speakers and job shadowing, and in the senior year, the students actually invite the community to 2 events they plan. Due to Carl Perkins funding and other grants we have written, we have been able to keep up with technology. My students produce the school’s yearbook on Mac G5s with Adobe InDesign CS2. Kids love technology for the fun side, but when they are required to produce with it, they grumble just like they do about paper/pencil work.

  4. Mark | February 11, 2008 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    A big reason why education lags behind in the technology game, IMO, is the fact that profit is not involved. Making money speeds people’s desire to innovate — you must or you will be overtaken by your competitors. In schools, we don’t feel that same burden.

  5. dkzody | February 11, 2008 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Mark, I have to disagree with you…I have to innovate every year as my students are not just sent to me from the counseling office, but rather they have to apply to my program. I have to recruit every year for the next year’s students. If I don’t have something to offer them, they do not come on board. I have to get the latest equipment, be connected to the newest jobs, have knowledge of colleges and the money to get there, or the students don’t come. The rest of the school, oh yeah, they can do it all the same way they always have and the counselors send them students.