The next person who tells me that technology is the savior of education is risking a big fat dictionary aimed straight at his head. Inevitably, this person is not in the classroom and yet, seems to think, they can make education better by chucking a laptop at each student. They certainly haven’t been in my shoes over the past 16 years. And the shenanigans that happened this morning would make any thinking person cringe.
There are the two main swimming pools of various bacteria and diseases that I see clouding up the issue of technology in the classroom. I’ll stick to Pool A in this here post.
Pool A is an environment where every student has their own computer-like item (laptop, surface, tablet, whatever). It makes sense. The logic is simple: my household is predominantly Mac-born, I would want my child to have a Mac because I know how to use it. Same goes for PCs. Or, let’s say, in this Windows saturated Puget Sound, the newest Windows product. This simple thought leads to hours and hours of wasted time in the classroom because everybody’s system is different. I, personally, am fluent with five different word processing programs because of it. Word, Pages, Google Drive, Open Office, Text Edit, and one other that I know the picture for but can’t remember what it’s called. Oops, that’s six.
I have learned through trial and error that if I use my USB stick to move a file from the school’s Mac Mini to my MacBook Pro, the school’s photocopier, connected by wireless internet, won’t recognize it if at any point it had been in Pages (Mac’s answer to Word). Why? I don’t know! Third Base!
So here is what happened this morning… Actually, we have to step back two days. On Tuesday students were given the assignment of going through the notes they had taken in History class to make questions for the game we would be playing in preparation for a test. (Cornell Notes are handwritten– always.) I timed the three groups while they were making a decision about how best to gather the materials they needed. Two of the three groups only had one computer among the members, and so they decided to have the fastest typist type the notes while the others gathered questions.
I love it when they take control like this. And I love it that they want to use their computers. It is much, much easier to make one document by cutting and pasting their questions and answers, than to re-type their handwritten questions into my computer. Still, if nobody had brought their computer that day, and they needed to hand write them, that would be fine, too.
The final group to finish all had their computers. All three had different types of computers: one Surface, one Macbook, and something I don’t recognize but it falls in the Windows Tablet market. They all had different writing programs. They wanted to split the work up and then collate their questions, but they couldn’t do it because their systems didn’t work together easily. They finally decided to have one student type on his computer. This discussion took 10 minutes by my clock. Now, this may not seem like much to you, but any teacher knows that 10 minutes is a lifetime. The group was significantly behind the others.
The next day, when they sat down to work, they discovered that the computer in question had been left at home. All of their work had been on it. The natural consequence was for the students to start over because I needed their work that night so I could put review their questions before I used them as a game. They chose another member of the group to type on his computer. At the end of class, I handed each group my USB stick to put their work on. Two of the three groups did this flawlessly. The third group, predictably by now, had trouble. The typist told me that the USB stick didn’t work with his new device. I was trying to get the class wrapped up and out the door, and so I foolishly believed him when he said he would email it to me. He didn’t.
When he came in this morning I asked him to bring me his computer. Fortunately, he had it with him. I asked him where the USB port was. And here is one of the biggest problems with technology: education. A lot of my time in English and History class is spent teaching my students technology. It amazes me that we assume that students come in knowing what a USB stick, or thumb drive, is. They don’t know how to add an attachment, double space their work, or add a header to their papers. Some don’t even know if they have an email account. Sure, some students are so technologically savvy that we worry, but my experience is that students have great knowledge of computer games, but not of how to use the machine for work.
It makes some sense not to have “computers class” like I had when I was their age. Again, (if you read my last post) it’s about authenticity. I had a great professor of Library Studies at my college named Evan Farber, and he as adamant about the fact that students learn when they need something. Still, I sometimes think that taking time to make sure that we all have similar knowledge cuts down on frustration and general faffing about. We would need curricula and a teacher and more time in the day.
So, I nailed the student to the wall about his knowledge of his computer. I discovered that he was so embarrassed about not knowing how to use it that he chose to tell me that my USB was the wrong size rather than asking if he had the right port and if it was the right way up. He also told me that he had emailed me a document, but there was no document in my inbox. He told me I was wrong. I looked again at my inbox. Nope. Then, I discovered that he did not know how to email. I also discovered that he had deleted the classwork when he cut and pasted his work into an email document that he could not now find. He was ready to give up at every turn.
So, I asked him to call up the original document that the group had worked on yesterday. He showed me a document which had clearly been cut from. I asked him to use control Z to undo his work. He told me that he had already hit the “undo” button. I said, “use control Z.” Amazingly, all the work from yesterday magically appeared on the document. At this point, the rest of class was busily quizzing each other on the Barbarians connected with Rome, but I was reminding myself to breathe because I understand that infanticide is wrong.
So, I taught the student where his USB port was, I taught him how to put a document on it, and how to eject it. I taught him how to cut and paste without loosing his document. I taught him to ask for help instead of simply assume that I will buy the fact that a USB stick is the wrong size. What I taught the rest of the class was that if someone has computer issues, they get to faff about for half an hour while we try to fix it.
I finally got all the documents together and was able to check them. So, except for the time lost, it isn’t a tragedy. I might have lost a few years from my life, but that’s what we teachers sacrifice.
You may be wondering if I am trying to make a case for the school requiring everyone to have the same equipment. Reading this, I would think that. But that is Pool B into which we will dive later. Bring your nose plug and goggles.