Chapter 22 – The Siren Call of Technology

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I had decided to enervate my social studies lessons on ancient India with a web quest. I found a fantastic one that required students to search the web and study a range of ancient Indian contributions to the world from mathematics to astronomy to surgery.  I spent hours prepping this three-day lesson by creating multiple ways for students to report what they had learned, checking all of the web sites carefully to make sure nothing objectionable would pop up, checking the laptop cart to make sure no one crossed out my name on the sign up list, and making sure the laptops were all working and charged. It was an outstanding experience for my morning class, absolutely awesome. Students were calling me from all over the classroom to show me what they found. Frankly, I could have seen those cataract surgery sites a little less often. No one wanted to leave the classroom when the bell rang.

My afternoon class didn’t go so well. Actually, it was a disaster. The students had heard great things from the morning class and could hardly wait to get their laptops checked out and opened. Suddenly, I started hearing from all over the classroom, “I can’t log in! It won’t take my password! Nothing works!” A couple of students could log in, but couldn’t get to web sites. We had no technical support at my middle school. I tried calling our library tech, who was our best resource, but she had students with her. We had to give up. By then, there were 20 minutes left of class, and I had to make up a lesson on the spot. What a mess.

This web quest was too great to cancel. I had to solve this problem. After spending two hours talking to several teachers and sending out a school-wide e-mail, I discovered that my nearest wireless router was in a math teacher’s room in the building next to mine. She had, in compliance with the district’s plea to save energy, turned the router off when she wasn’t using it.

Having solved that, I was determined to fix the problem once and for all. I requested my own wireless router for our wing to be placed in my classroom where I could babysit it. It took months to get through the purchase process, but I installed it the day it arrived. Finally, my classroom had reliable internet access. Our library tech spotted it, and told me to take it back down. Apparently, the district Information Technology (IT) department was on a hunt for rogue routers, and when they found one, would confiscate it. I unplugged it and submitted a formal request. After two months, IT did install it, but in a different classroom. I now had more reliable access, but every time there was a problem, I had to run next door to check the router’s status.

The point of this lengthy story is not to complain. It is to warn you that technology in the classroom is not the well-paved superhighway that most people imagine it to be. Instead it is a gravel-covered, pothole-infested country road that only beater cars and four wheel drives can navigate safely. In most schools, we are working with ten-year-old computers on outdated operating systems. Even the teacher computers are a mess. My current laptop has a one-minute battery life, throws up warnings about the broken modem, and shuts down spontaneously. I watched one teacher carefully pick up her laptop with its dangling screen, walk it out into the hallway, and precariously balance it on the edge of the school copier while she manually cabled them together so she could print. SmartBoards can work one hour and die the next; it has happened to me at least a dozen times. Sometimes, they are dead for days. I have also carefully set up the classroom computers on specific software and web pages for the sub to use the next day only to have the district or Microsoft force a restart overnight and destroy all of my plans. The sub couldn’t even log back in to the computers without my password. Many teachers, including me, have to walk to other buildings to get printouts. If nothing printed, we have to hike back to our desks to troubleshoot, walk back to see if it worked, go back to our desks, etc. It’s a massive time waste. But even worse are the student logins.

Most districts have a hierarchical system of privileges for their computers. At the top are district computer support staff and the IT department members who have logins with administrative, or the most, privileges. They can install and remove software, edit registries, remote in to other computers, and generally do things that could cause chaos in the wrong hands. At the bottom are students who have no privileges other than create and save files using the programs on the computer as it is set up for them. They usually have some form of limited access to the internet with a screening program in place to block inappropriate web sites, game sites, and YouTube. Teachers have privileges somewhere in between.

This can be a pain in the tookus. Teachers don’t usually have privileges to install software for student logins meaning that you can’t add fonts, games, printers, or drawing programs to your own classroom computers. Your other choice is to log in to each of your classroom computers as yourself and install whatever you can, but then students have to log in as you to use that software. You run the risk of students seeing web sites they shouldn’t or worse, learning your login.

The single most frustrating thing is printing. IT departments like to standardize so they point all of the student computers to the same two printers in the library. This is ridiculous. I run a research-heavy classroom, and can’t be sending my students off to the library every time they want to print information from a web site. Plus, those printers are so hammered by students who accidentally printed all pages instead of pages 1 to 2 or sent their job five times that they are chronically out of paper or down for repairs. I have two printers in my classroom, but I don’t have the administrative privileges to install the printer drivers for those two printers to my student logins. So when we do research, I have to take a risk and log all of the computers in under my login. That way, I can keep the students inside the room and see what they are printing. I just have to hope that nothing inappropriate pops up while they do research because I get an earful when it does.

So you have to ask yourself. Are you the beater car who can keep all sorts of junk running? Do you keep decrepit computers functioning despite their foibles? Or are you the four wheel drive that can keep moving forward no matter how big the pothole? Do you know a workaround for anything that can go wrong with a computer system?

Or are you neither? Most of us can get what we want done on a computer, but feel a little stranded when something goes haywire. Some of us have the number to the help desk memorized. Some of us have a friend that we feed in exchange for their technical expertise. Here are my suggestions for coping once you are in a classroom.

  1. Keep a written, physical list on a post-it, clipboard, or index card, of everything technical that you want fixed in your room. IT staff inevitably walk into your room in the middle of class, and you can never give them your full attention. Nor will you be able to remember all of the things that are bothering you. Hand them the list.
  2. As you find out which teachers are good at what computer problems, write that strength next to their name on the phone list. That way, when you are standing in front of your class and can’t get your sound system working, you can make a quick call to the right person for help. Or after school, when report cards are due and the grading system refuses to bring up the screen you want, you can get help fast.
  3. In advance, make a plan for when technology fails, even if it is as simple as “get out a book and read while I sort this out.” It would be great if every lesson had a backup, but at least have a generic option.
  4. Identify which one or two students actually are good at computers. Let them help you. Tell the rest who think they know what they are doing, but really don’t, to stop shouting suggestions, get out a book, and read.

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