Getting tech into students’ hands.

Loyal GBM reader Steve asks, “Since you. . .seem to have used tablets in education, why aren’t more students carrying these things, and how do we get tablets into their hands?” 

As a public high school language arts and communications instructor, I have had many opportunities to implement technology into my lessons.  I have tried to use technologies such as Power Point, creating videos, and developing Wikispace websites as ways to empower and engage students, keeping them interested in subject matter and preparing them for future careers.  I knew that my boring lectures could not compete with XBox, Playstation, and Instant Messaging.  If I wanted to have an impact, then I had to use technology and reach students through a medium that they understand.


I’ve identified a few reasons why schools are still lacking when it comes to using technology.

1. School funds:  Like other business and industry, schools are hurting economically.  In Ohio, funding of the public school system has been ruled unconstitutional, yet there have been little steps taken to solve the problem.  Local schools aren’t just threatening to reduce teaching faculty, support staff, athletics, and funds for things such as technology– they are cutting them.  A colleague of mine in a neighboring school district told me that the janitors in his building had been let go in the middle of the year, and teachers were responsible for cleaning their rooms at the end of the day.  He also told me that the school supplies for teachers and students had to last until the end of the school year and carry over until the end of the following school year.  Any materials needed in the classroom had to be purchased by the teacher out-of-pocket.  As much as I love technology, it is no substitute for a living, breathing, trained educator.  It’s ironic that the resources don’t exist to provide one laptop per child in most schools in the United States.

2. Family funds:  When I began my career in education I was dead-set on using as much technology as possible.  I would require all students type their papers, complete all of my grades via an electronic gradebook, and run a classroom website.  As I soon found, it was unrealistic for me to require that my students type all papers that were assigned in class; it simply was not possible for some students.  The idea of a computer in the home is a luxury that some struggling families cannot afford.  When it comes down to paying rent and buying groceries, a computer isn’t even a thought on the brain.  Of course, the argument that students have access to the public library or a computer lab comes into play.  While that might be true to some degree, in many of these homes the students aren’t worried about completing their homework; they’re worried about making enough money at their after-school job to help pay the electric bill.  Some families that struggle with generational poverty avoid using computers because of their negative assumptions regarding their own technological proficiency.


3. Resistance to change:  I’ve worked with teachers who refused to use email because they weren’t comfortable with it.  When I started teaching in 2004, I was the only teacher in the building to use an electronic grade book.  Many in the education system resist changing their modus operandi when they’ve been teaching the same lesson the exact same way for 25 years.  People become comfortable, and using technology means change.  I do believe that this will change as we’re currently experiencing a large turnover from younger, technology-enabled teachers entering the field.


4. Students abuse technology:  Literally and figuratively.  Literally, I have yet to walk into a computer lab in a school that didn’t have at least one vandalized computer with a broken mouse and missing buttons.  Most students don’t take care of things– even if it costs a lot of money.  Sometimes, the fact that it costs a lot of money is even greater motivation to vandalize.  Most of the computers used in schools are generic desktop boxes and don’t take into consideration the environment that they’ll function.  Better designs like that of the Classmate PC and OLPC’s XO laptop are steps in the right direction.  They are durable and designed to take a beating.  Figuratively, without constant observation and strict filtering, students will undoubtedly push limits and attempt to visit websites that they shouldn’t.  No matter what filtering software is used or how closely the teacher watches, locked doors will be opened. 

There are a lot of ways to get technology into the hands of students.  I believe we can begin to solve the problem by investing more in education.  School funding needs to be changed, teachers need to be paid a more competitive salary so that brighter individuals are recruited and stay in the classroom, education courses should be mandatory so that all students are exposed to technology and gain computer literacy skills (this is becoming the case in most schools), and computers need to be designed for the school environment.  These suggestions are all very easy to write, but bringing them into reality is a very slow and combative process.

While I agree with OLPC‘s attempts to bring computer literacy to impoverished areas in the world, there are an equal amount of places in the United States that would benefit from the OLPC’s XO program.

What advice do you have about getting technology into the hands of our students?  I’d appreciate your suggestions since I’m on the front-lines.