« stone soup mentality | Main | Techno-Parenting »

There Isn’t a Train I Wouldn’t Take

There Isn’t a Train I Wouldn’t Take
Head for the Edge, January 2000

In our district we do a lot of things right. We also mess up on occasion. Our foray into the world of interactive television has not been successful. After spending over $50,000 to equip a lab, over $35,000 per year over the past two years for connectivity, and countless professional and technical hours, our interactive television room sits pretty much unused.

Sure we’ve had an occasional “video field trip” to NASA or the Cincinnati zoo. We’ve used it to teach an advanced math program in the evenings to kids in the region. And we have held some meetings with fellow techno-weenies in the state. But the vast majority of our students probably don’t even know we have an interactive classroom let alone have received any benefit from it.

Seduced by grant monies and the fact that every other school district seemed to be installing interactive television, we really didn’t look closely enough to see if we had any pressing problems the new technology would actually help us solve. I guess we were hoping some would show up.

It’s said that we only learn from our mistakes, never our successes. Maybe if we analyze what went “wrong” with ITV by comparing it to a success - the popular adoption of Internet use by the majority of teachers and students in our school – some insight might be gleaned. So, a few side-by-side comparisons:

1. Simplicity.
Internet: Graphic web browsers call for a minimum of training. E-mail is pretty easy.

ITV: It takes a specialist to configure, set-up and use the CODEC, cameras, microphones, document camera, and the VCR. A device that looks like the remote control from hell controls the equipment. There are lots of wires in the special room. For most of us: WIRES = BAD. Well-taught lessons over ITV have an added layer of instructional preparation and complexity as well.

2. Ubiquity.
Internet: The Internet can be accessed from any networked computer in the district. And we have them in all classrooms, all media centers and all offices. You don’t have to go down the hall or to another building to use it.

ITV: We have one interactive television classroom for thirteen buildings. For well over eighty percent of our teachers, that means getting everyone on a bus to use the resource. Even for the other twenty percent it means leaving one’s classroom. If I’m going to go to the trouble of putting all my kids on a bus, I want to go to a real zoo or museum.

3. Reliability
Internet: Believe it or not, our Internet connection works over 95% of the time. From time to time a website may not be available, but for the most part, teachers can count on the Internet being there during the class in which it is being used.

ITV: Has anyone, anywhere ever had an interactive class or meeting start on time? Has anyone not experienced a good discussion cut off when the scheduled time for the class has elapsed? Have you and your students ever found yourselves huddled inches from the only working microphone in the room? Has there ever been a multi-point conference that has not had one site blasting from the speakers while another site is too soft to hear?

Yes, we test ahead of time. Yes, we check sound levels. But I don’t trust our digital systems any further than I can throw it. Which is sometime what I would like to do. ITV has got to be the oldest immature technology around.

4. Usability
Internet: The Internet offers teachers and students resources unavailable in any other fashion. Access to museums, source documents, remote experts, weather reports, library catalogs, software archives and loads of other genuinely usable stuff can only be accessed conveniently using the Internet.

ITV: While places that offer interactive field trips can excite and motivate students, rarely have we found that there much of a curriculum match between, say the Philadelphia Art museum or Orange County Marine Institute’s presentations and our district’s curriculum. The novelty of a interacting over television can be motivating, to be sure, but I’ve always questioned how much real learning takes place on these excursions. Do your interactive field trips have stated student learning objectives?

But what about all those districts who are offering classes using one teacher to instruct small groups of kids in a number of distant schools? What about those kids taking classes from distant universities and technical colleges? The operative word here is “distant.” For small districts that have a large number of low incident classes (classes for which the enrollment does not justify hiring a teacher), such a sharing arrangement can work.

  • Provided common class times, school dates, and teacher remuneration issues can all resolved.
  • Provided teachers are willing to learn how to operate all the equipment.
  • Provided the organizational structure is there to coordinate the classes.
  • Provided the inconvenience caused by distance outweighs issues of sound quality in language classes, activities in science classes, and direct one-on-one interaction in all classes.

Classes offered by post-secondary institutions should be available to students who need them, but again our local institutions are easily accessible via car, bus or even foot.

5. Affordability
Internet: We already have the networked computers. A fairly large data line to our district is affordable on a cost-per-pupil basis. (About $1.70 per student per year.) Web browsers and email programs are freeware.

ITV: Even a single interactive classroom with a high-bandwidth connection is very expensive. If the classroom is used by as many as 1000 students over the course of a year, we are still talking about just line costs of over $36 per student actually benefiting from the system. Add into that any fees assessed by institutions being visited or tuition charged by other schools, and you are looking at some serious money.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am still excited by the possibilities of communicating with folks and learning from them through sight as well as sound. It’s just than right now interactive television doesn’t meet any of the criteria that make the Internet well used by staff and students. I hold great hope, however, for desktop video – connecting small cameras to classroom computers that are then connected via the Internet.

It’s important that we educational decision-makers look hard at new technology implementations and judge them according to their simplicity, ubiquity, reliability, usability and affordability.

Edna St. Vincent Millay once wrote: There isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, no matter where it’s going.” That’s certainly a romantic notion, and one that many technology folks seem to follow when making purchases. “Gee, let’s try this new thing and then see if a problem comes up that it might solve.”

Of course when those problems don’t arise and it becomes clear the money spent on the new technology could have been better directed, reports to the school board can become very uncomfortable. I’ve found that those contentious folks on the board are far more impressed when my students have learned something with the help of technology than when I have.

Posted on Friday, July 6, 2007 at 07:44PM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | CommentsPost a Comment

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>