Why Isn’t the 21st Century Here Yet?

Technology is awesome and transformative, and will completely change the way we do business in schools and in the classroom. So why hasn’t that really happened yet? Why aren’t we all working in high-tech, super-duper computer driven schools yet? I think I know, and it has nothing to do with philosophies of education or resistance to change.

I’m starting this piece on my laptop. I’m doing that because, tonight, my desktop refused to boot up. I’m not panicked particularly, because like every person who uses technology, I have things backed up and saved elsewhere; we have all learned that you would be an idiot not assume that any portion of your personal computer tech could fail completely at any moment.

Some of my stuff is saved out on the cloud; I’m not necessarily excited about that because “saved on the cloud” means “only accessible if you have working internet,” and, in a not unusual situation, the internet in my neighborhood is running slow tonight. Takes an hour to stream through forty minutes of netflix slow. Maximum of two devices in the house actively internetting slow. Did I mention that this is not a highly unusual situation?

The high school at which I teach is a one-to-one school. Every student has a device (we’re still using netbooks, which of course are no longer built by anyone, so there’s that to fix, but we’re working on it) and I would never want to go back, ever. If your school has the chance to go one-to-one, jump in with both feet.

But as much as I love it, I would be a fool to plan a lesson that depended on every single device in my room working as needed on cue at just the right time. I can assume that on any given day, some devices will not hook into the network, some will not be able to get online, and some will just do something unexpectedly wonky. (As I am finishing this is the morning in my classroom before school, the internet connection is cutting in and out.)

Our tech department does a pretty good job. But we’re looking for people to run a network of almost a thousand devices spread over seven buildings. Do you know how much you’d have to pay to recruit someone for that kind of work in the private sector? A lot more than we’re going to pay anyone, ever. And maybe if we grew a money tree and could hire that person we’d end up with a network that hummed along perfectly all the time, but I have friends in the private sector, and I hear the stories, and I don’t think it’s all unicorns pooping rainbows out there, either.

Technology programs, computer designed instruction, all those really cool things are designed by guys working in labs on brand new state of the art equipment in an environment where the wireless is so strong it curls their hair. Out here in the world, the problem with computer technology is simple–

It works most of the time probably. It’s only sort of reliable. We can only kind of count on it.

The answer may not be perfection, but redundancy (for instance, notice how our digital native students maintain multiple social media accounts so that there’s always a way). Or the answer may be to suddenly re-align our country’s financial priorities (imagine if the money spent fighting in Afghanistan were instead spent on public education). But until we have an answer, we’re never going to get all the way into the 21st century.

By Peter A. Greene

Peter Greene is a veteran teacher and
has a blog called “Curmudgucation.”

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