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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What has technology done for you lately?

The very first movie cameras were hulking beasts: filmmakers would plop them down and the actors would act in front of them. As technology improved--lighter! cheaper!--actors started to do something different in front of the camera than they could do on stage: they let the camera follow them.

Technology can help you cut costs. It can also permit you to do something you never dreamed possible before. So far in schools, technology has likely not cut costs (I'd guess it actually increases costs). Worse: we too seldom use it to do something different than we might have done in its absence.

Over the past decade, corporations have put extraordinary efforts into articulating the "total cost of ownership" of a piece of technology. It's a combination of the fixed capital costs and the soft (typically recurring costs) of training and support. Companies bear the brunt of both of those buckets. (And corporations have found that the second costs--the soft costs--often exceed the fixed costs by a gaping margin.)

Schools are different. The district budget bears the fixed cost of the assets. It bears a small portion of the soft costs. But teachers themselves bear most of the burden of the soft costs. That means that only the most benevolent (or well-funded) districts worry much about the scale of the soft costs. Teachers, meanwhile, are largely indifferent to the scale of the fixed costs (they get given books and supplies and don't pay for those).

Technology for schools can reduce costs if you use it to secure "free" curriculum materials and so reduce your text book costs. Done right, it should also reduce the "soft" costs -- or "hidden" costs -- or costs to teachers. It would have to quantify both of those.

Now to the positive side of the ledger: what can technology deliver that text books can't easily do?

* Technology can deliver lesson plans. (Cost reduction to overall expenditures budget).
* Technology can make it possible for kids to experience things that they would not otherwise be able to experience. (Bugscope. Writing to kids in other countries.)
* Many educators believe that kids are mostly likely to learn "21st century" skills by undertaking self directed projects. Technology SHOULD make it possible for every kid to undertake such projects.

In other words, technology should let kids become makers--of things (gismos), of content, of ideas--rather than just consumers of content.

Learning Passions. Maybe that's it. Technology should and can be connecting kids with passions. Teachers can help. Parents can help, too.

Note: Here's the Washington Post's Jay Mathew's take on "senior projects,"a more organized version of finding a passion.

Comment from a high school student:
'It's an experience that I will never forget that will help me so much in my future,' said Wendy Ramirez (a previously dubious high school student).

That's mushy and nice, but it doesn't explain something odd. The program's success at the Arlington County school shows senior projects are a good idea. So why are they so rare in area public schools?


"Many high school students still don't get to learn what Wendy Ramirez did: "When I set my mind to something and work hard to accomplish it," she said, "I will conquer it and complete it." We want our teenagers to get something out of high school, but we usually define that as good grades, high test scores and a few extracurricular activities, whatever the colleges want. We don't think they are capable of much else. Look how they complain when we ask them to take out the garbage! Maybe it's time to be imaginative and firm, as the Wakefield teachers are, and take the risk that our kids might actually enjoy wrestling with ideas and skills they see in their futures."

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