How limited technology budgets failed my students

Cranky Blogger’s Warning:  I’m tired of the broader public demanding that teachers be “held accountable” for student performance.  The truth is that our “productivity” is dependent on a ton of factors that are out of our control. 

This blog post is just one example of how my work is hampered and my hands are tied by budgets that limit our access to digital devices, IT experts and wireless infrastructure.

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There’s NOTHING that I love more than wondering with the kids in my sixth grade science class.

You heard me right:  Wondering.

Almost every day, we pause and share the things that leave us curious—and last week, my kids were WAY curious about their eyes.  Specifically, they wanted to know things like:

  • Does the color of your iris have anything to do with your ability to see?
  • What exactly is eye strain?  How does staring at a screen—or reading in the dark—cause eye strain?
  • If a person were born with an unusually high number of rods, would they be able to see better at night?
  • Why does vision get worse over time?

Cool questions for a bunch of eleven-year-olds, huh?  And if you could have felt the energy in our classroom while we were thinking together, you would have stopped doubting the commitment of today’s kids to learning.

In 20 minutes, we would have proven what I’ve long believed:  Give kids an engaging topic, an excited teacher, and a bunch of really great questions and schools can be relevant again.

Here’s the thing, though: The textbook—which is still the primary knowledge container in my classroom—didn’t answer ANY of the wonder questions my kids had.

Now to be fair, I HAVE got two desktop computers in my classroom that I could have turned students to—but that’s hardly a solution when you’ve got anywhere from 28-34 curious kids asking questions in a 60 minute class period.

We could have signed up for a computer lab or library time too, but neither solution would have provided access to answers immediately.  In fact, I’m pretty sure our computer lab is reserved until mid-June.

What’s really frustrating, though, is that our entire campus is blanketed by wireless access points.  I can take my teacher laptop ANYWHERE and get online.

But teacher laptops are the only wireless devices—outside of our two outdated, slow, badly-vandalized-yet-always-reserved mobile laptop carts—in the entire building.

And our students aren’t currently allowed to connect their own wireless devices—laptops, netbooks, iTouches, handheld gaming systems—to our school’s network.

Here’s what that left me saying to curious kids over and over again last week:

“VERY cool question!  When you get home today, you’ll have to look that up.  I’m sure it’ll be easy to find and I can’t wait to hear the answer.”

Stew in that for a minute, would ya?

We’re literally SURROUNDED by access to information in my classroom but my kids have to wait until they get home to answer the questions that capture their imagination.

The messages sent to my students couldn’t be more clear:

  • Wondering at school is basically useless because there’s no efficient way to find the answers to your interesting questions anyway.
  • If you’re really curious, just count the hours until the day is done and you can get home to start learning again.

#ouch

In the end, the solutions for schools and systems like mine–and the communities responsible for supporting us—are pretty obvious:  We either have to buy more mobile wireless learning devices (iPads, iTouches, netbooks) for each classroom OR we have to allow students to bring their own devices from home to connect to existing wireless networks.

Now, I won’t pretend that either solution is simple.  Buying more devices in an era when many state legislators aren’t even willing to pay for teachers  just isn’t likely.

Heck, I’m not sure more devices is the first thing that I’d buy even if our school DID have extra cash.  I’d probably hire another special education teacher or two to work with struggling students.

And allowing students to connect to school-based wireless networks with their own devices will definitely  require a bunch of skilled planning on the part of district IT staffers—and will probably require additional investments in our existing wireless infrastructure.

I can only imagine the safeguard, security and settings nightmares IT staffers will start having if we move forward with a bring your own device program on all 158 campuses in our system. And determining how to provide the potential bandwidth needed to support such a program just won’t be easy.

But let’s be clear: If we’re not willing to work towards giving the students in our classrooms efficient access to information regardless of the challenges, we’ve ALL got to stop pretending that schools are still relevant.

I mean, geez: If kids can’t answer wonder questions in their classrooms, what IS the point of coming to school?

#truth