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The View From the Classroom: A Response to 'The Ed-Tech Unicorn'

The problem is not with the state of the technology.

This letter is a rebuttal, or perhaps simply a different perspective, on Jacob Saperstein’s article, “Pursuing the Ed-Tech Unicorn,” which appeared on Re/code on Tuesday.

In his guest post, Saperstein seems to be making the argument that amazing technology is to come to the classroom, but only if the people making education-focused technology don’t mind getting a few bloody noses, allowing themselves to “fail forward” and learn from their mistakes. Once that perfect technology is developed, then perhaps we will enter a golden age of the technology-focused classroom. I would like to give an alternate viewpoint.

I have spent nearly 17 years working in higher education, as a multimedia producer, videographer, software developer and instructor. I’ve won state-level awards for producing multimedia learning objects, and I’ve been a huge proponent of increasing the role of technology in the classroom. I’ve been a consultant to staff and faculty of nearby community colleges on the role of technology in the classroom. I have a degree in media production and a M.S. in computer science. In short, I’ve had some experience with this issue.

As such, I can assure Saperstein that the problem is not with the state of the technology. The technology is fine (well, most of it). The problem is that there is no money, time, commitment or real understanding of technology by school administrators to implement technology in the classroom in a successful way. Throughout all the stages of the life and death cycle of ed-tech projects, there are issues. Here’s how it typically goes:

Stage 1: Money comes into the system, and a vice president or assistant principal or assistant district supervisor decides that that money must be spent this budget year or else it will go to waste and they will not receive as much money the next budget year. This is a fantastically inept way of budgeting money for technology, which can have variable expenses for upkeep and training from year to year.

Stage 2: Key decision makers in the administration commit to purchasing whatever latest ed-tech package they’ve been sold on. Their decision is usually based on catchy names, exciting flyers, attractive sales people, or just because it’s a cool idea (I once had to talk a VP down from buying a 3-D hologram podium because he thought it looked awesome). Neither the tech experts, the teachers, nor the students are ever involved in this decision-making process.

Stage 3: New technology arrives. There is rarely a dedicated department committed to overseeing the implementation of the technology. Often the resident IT instructor — or maybe someone who knows how to install a printer — is assigned the task. These duties are often on top of the staff or faculty member’s usual teaching duties.

Stage 4: Technical support from the vendor is spotty. New tech is usually untested and poorly documented. Roadblocks are often hit early on, and the project dies long before it’s implemented. Assuming the technology doesn’t get shoved into a closet someplace to collect dust for all eternity and actually gets turned on, we get to move to Stage 5.

Stage 5: The technology has arrived, and is working. An often-ignored email goes out to the faculty announcing the new technology’s arrival. Faculty is overworked and more worried about the child in their classroom with a severe mental illness for whom they have no qualified counselors on staff to treat.

Stage 6: Out of several hundred faculty members, perhaps a dozen at most will heed the call and come investigate the technology. Those faculty members are given basic instructions, and are often left to train to a level of competency on their own time.

Stage 7: D-day. The technology goes live in a classroom environment. Perhaps it goes smoothly. More than likely, there are glitches. There is no one on hand to provide support to resolve the glitches. The instructor picks up a dry-erase marker and proceeds with the class.

Stage 8: The new-car smell has worn off. The technology has, predictably, shown no measurable improvement in student learning outcomes. Support contracts are not renewed. Updates fall by the wayside. The technology then dies a protracted and terrible death.

Stage 9: Rinse and repeat.

In summary, the abysmal statistics cited in the article are a result of a systemic failure on the part of the administration to provide the resources necessary to make technology in the classroom successful — there’s not enough time, not enough money, and not enough personnel dedicated to a successful implementation. Perhaps you’ve heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that a student needs to have in place before true learning can be achieved. Similarly, there is an institutional hierarchy of needs that must be in place before the ed-tech unicorn will ever be realized.

Ike Quigley has a degree in communications and media production from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a M.S. in computer science from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He has been a proponent of technology and multimedia in the classroom since 1998, when he worked at Randolph Community College in North Carolina as an education materials video producer. He has since produced multimedia and Web-based education projects for several institutions of higher learning, including Kaplan University, the University of New Mexico and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He won the 2011 Learning Object of the Year Award for the State of North Carolina, and the Paul Green Award for multimedia 2006. He is currently an instructor of Web technologies at Guilford Technical Community College in North Carolina, where he lives with his wife and two children.

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