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Fresh off the heels of CES and the Polaroid Kids Tablet and the iThis and the iThat, I have a confession to make about technology in education. And here it is: We actually don’t need any more technology. We don’t, really! That might be a strange thing to say in this age of tech abundance, but the truth is, what we need right now is better content, not better gizmos to run them on.

Let’s do a roundup of the gadgets currently on hand in my school:

computer lab in an elementary schoolComputer Lab

This gets used—a lot—by teachers doing their prep. The older grades do have allotted tech time, but it’s limited to times when the class whose homeroom is the lab room is away at gym or art. (Which is about an hour a week, now that the art teacher is off on maternity leave and art classes have been suspended until she’s back in March).

And what is this tech time? It consists almost entirely of mucking around on Kid Pix because the teachers honestly don’t know what else to do with them, given that half of them don’t have sound, most of them take forever to log into, and JavaScript support is irregular at best…

A set of six Macbooks

3 Apple MacBooksThese were meant to supplement the tech time for those who don’t have computers right there in their rooms.

Then one laptop got stolen, and several others were missing key software, and all of them had been locked down by the outsourced IT people, so we couldn’t just install it ourselves.

Add to that an aging facility—we’ve actually been told by the property manager that we can’t buy anything else that needs to be plugged in—and the utility of the Macbooks gets crippled severely.

lots of Apple iPadsA set of 10 iPads

These get used a lot by the kids, and they are much-beloved. But there are issues with upgrading.

For security purposes, only one person has been authorized to buy the apps and run the updates. So everybody has to wait until that one person has the time to sit down and babysit them. There is no group push function yet where I can log in, tell it what I want to do to every machine, and have it happen automatically…

Three SMART Boards, at $5,000 a pop

These were hotly anticipated, and we even got a free training session where the leader did all sorts of cool stuff.

And then the laptops that are hooked up to them decide to auto-shutdown (an IT setting we can’t adjust ourselves) and it takes too long to log them in again; or they get taken by the homeroom teacher so they can do work on it when the lab is occupied, and they’re not there for the specialty teachers …

And when they do get used, it’s for what? Writing homework assignments and displaying YouTube content?

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I am not being ungrateful. I know our school is lucky to have this stuff, and I know too that there is more potential here that our particular staff just hasn’t had the time or the training to fully tap into.

But I also know just what the barriers are to getting that time and that training. I know that for me to push an iOS update onto 10 iPads took me an entire Friday afternoon, working steadily from just after lunch to well past 4:00 p.m. I know that a planned lesson can go awry in an instant in a room with funky Wi-Fi access, or not enough power outlets to run more than two laptops at a time, or iPad batteries that were depleted by use in another class that we didn’t know about.

I know we already feel behind on the stuff we currently have. And the truth is that most of us just don’t have the time or energy to add in a new device or system or infrastructure that’s an unproven toss-up between fixing it all, or giving us just one… more… thing… to charge, keep updated and find a place for in our program.

So what do teachers need, as far as technology goes? What would actually help them run better programs? Content. Let us not forget that no matter how fancy or special the technology is, the content is what really matters.

Here is what I’d like to see:

√ An easy to use educational app system that would save teachers the headache of finding content, installing it, updating it and so on. In an ideal world, this would be something like Kindle’s FreeTime Unlimited program: You’d pay a set (reasonable) fee for all-you-can-eat access to curated, appropriate content, sorted by subject or grade level, and kids could just sign in on devices supplied by the school (or brought from home), and access the whole thing. Math drills, phonics games, art and music appreciation … there would be so much potential here. And they can keep it updated on their servers—no more Friday afternoons manually updating devices myself!

√ Customizable, adaptable digital library software. Something like the app thing would work for me (all-you-can-eat access for a set price), but I’d like to see this be adaptable so that schools can add their own content from multiple sources. (For instance, we could purchase some books from a library catalog, others from a DRM-free store or Project Gutenberg, and maybe even upload our own self-created files). It should be a database on the level of Calibre (sortable by tag; browsable and searchable in a variety of ways; and with the option to plug in any student’s device, hit the ‘transfer’ button and have it auto-convert the file on the fly), but with a prettier and kid-friendly interface so they can find books. ¶ We’ve thought about letting our students bring their own devices for use during personal reading time, but the issue of who would be responsible for loading the content (parents? us?) and what the content would be gave us pause.

√ Ready-to-go technology curriculum materials. Most teachers I know have no problems finding worksheets for writing, reading comprehension, book reports and so on. They don’t struggle to teach these core curriculum areas. But for technology, many do struggle to find good stuff. Why is it that you can Google “free Christmas coloring page” and get a million results, but there aren’t nearly as many ready-to-go, easy-to-implement tech lessons? ¶ We need to teach kids to be smarter computer users. We need to teach them how to use the tools they have responsibly, safely and correctly. With so much more tech in their lives than there ever used to be, we must do this. But we need better stuff. It needs to be as un-intimidating and easy to implement as a Christmas coloring page. We’re not there yet!

I love creating curriculum resources, and I have two personal projects I’m working on right now that address some of these needs. But there’s more work to be done, and it’s not work in creating new gadgets. Content is king! That’s what we need right now: Better content—not better stuff.

 
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