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But teacher laptops are the only wireless devices—outside of our two outdated, slow, badly-vandalized-yet-always-reserved mobile laptop carts—in the entire building.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

27 thoughts on “How Limited Technology Budgets Failed My Students

  1. Jessica

    I think this wondering business is a wonderful thing! I just happened to see your tweer this afternoon about sound/hearing/the cochlea and I first googled the #20minsms tag and found your class blog about it. I was happy to respond! I think Twitter will be a good way to get the kids connected to people that might just have some information in real time. Great idea! Kids need the flexibilty to keep questioning.

  2. Douglas

    Hi, New here so sorry to intrude. I like the tenor of the discussion and hope you don’t mind a comment. The post describes a technology hazard that actually is not pointed out in the post (but Kerry makes this point by his example in comments)–expectation of information and a certain valuation of that expectation of access as well as an over-valuation of the information to be “gained” by that access.
    Kerry comments, basically, that there are other ways to learn that send your students “into” active learning via their bodies and minds. Go to the library–find an actual person to speak to…etc. Value the ways to find knowledge as much as the knowledge itself. In fact one learns more from the search than a simple gaining of a particular answer (more rods better vision) that will fade and not be “useful” as an “end” to the question.
    Bill, unfortunately, you comment that it’s the very “instant-ness” that is most important in this scenario…How do we then describe this pedagogy? You learn the magical machine will answer your questions…better ask the right questions then…
    The beauty of having to spend time finding answers is that the very time you spend creates a kind of thinking process. Instantaneity is anathema to wisdom.
    Finally, what is the value of finding certain answers? What is the value of certain questions? Instead of answering them one might explore the reasons we ask these types of questions.
    I do expect you can “plan” for discover that takes time…I would hope it would be something that you value and work to create even if it goes against the tide of “instant-ness”.

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Dave: You are officially my new hero!
    Venting or not, youre speaking some truths that need to be spoken.
    As a classroom teacher who has no real authority, Im thankful for that.
    Rock on,
    Bill

  4. Dave

    Bizmark, you’re piling up the (very real) obstacles. I can’t tell if you mean to surmount them, or just point to that pile anytime anyone asks about wireless access for students.
    Wireless access for students hasn’t been perfected in the last ten years, and it won’t be solved in the next ten, I promise. A stance of “we can’t do it until a vendor puts together a better solution”, is just another way to say “we plan to fail our students, consistently, year after year.” (Or maybe it’s saying “let’s ignore all of the schools, universities, and companies that are already making this happen.”)
    > “The one thing I would urge you to remember is that when things don’t work, or if a security breach were to happen, that neither the teacher or student will be held accountable. It’ll be IT that gets hung out to dry.”
    You’re wrong, and (as respectfully as possible) you sound like a wuss. You’ll get blamed if you don’t apply your patches and updates, but if you have written, approved procedures, people will correctly blame the criminal hacker, not you. IT gets blamed if they’re playing lone wolf or haven’t updated Apache in a year, or if they’ve been pointlessly denying technology requests for years and everyone already hates them.
    Here’s the real deal: IT is the gatekeeper on this. No one is moving on 1:1 devices or open wireless for students because any time they bring it up, their IT department winces. It’s time for IT departments to stop saying “I totally understand the plight of the teacher”. They didn’t cry the tears of a first year teacher. They aren’t working a thousand unpaid hours each year. There aren’t a hundred kids every 12 months whose entire future depend on them. It’s time for IT departments to say “if this is the tool teachers need, then I am going to get as close to providing it as possible.”
    (Can you tell I’m venting? Apologies if I’m stepping on toes…but I expect I will keep stepping on them till I see feet moving in a forward direction.)

  5. SS

    @Bill I understand your frustration. My school district has 3500 kids K-12 and spends $750,000 a year in extracurricular sports related expenses. For that kind of money we could institute a 1:1 laptop program and buy a new laptop for EACH student in our district every other year. Schools spending general funds on sports is a 20th century model that needs to go the way of the dodo.

  6. Bill Ferriter

    Thats the thing, Bizmark: Our in-school collection of resources is nothing short of miserable.
    For 70 classes (1,100 students), we have 2 mobile laptop carts that are 6 years old. None of the batteries have been replaced, so the laptops have to be plugged in all the time. Most of the laptops have been vandalized. Theyre missing anywhere from 2-10 keys depending on how old they are. Worse yet, theyre NEVER updated. The last time I used them (the fall of this year), they were running IE-4 and couldnt function on any sites using Flash media players at all.
    We also have 2 computer labs with 30 computers that we can sign up to use. Theyre available for the majority of the day, but we also run a keyboarding class out of one of the rooms which makes it almost impossible for a teacher to actually use because they cant get all of their classes into the lab. Worse yet, the labs are reserved weeks and weeks ahead of time—-I checked the schedule the other day and theyre currently booked until June 17th. That makes spontaneous thinking and exploration impossible.
    Finally, outside of the money that our PTA provides us with each year, there is NO budget to upgrade or replace devices at the school level. None. Zero. And while our PTA does a pretty good job each year, they just cant provide enough to fix all of these problems.
    The really frustrating part is that I teach in a relatively affluent suburban community. If I did a survey, Id bet that 80-90% of my kids have portable devices that they COULD bring to school—-and Id bet that another 5% of our parents would buy their kids a device if they knew it was going to be used in schools.
    And we DO have a pretty significant wireless network in our school—-that was an investment we made a few years back when we DID have extra technology funds to spend.
    Given those factors, the only logical move is to find a way to get more functionality out of the wireless network. Its the only real strength in our technology infrastructure. Combine it with our student population and theres no real reason that we should have the problems that we have getting access to information.
    Sure—-it would be a heck of a lot easier if our school/district could provide devices to our kids. But they cant—-the budget is frightening. That means weve got to move forward with the one option we really do have—-lots of kids with wireless devices and a pre-existing wireless network.

  7. Kimberly

    We have a separate guest wifi that we use for our Ipads and outside devices. It works ok.

  8. Bill Ferriter

    I think you just made my point, Kerry!
    I mean, sure, everything that you describe—calling the librarian to schedule a time for my kids to research, giving kids access to my devices, assigning students to groups to use the two desktops I have in my class, organizing a optometrist to come in as a guest speaker—is all possible.
    But its all also a giant pain in the be-heiny.
    And its also completely unnecessary because we have an existing wireless network. If my students were allowed to bring their own devices and connect—something that current policies dont allow for—theyd be able to get online and find answers to their questions instantly.
    That instant-ness matters to kids. It reinforces the idea that asking good questions and then finding the answers DOESNT require an act of Congress, a ton of time, or a heaping cheeseload of useless effort just to work around the ridiculous barriers that schools put in the way of learning.
    And that instant-ness matters to teachers, too. We take time to ask wonder questions in class EVERY day. Its just not reasonable to expect teachers to arrange library time, find guest speakers, and divide kids into groups to rotate through the two computer workstations every day. Heck, its not even possible to pull that off given that my class periods are 58 minutes long.
    But more importantly, its not even necessary to expect teachers to pull that kind of planning off.
    All we need to do is to create policies that allow kids to bring their own wireless devices to school and connect them to wireless networks.
    What you are asking me to do is to work within a broken system—to find ways to make it happen regardless of the circumstances.
    What Im asking is that we fix the system.
    Does this make sense?
    Bill

  9. KerryJ

    Hi Bill
    I’m in adult education, so my answer may be a bit facile, but just curious.
    You have:
    34 kids with questions about eyes
    1 latptop
    2 desktops
    1 school library
    1 mobile phone (am assuming they’re not allowed to bring theirs, if not, you have more)
    You won’t be able to solve the problems with wireless access and hardware overnight — so, could you have turned it into a learning exercise around creative problem solving and social networking?
    Would you or any of the kids had a mother, father, uncle, cousin, family friend, sibling who is an optometrist?
    Would any have a sibling, mother, father, cousin, aunt, uncle at home or at university who’d have access to a computer?
    Why not have divvied them up into teams around the questions and had 2 teams use the desktops, 1 use your laptop (with you looking over their shoulders), then you could try to call the library to see if the librarian would have the time to put together some books or journals that might have relevant info and then make those cell phone calls to the optometrist you identify as being part of your network and then let kiddos call to the family member who might be able to look it up?
    Technology is really important, but so is learning to use social networks and learning to find creative solutions to problems and finding credible sources of information.
    I get your pain as far as infrastructure goes though and think your passion and commitment to finding answers is wonderful.
    Good luck and thank you for sharing your journey.
    KerryJ

  10. Bizmark

    @Bill –
    Trust me, I’m well familiar with teachers being on the hook for poor student performance. I work in a low income and under performing district in St. Louis. I realize my previous post probably made me sound like “typical IT”, but I’m far from it. I’m all about finding middle ground when it comes to helping teachers do their job.
    Let me just ask this as I’m curious — what type of technical support exists IN the school? How many computers, labs and carts are there? What’s exactly stopping the school, or maybe the district, from providing more accessible computers?

  11. Dean Shareski

    The easy solution here Bill is to stop wondering. That would make IT lives and in many ways your life easier. And that’s really what it’s all about right?
    😉

  12. nancy

    I’m a district director for libraries and technology in a district with a closed network, no wireless, and limited funds to replace really old equipment, let alone try to add new. So I feel your pain… yet: the librarian in me wonders if you have a library and could take your kids there when the wonder questions start. The librarian/media specialist can use that as an opportunity to teach research skills, evaluation of sources (Google Images is great, it’s not a citable resource), share excellent resources they already know about. You could get your answers and there might be more computers there.
    I am all about getting information at the point of need, in or outside the classroom, library, school, and so forth… But to shelter in place with a lack of info, when you might have an entire library down the hall seems like a disservice.
    Strong information skills are key for 21st century learning. It’s not always going to be at your fingertips.

  13. Kerry

    I wonder how any of us managed to learn anything before computers were invented (or at least as common place as they are now)?

  14. Karen

    Cary,
    Your link is not working – it says it cannot find it – can you check this and send the correct one. Thanks.

  15. S_bearden

    Bill, I really feel for you. I wish you were at my school! I am a private Pre-K school technology director and we have wireless networks on both our campuses. We started a BYOT program this year in grades 10-12 and are seriously discussing the possibility of expanding it all the way down to grade 6 next year. We run both our public and private (secured network) wireless networks through a web filter. Teachers decide if they want to allow BYOT use during class time.
    Yes, there are definite infrastructure costs associated with BYOT but my school believes that the learning opportunities are worth it. As for security, we have students and parents sign an AUP explaining that our wireless networks are filtered but that 3G access is not, and we are not responsible for content accessed via 3G. If students accesses inappropriate content via 3G it is a discipline issue, not an IT issue.

  16. Cary Harrod

    Bill,
    We just launched a BYOL project with our 7th graders and I will tell you it was absolutely the best thing we have ever done for developing authentic learning in the 22 years I’ve spent in this district. You can find out more at http://fhsdppl.wetpaint.com.
    Finally, finally we have removed the barrier of no access…now we can get to the learning.

  17. Bill Ferriter

    Bizmark wrote:
    The one thing I would urge you to remember is that when things dont
    work, or if a security breach were to happen, that neither the teacher
    or student will be held accountable. Itll be IT that gets hung out to dry.
    Yeah, but heres the thing, Bizmark: When students dont perform well academically, its the teachers that get hung out to dry.
    Now, I get that allowing kids to connect to any schools wireless network wont be easy—-but neither is trying to keep a group of kids motivated and curious when they cant even find answers to the questions that they care about.
    Lets find a middle ground here: Would it be possible for an IT staffer to look at the demands that a network could handle and then make a recommendation about the number of student-owned wireless devices that could be connected at any one time in any one school?
    Then, schools could decide how they want to divvy those student logins up?
    I dont need every kid connected with their own device—and Ill work within whatever framework IT staffers recommend.
    But to have a wireless network and then not allow any student devices to connect to it seems to be an extreme solution that hurts education.
    Any thoughts?
    Bill

  18. PreethaRam

    Good wonderings Bill. A critical skill that our kids will need, is to learn is how to search for non-Google-able questions. Like your 6th grader’s questions. How can you teach them the right way and the wrong way to search for information if you don’t have the laptops to pull out and show them? How do you teach them what search results are meaningful, how you construct meaning from huge amounts of information, and how to use bits of information to create the whole picture.
    I am heartened to see a couple of schools are going wireless and have opened up access to technology.

  19. David Wees

    We have wireless in our school with student owned devices, and once we got the network stable, we really haven’t had any issues since.
    That aside, Bill, the solution is simple.
    You have to know the answer to every question that the students could possibly imagine. After all, you are the sole source of information in their lives! #sarcasm

  20. Jswiatek

    Our school board has made the decision to go wall to wall wireless in our 3 high schools. Students will be able to bring in their own laptops and connect to the network. Although some teachers will freak out over this (they will cite classroom management issues)I’m excited about the possibilities.

  21. Clix

    Bill, wouldn’t it have been possible for you to take your laptop online and have the students suggest websites or search terms? Even if you don’t have a digital projector, you can have the students gather around and look over your shoulder as you type.

  22. Sean

    Isn’t it funny….. I am a principal in a school in Alberta. We have wireless access throughout our school division and just this year we were able to open our system to student owned devices. They log onto the guest network and the same filters that is used for our networked logins applies. Our students have filtered access using any device they want.
    Our trouble is ensuring that teachers are designing meaningful learning integrating technology into daily learning.

  23. Bizmark

    As someone who works in School IT, I just look at this scenario and see potential concerns with security, available bandwidth and the functionality of the wireless system crumbling under a mass number of devices all trying to access the network.
    People, even IT, often tends to think that wireless is like some magical turnkey solution. Well, it’s simply not.
    The one thing I would urge you to remember is that when things don’t work, or if a security breach were to happen, that neither the teacher or student will be held accountable. It’ll be IT that gets hung out to dry. And if your district is as large as it is, I can’t see how they cannot get by with some rather strict policies.

  24. Bill Ferriter

    Thanks for stopping by, Peter….
    And I guess I envy your freedom to imagine.
    And depending on your University, I might even envy your reality! I know that the local universities here have far more access—-to devices and networks—than most public schools do.
    I wonder how that influences future teachers. Is it good for them to be surrounded by visions of what could be, or is that somehow deceiving?
    The sad truth is there just isnt a ton of technology in the regular public school classroom—-and thats a truism that hasnt been resolved in nearly a decade. Were falling so far behind, Im not sure well ever catch up.
    Bill

  25. Bill Ferriter

    Crazy, isnt it Darcy?
    I mean, I dont hold our lack of technology resources against my building leaders. I dont even hold it against our district leaders. Theyre just working with the budgets that theyre given by the funding authorities that be—-and those budgets are bare-bones on a good day.
    But I would like to see district leaders working to allow students to bring their own devices to school and connect them to our wireless network. I get that it will be a massive pain in the rear. Im sure that giving students access while keeping confidential records confidential is a pretty darn complicated task.
    In the end, though, its a complicated task that needs to get tackled. I mean, many of my kids have devices already.
    We just need to find a way to give them access to the one resource we have already—-a wireless network.
    I can always hope, I guess.
    Bill

  26. Peter Price

    Well said, Bill. As a college educator of future teachers, I have the luxury of dreaming and imagining how classrooms will be designed and equipped to facilitate learning by the tine my students graduate. Your article brings these dreams back into reality.
    Let’s hope those with the power to make changes read your post and others like it and decide to fund the exploring of knowledge and the wondering you describe so well.

  27. Darcy1968

    Bill, my daughter is in second class and they have no access this year to a device/internet except for an hour computer lesson a week. Her sister will join her at school next year.
    This has to change but we have just had a federal budget which strips funding from programs that will allow this to happen.

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