Aaron and the Computer Cart of Doom (A parable about why tech may not save education after all…)

Early in the morning, as I approached the classroom, I could hear his voice.  Aaron, my school’s technology teacher, was already at school, rolling the laptop computer cart I requested into my room before I even arrived.

A few times each school year, I borrow one of our computer carts (henceforward to be called the COW–Computers on Wheels) to use for instruction. It’s important for students to get some time working with various aspects of technology, and we experiment with forms of publication.  Although my teen students have been raised with technology, it’s stunning how few understand the function of a tab key or how to double space in a Word document, much less how to adjust settings for a standardized format like MLA.  To a layperson, it may seem as though the students would be so excited about using the technology that my teaching week would be light.  Any teacher who’s actually had to work with computers in the classroom knows better:

This week, my 9th grade Honors English class is drafting their Embedded Assessment, which in my class, is akin to a midterm exam.  The current assessment requires them to compose a short story, including the narrative techniques like symbolism, irony, imagery and figurative language that we’ve studied over the past 8 weeks.  I’ve been eagerly anticipating this assignment; the students have known it was coming and have been composing story starters and developing characters as part of classroom activities for weeks.   They were excited to begin drafting, and I was optimistic that it would be a good day. I had written very clear, step by step directions for students to access their Office 365 accounts and posted defined goals for the day.  And then I opened the COW…

Happily, there were 30 computers in the COW, which meant each student would, indeed, have his or her own to work on.  However, whoever had used it prior to me had pulled all the power cords for the computers into one long group and tied them in a knot.  Not a single computer was plugged in.  Fortunately, I was on a prep period, so I quickly began untangling, rewiring, and plugging, hoping against hope that all the computers would have enough charge to survive the class period.  Prep period ended with little time to prep as the bell rang.

Students started streaming in, and a mini lesson on first lines of great short stories began a good, positive class period.  Students presented story plans to me in order to check computers off the cart, and I crossed my fingers.  At first, it went well.  About 10 students had checked off computers; others were working frantically on story plans; all was quiet.  A student lined up to get a computer with a plan in hand…and then…I looked up to see the next student in line holding a laptop and waiting patiently.   Oh no…here it comes.

“Miss, the computer won’t let me log on.”

Another voice from the front row, “Miss, I keep getting this error message.” A chorus of voices began erupting from all the corners of the room.

The line to check out computers grew, and every other kid was holding an open laptop, looking for answers.  And so flew the class period.  About half of the students were able to be productive, accessing their Word online account and typing up the beginning of their first drafts.  The other half stood in line, while I moved from computer to computer, re-booting, re-logging, testing, and finally giving up.  About 20 minutes left in the class period, and I had 12 laptops stacked up on top of the COW that were inoperable.  I had 3 other students who had to return their functional laptops because for some strange reason, they had no cursor on their Word online document and could not type anything.  Of 27 students in the class, only 12 were able to actually access and use their technology during the 60 minutes of working time.  The others went back to our tried and true technology–paper and pencil (which, I note, never fails.)–after losing over half an hour of work time.

A panicked text message from me brought the hero of our story, Aaron, back to my room.  He quickly began re-booting and trying to re-set the clocks, which had become mis-aligned with reality, and this apparently gave the whole laptop the boot from anything wi-fi-able.  Unable to work with them in the classroom, he started scooping them in groups of 4 into his arms and running them back to his office to hardwire connect and do some magic computer voodoo that fixed them all and made them happy.  (I shouldn’t neglect to mention that this same hero spent his day in a room that had suffered a water leak, desperately trying to move monitors away from the wet insulation.)  By the end of the day today, the COW had 30 operable and fixed computers.

What had happened?  The working theory now is that the last group of students to use the COW didn’t log out and shut down the computers as they should.  But that doesn’t really matter beyond the fact that the lack of such simple procedures can throw my well-oiled classroom into a tailspin.  What matters is that this particular drama plays out nearly every time I try to use computers in the classroom, whether with a mobile lab like the COW or in a classroom lab.

The lessons of this parable are many:

  1. The benefits of using technology come with a cost:  merely the set up of technology cost me all the daily prep time I have, when I normally would be using to plan class, contact parents, or review student work.  Instead of using the class time to move around the classroom, helping students actually write, I spent the time moving around making sure that computers were running.  I didn’t actually help with any composition skills today at all.
  2. Teachers not only have to be well versed in their content, but they also have to be able to trouble shoot computer-tech glitches on the fly, and there are ALWAYS computer-tech glitches when a teacher plans a lesson around technology.  The best laid plans mean nothing when those plans depend on technology that doesn’t work for 100% of the students.
  3. The more technology we put in schools, the more people we have to pay to maintain it.  Aaron is the hero of this story, but he was running all day putting out technological fires.  There aren’t enough Aaron’s in my school to keep all the software updated, to keep the labs in good shape, to fix bulbs on Promethean boards, and to save my 12 laptops.  And here’s a fun fact: he’s only paid to be a tech coordinator for 1/2 the day.  In the other half, he has to coordinate the countless standardized tests we proctor all year long: planning, organizing, collecting, distributing, and submitting.  These positions are being cut under current budget concerns, but technology keeps pouring into the school buildings.  With no one to maintain it, it will be useless.
  4. Given the choice, I would not prefer a 1 to 1 situation (where every student has technology).  I anticipate that, if my problem today was merely caused by a faulty shut down procedure, students would consistently be complaining about computer updates, crashes, breaks, and glitches as I try to run a lesson that demands they all have access to a laptop all the time.

My overall reflection here is that the move to technology is the politically popular one, but for those of us having to use it in the classroom, it’s a deal with the devil.  Yes, my students will have instant access to research; we can cut paper use; the state can boast its students have 21st century skills.  It may also, when used appropriately, increase student engagement with material.

But I lost something today too.  I lost the opportunity to work on the content of the class–to help students actually write.  As we move away from textbooks, we take a risk.  Will the technology always work? What happens in the classroom if it doesn’t?  Great teachers will always find a way, but the quality of what they can provide is curtailed when we deny them access to materials that allow the focus to be on the content, not on the bells and whistles of technology.

Today, the history teacher across the hall from my classroom told me his history textbooks list Bill Clinton as the latest president of the United States.  History and science departments across the state of New Mexico have been denied updated textbooks for years, under the assumption that technology will fill the gaps.  This is short sighted.  Technology has its benefits, but technology is a tool…and only a tool.  It is not the content.  If educators spend all their time having to tinker with the tool, we may lose something we don’t want to lose: what we were there to learn in the first place.

1 Comment

  1. I think of the Faustian contract frequently, Christine! The interplay of personal ability with tool use, and teaching students to be both independent of technology as learners, and also able to use it. Thanks for posting!

    Liked by 1 person

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