np (that I can remember), 1997
Please note the date of this article. Costs in the examples have changed, even in our Minnesota backwaters. But the principles haven’t. - Doug
With great fondness I sat down at my trusty little Macintosh Classic I donated to my wife’s 5th grade classroom the other day. Big mistake. Turn it on - wait. Open the word processor - wait forever. Type a line - wait for the text to catch up. No color. No Internet connection. Can’t see both margins of my document. Is this the computer I once loved and was sure I would use forever?
While the little machine was not the most powerful of computers on the market even when I bought it in 1990, it was pretty darn spiffy compared to the Apple IIc and the 8086 notebook computers I had been using. It had a mouse, crisp graphics, BIG 20 meg hard drive, full 2 meg of RAM, and a WYSIWYG word processor that allowed me easily change fonts and insert graphics. And the whole bundle, inkjet printer and all cost me less than $2500. A bargain to the guy who once figured he had about $4000 into his Apple IIe!
So what happened? My expectations grew along with the performance of the desktop computers I had been using, of course. While outgrowing my home computer may be a sad story to me personally and I will sop up any condolences you’d like to e-mail to me, the far bigger concern I have is in regard to the expectations of the teachers and students for whom I work. Like me, they have rising expectations of their computers. Unlike me, they are not administrators who can usually find the funds somewhere to upgrade their computers when needed. Plus there are just so darn many teachers and kids! If I need a little more RAM, it’s 180 bucks. When a lab needs those extra chips, its $5400! What to do?
Well, maybe we need to take a lesson from farming. There is an economic and ecological philosophy called “sustainable agriculture.” The folks who practice this method of farming believe that more should not be taken from the land than can be naturally replaced by it each year. By rotating crops, returning the used harvest to the fields (in usually a rather aromatic form), and having reasonable yield expectations, a farmer can leave the next generation a field in as fertile a condition as he found it.
Schools can and should practice “sustainable technology.” This practice involves:
1) Not purchasing more technology than can be regularly maintained, upgraded and replaced. OK, get out your calculator. Johnson Middle School has 500 students and 20 classrooms. We want a computer in each classroom (20) and a 10:1 student computer ratio in labs and the media center (50). That’s 70 computers in the building. People seem to be unhappy with computers much more than 5 years old. (Now every business manager reading this just shuddered, as did every technology coordinator for exactly the opposite reasons.) If I am going to replace my computers every 5 years, 20% of them need to be purchased new every year. Therefore, Johnson Elementary’s computer budget needs to be (.20 replacement rate X 70 computers X $2000) or $28,000. Not just this year, but every year from now on. And that’s just for computers. Better budget something for software upgrades, maintenance personnel, worn out printers and scanners, and network upgrades, too. What happens when you don’t maintain? You get crappy computers older than the children using them, and teachers who won’t use computers at all.
2) Rotating the technology. Some pretty sharp teachers at one of our high schools discovered this year how to give almost everyone a new computer - for about $50,000. Here’s how it works: the tech ed department buys new machines with the RAM, fast processors, and big hard drives needed to run its CAD software. The “pretty good” machines they had been using go to the business department where they will be used to do some desktop publishing, presentations and office practice stuff. The library gets the hand-me-downs from the business department for research and multimedia use. And finally the oldest machines go from the library to teachers and the English department’s writing lab. And we sell the machines they had been using to marine supply stores to use as boat anchors. Pretty smart, huh? The elementary schools use a modified version of this, but it is the classrooms that get the newest computers so the teachers can learn how to use them before they head for the labs.
3) Having reasonable expectations. If each of Johnson Middle School’s classrooms has a computer and there is a 10:1 student to computer ratio in the building, it will need to spend about $56 per student on hardware each and every year. ($28,000 ÷ 500). This is what? - about 1% of an average school’s per pupil budget? Let’s modestly add another 1% for technical support and staff training; and another 1% for software, maintenance fees, Internet fees, and network upkeep. In the best of all possible worlds (which a school is certainly not) that 10:1 computer to student ratio should allow each child about 40 minutes of computer use per day. Time enough to write a story, do some research, practice some skills, or send and receive e-mail. I believe 40 minutes a day is not enough, given the power and importance technology will play in most students’ jobs and lives. But it is a far better ratio than most schools have now.
In a recent poll by Public Agenda, both teachers and the general public rank computer skills more crucial than Shakespeare, history, science, advanced math and even sports! (Only the 3 R’s and good work habits were ranked higher by the public.) Surely, school administrators, state education departments and legislators can get behind sustainable technology in schools with a 3% effort.