As American students rush headlong into the information millennium, pleas that they “carpe diem” have steadily given way to demands that they “carpe computers!” Despite the virtually collective cry for technological excellence, our K-12 public schools have had much difficulty acquiring computers, a well-known point often underscored by techno-skeptics and techno-promoters alike.
In the end, it seems, we have expected our budget-constrained public schools to rely extensively on grants or hand-me-downs and, in effect, to pursue world-class technology standards through Salvation Army means.
Less often considered, however, is that our public schools face a fundamental challengemaintaining their fragile technology infrastructurewith new machines and a batch of outdated computers, a shining symbol of corporate largesse. Lacking the financial resources necessary to assemble private-sector style support operations, high-tech schools suffer with decidedly low-tech support.
The official tech team at a public school with 1,500 students commonly consists of one “tech coordinator,” usually a former teacher who has accumulated his or her expertise through informal study. Often balancing the school’s technology concerns with a three- or four-class teaching load, this jack-of-all-tech-trades is in charge of the school’s network, maintains each of the school’s 300 computers, and plays a leading role in determining and enforcing the school’s technology policies.
Screen frozen? Call the tech coordinator. Server crash? Call the tech coordinator. Stuart downloaded dirty pictures! Call the tech coordinator! “Deluged” is a word that aptly describes the typical tech coordinator, “overwhelmed” another.
The tech coordinator does receive help, however, from a small cadre of technologically proficient students. These “tech gods,” as a group at one Silicon Valley school anointed themselves, split their days between attending regular academic courses and completing various tasks requested by the tech coordinator, like troubleshooting a teacher’s malfunctioning printer or refurbishing a computer.
After some seasoning, the “tech gods” become the tech coordinator’s most loyal compatriots in a game of technical triage, quickly tackling emergencies that need immediate attention while delaying more mundane requests. Such a tech-support approach, however, leaves little wonder why, in industry, a 24-hour wait for technological assistance is an eternity, but in the public schools, it is often a miracle.
All told, the school setting’s unique obstacles greatly exacerbate the tech-support challenge. The high number of students using each computer increases the likelihood of breakdowns, missing parts, and compromised software.
Old, faulty, or hastily completed wiring increases the likelihood of slow network connections, while overloaded servers increase the likelihood of crashes. Moreover, the schools’ technology acquisition process ensures the assemblage of a patchwork, threadbare mix of the cutting-edge and the antique, in which Pentium IIIs share space with Apple IIes, new software runs poorly on old hardware, and all components are susceptible to routine glitches and failure.
As the number of computers in a school continues to grow, so do the demands placed on the already overburdened tech-triage team. Without necessary and efficient technical support, however, computers and other high-end technology, shunned by teachers who prefer reliability in the equipment they use when instructing students, eventually serve a school as little more than decorative props.
In the past decade, schools nationwide have acquired steadily increasing numbers of computers and have witnessed a correspondingly drastic decrease in their ratios of students per computer. Given these tech-reform gains, it seems reasonable to request a moratorium on new computer purchasing until enough capable tech-support professionals are hired to maintain the expensive equipment in each school.
Money diverted from new technology purchases could also provide fair compensation in the form of college scholarships for the “tech gods” who are crucial to maintaining school technology infrastructures.
State legislatures, rather than enacting more million-dollar acquisition grants, might instead provide similar sums to ensure tech support. Corporations, rather than extending fast-and-easy computer giveaways (and tax write-offs), might enrich their communities by helping train school staff or completing volunteer maintenance runs on weekends.
Admittedly, following these prescriptions to cure schools’ tech support blues would mean forsaking the high-profile glamour of current technology reform efforts. There would be no shining set of new computers for a superintendent to unveil to her flock, no flashbulbs to illuminate the smiling CEO as he hands a poor child a dented laptop. Yet, without a concerted effort toward improving tech support, schools’ attainment of high-end technological capability, doomed as it is today by low-end maintenance, hardly seems worth the effort.
Craig Peck and Heather Kirkpatrick are doctoral candidates at the Stanford University School of Education; Larry Cuban is a professor of education at SUSE.
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