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Technology is Disposable

August 21, 2008

If I give out two laptops to teachers at the beginning of the year, and then collect them at the end of the year, I am far more willing to give a new laptop to the teacher whose comes back cracked, with software problems, and “well used” than the one that comes back to me in almost the same condition that it walked out my door.

Some 15 years ago I found myself working in a wonderful public school on a reservation in far Northern Wisconsin.

In those days, we were just discovering that a technology coordinator position would be necessary, so my job evolved from being the computer teacher, to being the tech coordinator/specialist/repair, etc. Laptops in schools were still extremely rare – and correspondingly expensive. Old Apple ][ equipment was finally being replaced by networked PCs, and a new dawn was arriving from the old “computer aided instruction” models that pushed skill and drill of math facts and touch typing, and was gradually beginning to connect computers in classrooms for email, and the cornucopia of newly minted web sites on almost any subject.

For the uninitiated, some of the poorest people in our state live on the reservation. For a number of reasons, there is also a very high special education population. Those things combine to create a very high free and reduced hot lunch percentage.

In the 1990s, I was fortunate to be able to get a number of grants for equipment, subsidized very heavily by e-rate and corporate community grants. Some of that grant funding provided our first non-dialup Internet connection: an always-on 64K BRI line to a provider about an hour away, a modem bank on my school router, a small fleet of laptops for staff checkout with modems in them, 33K modems for teachers who had home computers already, and another small fleet of early WebTV units configured to connect to our school for parents and community members to check out from our school library. In short, I learned VERY quickly about who would check out equipment, and how it was used by how it came back to me.

It’s perhaps easy when you have the resources to look at technology as disposable, but not as easy when it is a struggle to afford to get it. I can appreciate that. Two years ago I served on a school board and had to deal with a teacher who dropped her laptop off of the bleachers at a swim meet. The administration wanted to deduct the loss from her paycheck, per the agreement they made her sign when she received it.

This person took her school issued laptop to her child’s swim meet, was working on school business during her personal time, and happened to have an accident. A $600 repair bill was probably insignificant to the connectivity and productivity we got from this person that we were not paying for. The technology is replaceable, and I most want to reward teachers who are more than matching our investment in technology, with their investment of their lives.

So over the years, I’ve developed this attitude – I’ve even shared with those who borrow my equipment: I want to know how you have used it, and I want to see the results. Certainly I don’t encourage teachers to destroy equipment, and I want it to come back working and well cared for. But secretly what I really want, is for you not to want to give it back because you need to use it so much…

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