“Tech or Die:” A Response

Dangerously Irrelevant, a technology and education blog, posted a strong opinion that we should not just accept that some teachers eschew digital technology because they are either oblivious to it  or choose not to embrace it.

To the post itself, I reply that I agree with the sentiment that digital technology is important to teach.  I have to admit that I did not appreciate the slightly over-the-top tone.   The conversation in the comments is frank and nuanced though – I highly recommend spending a few minutes reading (and joining) it.

For me, a huge problem with using digital technology in the classroom is Plan B.  Specifically, Plan B is extraordinarily difficult.  If my pencil breaks, I can sharpen it or use a different pencil.  If I suddenly can’t get onto the internet, there aren’t usually options; I don’t generally have a spare router in my purse.  I either wing it or use the analog activity that took an additional, unrelated two hours of prep to create “just in case.”  (Note: prep time is often uncompensated.*) When you look at it like that, it’s a major drawback to even starting to use digital technology in the classroom, let alone relying on it.

Support for lessons like the one I taught Monday tends to be quite weak, and that’s problematic.  Teachers don’t have to go find and haul their own textbooks.  They don’t have to change the fluorescent lightbulbs in their classrooms.  But they’re apparently supposed to keep their class moving forward while fixing the networking problem** that’s causing hotmail to think that one person is trying to sign up for six email addresses at the same time.  It seems out of sync with other expectations.

No, teachers should not be allowed to pretend digital technology doesn’t exist.  But education systems and reformers should not pretend that unpredictable SNAFUs don’t happen all the time with digital technology.  Steve Jobs of Apple had major technical difficulties while unveiling iPhone 4 a few months ago (scroll down to 1:44 and 2:05).   Even in a high-powered professional setting, technical difficulties and the efforts to fix them were noted as being “awkward.”  Imagine if Jobs were less savvy, and if he didn’t have a team of experts working with him to fix the problems.  “Awkward” would have become “total and prolonged waste of time” – which, incidentally, is the teacher’s nightmare.

Sadly, teachers don’t usually have a team of experts dedicated to just their classroom.  They and/or their tech support are generally not able to rapidly fix problems.  Rapidly switching to a similar digital alternative is also generally impossible.  In my experience the other choice has been to move to a non-digital activity while the tech problem is resolved or given up on.

Add to that situation the typically outdated equipment and rampant understaffing schools of all kinds face, and we are just not setting up teachers for smooth or successful tech-based lessons.  No wonder so many want to avoid it.  There’s a great potential for a huge mess, we will almost always face the mess without adequate (or sometimes any) help, and we will be held accountable by our students and our managers for the learning that is not happening while the computers unfreeze.

Is this enough reason to just not “do” digital technology in the classroom?  No.  It has a lot to offer, and as I said Wednesday, I think it’s worth the headache.  But we need real, constant, broad support, not just “should.”

* I know that students come first, but one reason we have trouble recruiting exceptionally talented folks to be teachers is that we don’t respect teachers’ time and skill with an adequate paycheck.

**Really, the teacher would probably not have the permissions to fix the networking problem.  The way I see it, (s)he would have two choices:
1) wait for the overworked tech staffer to get to it and go analog in the meantime, or
2) hack into the system to fix it her-/himself, risking termination and imprisonment but keeping the class on task.
OK maybe that’s a little overly-dramatic, but the point is that there is a LOT outside a teacher’s control even when the teacher is a serious computer expert

Proof and Motivation

I believe in being nice to people and in helping out when I can. I believe it’s the right thing to do, and I also believe that it pays off in the end so it’s stupid not to.

My philosophical debate of the day is this: does the “paying off in the end” bit cheapen or confirm the “right thing to do” bit?  Can it be logical and good at the same time?

Proof, by Kodama on Flickr
Proof, by Kodama on Flickr

This came to mind because twice in the past couple of weeks, one of my advanced students, C, asked for help sending videos of her little daughter out to family in Mexico, and also with getting her hand-me-down laptop to join the library’s wireless network.

To me, these are life skills, most especially when your family lives far away.  Limited access is a problem, and when I had the chance to address it for even one person, I couldn’t not.  So I had her come in during the afternoon lull and spent maybe an hour and a half total helping her out.

Then Wednesday evening, I had an unprecedented number of new students enrolling, including four men who spoke Spanish but little English. C was there because one of those men was her brother – she brought him in. She helped him understand the application and the mechanics of his test, and when he was good to go, C also helped me with the three other Spanish-speaking students.

So on one hand, what goes around comes around, and it’s amazing to be part of a cycle of such positivity.

On the other hand, I have this very concrete proof that going the extra mile for students yields more students and more helpers.  Does this proof suck any “good” there might have been out of my desire to help my students?

I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t know where my motivation to serve my students ends and my motivation to serve myself begins.

At least they’re aligned?

Blog Action Day: Poverty

Blog Action Day seemed like as good a way as any to get back into blogging after my random, unexplained hiatus.

The idea is for everyone to discuss poverty to raise awareness and cause some action.

I’ve skimmed a couple of other posts in my RSS feed, and they were very “us” and “them.”  Given the resources you need to be involved with blogging and other interactive social media, I’d be very surprised if the majority of voices raised today were saying “we.”  Still, discussion and awareness are good things.  Let’s just be aware of whose voices we’re hearing and not hearing.

So here are my rhetorical questions:

  • Are you living in poverty?  I’m not asking if you can afford that motor boat you’ve always wanted.  I’m asking about poverty.
  • Do you know anybody living in poverty?  I’m not asking if you pass them on the street.  I’m asking if you know them.

My guess is that most (not all) answers to both of those questions are “no.”

I think there’s a divide.  I think it’s sad and dangerous.  I think a lot of people agree with me.  I’m not going to get into it here because it’s not my main point.

My main point is that the divide doesn’t have to be there.  Difference in resources doesn’t have to translate to parallel lives lived entirely separately.

  • What are you doing to build relationships across the poverty line?
  • What are you teaching your children about poverty, equality, and humanity?

Poverty in itself is unfair and tragic and theoretically avoidable.  We should end it.  But until that day comes, let’s not sit back and say “those people.” One post I skimmed suggested that you give something to someone who lives in poverty.  Yes, resources are important, but in my opinion, that’s the “those people” mentality talking.  How can you share instead of just giving?  How can you make a friend instead of just talking?  How can you cry with someone instead of just for them?

I guess what I’m saying is that money isn’t good enough.  Lip service isn’t good enough.  Education isn’t good enough.  Genuine pity isn’t good enough.  Intellectual outrage isn’t good enough.  Without the deep and widespread understanding that each person is a person, anti-poverty efforts will just skim the service.

It’s not something anything but your own experiences with people can teach you.  What are you going to do about it?

Solution: Posterous

Thanks so much to Amy Sample Ward for blogging about Posterous!  Just email them content and they post it for you.  Woah.

This is exactly the kind of tool I should have used back when I started a blog without home internet.  There’s no process for signing up, you don’t have to do any account managing or appearance adjusting if you don’t want to, and they embed your media for you.  Yes, this helps people who aren’t familiar with much web technology beyond email.  It also reduces time commitment for anybody, no matter how tech-savvy.

It was a piece of excellent timing, because we were just brainstorming at work about some low-cost, low-time-investment ways to improve (specifically Web 2.0-ize) our website as we bide our time till a major overhaul.  Posterous would be a great way to post our informational emails as a blog; this would make them accessible to people who don’t want more email and also put them in a format that welcomes comments and discussion.  The best thing about this is we can just add post@posterous.com to our mailing list and it will post automatically.  Very exciting for a bunch of efficient nonprofiters!

I tested out my own just now.  The chief lessons I learned are that it is instant, the default style is clean white with orange links, you can BCC them, and that you should send photos as attachments rather than as links.   Things to explore: getting a better URL, changing the title, adjusting the look.

What do you think?  Who is this useful for?

Personal Internet = Successful Usage

This blog started out as an experiment in limited internet access, and I’d like to quickly revisit that theme by comparing it to my constant access now.

I spent a while working to customize my internet experience through del.icio.us bookmarking, assembling an RSS feed, starting my own personal blog, starting a Flickr account, and keeping up more regularly with twitter, Facebook, technorati, etc.  Out of that social media category, I’d say the RSS and blog had the most impact in making the web more comfortable and rewarding to visit.

I feel significantly more connected with everything since I took the time to personalize my browser.  I consolidated my switch-hitting between Safari and Firefox (Firefox won).  Then I sat down and made my bookmarks toolbar sensible and usable, and cleared out old bookmarks I hadn’t used in ages.  I’ve started with some add-ons, most notably Google Notebook.  I no longer feel like I’m just visiting the internet; I’m home.

Based on my own experiences, I don’t see how people popping into the library to use the internet for an hour, or even people who have a laptop but no home internet access, can have the same rich experience that I’m having with my full set up.  So much time goes into organizing and arranging things to be just right, not only for my enjoyment but to help me keep up with everything.  It gives me an advantage in terms of research (school, career, and beyond) and in terms of social media presence over people without my modest but crucial resources.

How are web developers working to enable custom internet experiences for people who don’t have their own personal computers?  How are those free or cheap wi-fi projects I keep hearing about going (I think there’s one in Minneapolis…)?  When are some $200 laptops going to hit the American market, and would they be usable enough to bridge the digital divide within our country?  And what can one person do to share her technological advantages?


My own privilege is significantly more abundant than that of so many others, and I felt a barrier between me and engaging in online Web 2.0 communities. 

One of my bigger conundrums swirls around the following thought: as nonprofits, we are looking to engage people across the privilege spectrum. 

  • How can we use the Web to do this? 
  • How can we change the Web to do this better? 
  • How can we make sure that people poor in internet privilege (not just skills) don’t get poorer? 
  • How can people lacking technology resources partake?  
  • Are the “oh, just go to the library” strategies feasible?  Can they fully partake? 
  • What specifically does fully partaking entail, and how does it impact people if they cannot? 

I guess my hope is that with this blog, I can at very least work up some strategies and solutions from my own experiences, and at most work up some conversation, collaboration, and change.

Personal is Professional

Nonprofits, and all organizations for that matter, need to effectively use interactive Web technology for any number of reasons (seems like a different post and lots of other people’s blogs), but if we’re not aware of it and fluent in its flavor and culture, our usage will be inefficient and ineffective.  In order to be fluent for work purposes, we need to be fluent for all purposes.

I’m not saying this to try to justify spending work time on a personal blog.  This is not work time, though I’m at my desk at the moment.  Believe me, I’d rather be on my couch.  I just don’t see a way to be good at what I do without reading blogs and blogging right back.  It’s personal-time professional development that I’m happy to take on.

I have the ability to spend personal time on what I understand to be professional development.  I have my own personal resources, including a laptop, to deal with my much-less-than-tragic internet semi-isolation.  Not everyone can do this, and not everyone thinks they should.  What can we in nonprofits do about that?  Should we do anything?


How badly does slow response speed come off to people more plugged in than I?  Is 21 hours in fact an eternity?  Are my limitations only barriers in my own head and insignificant out there in the Internet community?  Are they in other would-be Internet participants’ heads, stopping them from trying?

Whine Whine Whine

Really, whining is not what I’m trying to do.  My purpose is to highlight what unequal access means for people through my own, “not exactly roughing it” experiences.

One of my frustrations has been that the internet is self-propagating.  To find networking answers, for example, I found that what I needed was an internet connection.  <ironic sigh>  What I mean to say is, the poor get poorer.  Ancient phenomenon, modern medium.

The other thing is, typical solutions (“Eh, just go to the library”) don’t work.  It’s almost never about just popping onto a computer for an hour to take care of a couple of things.  It’s much broader than that.  To stay current with what’s happening on the internet, you (or at least I) need to be on it.  Yes, part of staying current does include the latest drunk pictures my friends from high school posted on Facebook.  But part of it is reading blogs like Beth Kanter’s (and following the recommended links), or establishing myself in the nonprofit Twitterpack, or just poking around and seeing what I find.  Popping over to the library once a week doesn’t really cut it.

The nature of the beast is that without home internet access, you’re cut off from not only important “putter time,” but also from the best resources about the resource.


What the hey?

My home internet went down a few months ago.  My Internet provider says it’s a problem with my computer.  My computer service people say it’s a problem with my Internet provider.  I find myself stuck in the middle with no home internet access.

Now, cut to my professional life: I work for a nonprofit and am the de-facto tech guru of my group within the organization.  Much of what we expect of the people we work with is online, whether it’s learning English, filling out their timesheets, or applying to be part of our programs.  We always tell people that if they don’t have Internet at home, they should just go to the library and get access there, or just use the Internet at work, or just go to a coffee shop.  No problem. 

Well, problem.  Many problems.  And that is what and how I am challenging myself to blog.