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Cut the Cord
How Networks are Making Schools Stupid

© 2001 Gary S. Stager/ MagazineDistrict Administrator

To be published in the December 2001 issue of

Conventional wisdom suggests that networks, specifically the Internet, make us smarter. Networks provide unparalleled opportunities for collaboration, access to expertise, research and personal publishing. Bits fly through the air and wires with the greatest of ease and become a natural extension of our being. The net is our friend, our meeting place, our trusted advisor, our canvas… except in school.

There is in fact plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that schools lack the capacity to cope with the net or use it in meaningful ways. In schools from Sydney to the South Bronx, complications from network fever have left administrators lightheaded and put many a school on life-support. This isn’t an affliction that may be cured by additional professional development; nor is it the merely the result of a generational shift. The patient (school) will die without access to skilled leadership, expert advice and creativity. Investing unprecedented sums of money on bandwidth, servers and network personnel without common sense and a clear understanding of how networks work will create incurable complications for schools. The installation, implementation and maintenance of educational networks could be the number one challenge facing contemporary school leaders. Some schools are less educationally effective since the installation of a network. Fears related to the democratization of knowledge, power and expe

The following is a partial list of the reasons I believe schools have failed to tap the educational potential of the Internet.

Network ignorance
School leaders have simply too little experience with or understanding of computers and communications technology. It is up to every administrator to aquire and maintain a working knowledge of emerging technologies,

Viewing computers through school-colored glasses
We have forgotten what computers do best. They make things, facilitate communication and support the social construction of knowledge. Computers mediate a conversation between the user and herself. They concretize the abstract. On the other hand, most school applications of the net are curriculum or teacher-centered – designed to transfer information to unsuspecting or unwilling children.

Bad advice
School leaders are placing unprecedented budget and policy authority in the hands of non-educators. The lack of educational wisdom possessed by “network administrators” is only eclipsed by their lack of technical knowledge.

It’s time to face facts. Congress recently expanded high-tech immigration limits for high-tech professional at the urging of business executives who can’t employ competent managers at any price. What sort of employee is your school likely to attract? Once employed, administrators often divorce themselves from the decision-making process and are too eager to accept the recommendations of their network administrator

We speak with forked tongues when our rhetoric celebrates how much kids know about computing, but then we place them in school settings in which they barely use a computer or use the Internet in trivial ways. Kids lucky enough to enjoy school access are often treated as incompetents, potential felons or victims by irrational acceptable-use policies and other draconian measures. We should expect children and their teachers to behave in civil, lawful, appropriate ways. They may rise to the challenge.

Insatiable demand
Let’s say that your teachers use the network in wonderful ways and that your competent tech support staff ensure that technology supports the needs of children and teachers. Well, you may still be in trouble. Schools that do everything right may soon find that they cannot possibly afford the bandwidth demanded by a “net-dependent” school community. You may have to go back to your initial goals for computers in the classroom and leave downloading and surfing to the home computer.

Incompetent network administrators with too much power
Tech tyrants are able to amass kingdoms by putting their needs ahead of teachers and kids. One must remember that the network personnel work for the teachers, not the other way around. School leaders must not abdicate such costly and potentially important decision-making to support personnel.

The great thing about the Internet is that it doesn’t need your school’s participation to be a success. Kids have lots of access outside of school and your school might consider outsourcing your server services, maintenance and access to an outside contractor. This way you can focus on education rather than on running a telecommunications company. Outside ISPs and network services companies can often offer more power at a lower price than if you go it alone.

Let cooler heads prevail
Ignorance of the technology leads to hysteria in some schools. We need to honestly assess the threat of alien abduction, Uzbeki hacking and network security. Many schools behave as if state secrets were stored in their 7th grade computer labs. Take a deep breath, apply a large dose of common sense and remember that information wants to be free. The more we spend locking data, the more it will cost to maintain and the likelier it will be that someone will work to compromise that security. Lunch menus and sport schedules do not need to distributed on a password-protected intranet.

Centralization vs. decentralization
The mainframe is dead, or so I thought. Thin-clients, dumb terminals and PDAs offer less computing power at what might look like an attractive price. However, the cost may include the need for a much larger tech support staff, server farms and “fatter pipes.” Lots of computers with large hard drives, especially student/teacher laptops could actually be a lot cheaper to implement and offer more bang for your buck!

Cost-benefit analysis
One school told me that the reason they were spending close to $1 million per year to increase high-speed access (including salaries) was because kids were waiting too long for an Encarta article to download. Would Encarta be your research tool of source? What is that article worth? Is it worth $100? $1,000? Could you wait a bit longer for the download or buy every kid a copy on CD? How about not spending class-time looking up encyclopedic data?

Classroom research?
I would be concerned if my child entered a classroom and was told by a teacher to open her book and read. Being told, “line up and download a photo of the traditional garb of Togo” or asked to find the answer to a trivia question is an inefficient use of class time. The net is great for getting immediate answers to questions. Do not mistake this for creating optimum learning environments.

The future may not be how it seems
Wireless technologies and peer-to-peer networking look like they could save schools buckets full of money while offering greater benefits. We just need to look for opportunities to think differently and keep up with emerging technology.

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