Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Failures of Technology and Communication in our Schools

My children have taken part in “tolerance” classes at school; every youth must participate. It is about tolerating differences and looking out for others, standing up against bullying. A website was created at the school, where students can upload art, video and blog entries that bring greater awareness to the issues surrounding bullying, in order to build lines of communication and strengthen the community, so that there will be less bullying. Several schools are supposed to be participating in this website project, and it is hoped that students and the greater community will interact with the postings.

This is supposed to be a win-win. It all sounds so good. Technology in the schools! Kids get to use all sorts of electronic devices and be 21st Century Journalists of school culture! Students can use unlimited creativity to promote a positive cultural atmosphere at school!

When my son was taking the class last year, it was a simple matter of uploading his information via the computer in the classroom, the host computer for the site. He was also able to upload blog entries from home. There was no login page, but if he typed a forward slash, followed by “login” after the site URL, a login page would appear.

This year, even though he was no longer in the class, my son wanted to continue his participation in the project. I was pleased that he wanted to engage in something beyond a classroom requirement. He loves to write and has a lot of good ideas. He wants to be a good mentor to younger students.

For some reason, however, he was no longer able to access the login page. Every attempt resulted in a “Forbidden” message. My son approached the teacher of the class on numerous occasions to report his inability to login and upload blog entries, he was seeking help.

The teacher, on a few of these occasions said that the website was working just fine; students in his current class were having no problem putting work up on the site.

My son would return home and attempt to access the login page again, only to receive the “Forbidden” message again.

One time, the teacher’s aide suggested that there was a problem having to do with cookies and history. Maybe if we cleared those, my son would be able to login. Clearing cookies and history did nothing to help the situation. My son emailed the teacher through the school access system, detailing the error message and a continuing inability to access a login page. He met with the teacher the next day; told my son that we must be having problems with our computer.

Discouraged, my son came home and spoke to us about it. He had tried to deal with this himself, to no avail. He had been trying to upload blog entries all year, only to be told that it was a problem with our computer.

I told my son,  all of our equipment is working just fine. If there were anything wrong, you would not have been able to email the teacher.

I opened my laptop, opened my web browser, accessed the website and could see the problem right away: there is no login field on the home page. I typed “login” in the search field, and hit the enter/return key. Search results: Sorry, nothing found.

I sent my son to the library and to a neighbor’s house. Would their display of the home page for this site display a login field? No. Surprise, surprise, NOT!

I then looked more closely at the website. A more thorough investigation revealed that there were very few entries for this year, all entered on the same date in April, and again last February.

What is going on? My guess is that the kids in the class must post at least once, to fulfill a class requirement. They make that posting from inside the classroom. Once the requirement had been fulfilled, that was it; the kids didn’t bother with the website again.

Here was my son, who wanted to be involved in an ongoing project, being stonewalled by the teacher and his aide. This must mean: (1) neither the teacher nor the aide built the website, and don’t know enough to “fix” the problem or offer a solution; (2) the teacher doesn’t care if the website is relevant to the school or wider community; (3) the teacher and the school are unaware that the website is inaccessible from outside the confines of the school; (4) if aware, they don’t want to put any effort into doing anything about it.

For whatever reason, the final result is a sham.

And this, my friends, is the problem I see with the forced entry of technology in the classroom. We tax-paying parents are told that if our children are going to be ready for the latest jobs, they cannot learn in the traditional way—those ways are outmoded. We need fancy new equipment and the kids need to interact with technology to do their schoolwork. The results will be better, test scores will go up, graduation rates will be higher, and our kids will be better prepared for the workplace of tomorrow! The politicians and tech titans have their photo ops, and the vendors make a pile of cash. 

This is, to a great degree, both a sham and a shame. It is all about forcing school districts to make monstrous expenditures on equipment that will be outmoded from one year to the next, forcing some teachers into the role of webmasters who are really incapable of handling such a role, forcing most teachers to spend hours above their paper grading to duplicate grading information in awkwardly developed computer systems. There are no time savers, here; expensive systems push overworked teachers into electronic servitude at a great cost to the local communities. And guess what? The results of all this outpouring of money for tech is showing little in the way of measurable upward trends, at least, according to the many articles appearing in the newspapers on this subject.

2 x 2 = 4, whether the sum is written with pencil on a piece of paper or typed up in a computer document. Solving the problem is faster using a pencil and paper, using far less energy, making a smaller carbon footprint, than turning on a computer. Word processing is a fabulous innovation, but writing by hand also stretches the brain in ways that are now being reported.

The teacher of this class, an otherwise affable person, spent the entire year stonewalling my son, telling him he must be doing something wrong, rather than admit he doesn’t know how to solve the problem.  Or, worse yet, he doesn’t care to help my son be involved in building something on-going and relevant. Whatever the situation or intention, the teacher has actively misled my son.

I sat my boy down and told him what I suspected, and asked him to stop trying to make entries on the site. It is almost the end of the school year, now; don’t waste any more of your time on this. I am sorry the teacher couldn’t have been more forthright with you.

He said, I know. I’m disappointed; I really did want to continue to be involved in the project. I think I’ll start my own blog over the summer.

Good for you, I said (thinking to myself, whew! We didn't lose his interest in making a difference for someone else!)

I sent the following message to the teacher, by way of the awkward, expensive, over-burdensome system the school district purchased:

Dear Mr. H-----,

My son enjoyed making blog entries on the W------- Project site last year, while attending your class. He has tried at various times to post things from home this year (which he had done last year), but has been unable to do so because THERE IS NO LOGIN FEATURE on the web page. Adding "/login" to the URL does not bring up a login page, but instead displays a "Forbidden" message. I know he has asked for assistance, and I know he has been told that the problem is with our equipment or our connection. 

I can tell you this is NOT a problem having to do with any of our 5 different computing devices or our internet connection or cookies or history or anything of the kind. We went to the public library and had no luck on the library computers. We went across the street to a neighbor's house and found that they could not access a login page from their computer. There is NO LOGIN FEATURE or PAGE. Perhaps my son did not explain that clearly enough. I hope it is clear to you, now that I have explained it, what the problem is.

If people are required to login to the website to post, then there must be a LOGIN PAGE or LOGIN FIELD. I put "LOGIN" into the site's search field, and nothing came up.

From the home page, I was going to "contact us" using the provided email address, but when I clicked on the link, I received a message that this address could be a phisher, so I decided to contact you through the school access system instead. 

I would be really surprised if postings of any kind can be made to this website anywhere other than the host machine at L----- Middle School. However, if this is possible, my son would really like to know, so that he can add some blog entries. For example, is there a way to post from WordPress? If so, how would my child do that? 

Meanwhile, I think the webmaster for this site needs to work on it, unless it is only meant to be FORBIDDEN. It is certainly forbidding, at the moment.

I am sure the intent is for the site to be accessible and relevant to a wider audience.

Thank you very much for your attention to this matter.

School ends next week, and my kids are moving on to High School next August.

Meanwhile, we hear about Mr. Facebook’s fabulous gift to local schools. I am sure that means the money will be shuffled momentarily into school district office, only to be spent immediately on the latest computers for the classroom. Great for the vendors' bottom lines. Headlines read: Tech Giant Invests In Kids. Smiling faces peer from photographs.

Is it really all about consumerism? It makes me wonder…