No wonder teachers are not

by francine Hardaway on November 7, 2002

No wonder teachers are not convinced computers work in education. They are the most user-unfriendly devices on earth, and it�s a minor miracle that anyone struggles through the learning curve. What�s worse, they are marketed, with great hyperbole, as plug and play. In my twenty one years of owning a PC, I have *never* plugged and played anything � not a Mac, not a PC, not a device. This week, as Bill Gates launches the tablet PC, I am almost laughing aloud as I imagine what can go wrong with this user-friendly device. I�m an early adopter of devices, and a power user of every gadget I can get my hands on, but I would never claim any of them are easy.

In the classroom, all that difficulty is magnified, perhaps because there are students present to observe. Every week, I invite a guest speaker to my entrepreneurship class at Arizona School of Health Sciences. This facility is the most exciting classroom I have ever seen: it has electrical outlets at every seat, broadband internet connectivity to the podium and the desktop, a huge projection screen in the front of the class wireless microphones for the speakers, the ability to digitally record activity in the room from at least three different perspectives (teacher, student, monitor) and every conceivable multimedia gizmo you would ever want. There are two members of the medical informatics program in attendance at every class, one an MIT grad and the other a former Apple employee, waiting in the wings to provide tech support.

I thought to myself �all is changed in the classroom. How fortunate I am to be teaching again.�

On one occasion, a distinguished speaker did me a huge favor and drove up from Tucson to present his talk, which was accompanied by about fifty slides. One of the attractions was our promise that he could have a copy of his presentation that he might make use of again. But when we played the tape back, it contained no audio.

Another week, we lost about fifteen minutes trying to make the projector talk to the computer.

In yet another case, we couldn�t get the microphone to work.

Inevitably, something is plugged in wrong when we enter the room, and in order to make every device talk to every other device, we have to shut the whole system down and boot it up again, while I tap dance in front of the room. I bet we lose fifteen minutes of almost every class.

And I don�t mean to pick on ASHS; it�s just a metaphor for every videoconference, Webex, and conference call I ever participate in. They never get started on time, because the equipment, no matter how many times it has been tested, never functions the way it should. When I was at Intel, the overwhelming question was �who�s on the bridge? Who just dropped off? Can we get so-and-so back on the line?� I�ve been in hundreds of meetings where someone has said, �does anyone know how to conference so-and-so in?�

Just this morning, I was part of a presentation at the Arizona Credit Union League. The lead presenter had all our slides on his laptop. His laptop had a track ball instead of a mouse. The audience writhed while we presenters all struggled to move the cursor with the track ball. Half the time the cursor was out of control, randomly careening across the screen, pointing to nothing. I bet we wasted the same fifteen minutes, and we finally gave up trying to demonstrate on the computer.

Now go back in time. Remember when you were in school, and your teacher tried to show an educational film? It was a special occasion. The projector was ceremoniously rolled into the room from the mysterious �AV� source, the film was carefully extracted from the metal can, and the teacher began trying to thread the film through the �automatic� threader. Remember those moments when the projector�s bulb burned through the film? Remember when the film�s leader escaped the threading and flapped wildly as the projector�s reels continued to turn? Remember the volume in the classroom getting louder and louder as the teacher struggled to re-thread the film, change the bulb, discover why there was no sound?

Has there truly been a technology revolution? Have we really increased our productivity through the use of technology? Everyone is computer literate now, so that�s not an excuse. But have we really made learning any quicker, faster, better? In the old days of projectors, we all knew we�d lose fifteen minutes of every class while the teacher fiddled with the film. We should probably come to terms with the fact that we haven�t made up for that loss, and we never will.

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