Thursday, October 02, 2014

End of an era

This week marked the final nail in the coffin for Apple computers in School District 57. My school's remaining iMacs, and all other remaining Apple computers in the district will shortly be "spiked" and sent out as scrap.

Back in 2010 the School District's senior management decided that two computer platforms (Mac and PC) were too difficult to support, and they asked trustees to make ours a PC-only district. The proposed move was initially slipped quietly midst a mountain of budget cuts ands school closures, but urges from teachers delayed it for a few weeks -- educational and financial arguments, case studies, and research stalled the decision but did not end up making a difference. The school board went ahead with the "single platform directive" and talked about a plan of some kind that would address the concerns of Mac users who were concerned about software, services, innovation, and diversity in educational technology (e.g. not looking forward to one-size-fits-all). While the plan never came, the remaining Macs were allowed to remain in use, but with no upgrades to the operating system, repairs to hardware, or renewal of software. Four years later, however, the lack of OS upgrades means that some of our schools' mac computers are now vulnerable to viruses such as the BashBug. A quick decision was made this week to pull the remaining Macs off the network in case this threat became real. I guess the thinking was that going 100% PC means we'll never have a virus problem again, right?

Like many other school jurisdictions, we have been using Apple computers in education since the 1970s -- for many that remember their school days from yesteryear, Apple and Macintosh is their main association with computing and information technology classes. As a high school student in the 1980s I remember figuring out how to use the "Finder," programming in BASIC, and playing classic games from Pong to Oregon Trail ("You have died from dysentery").  As a teacher in the 1990s I saw the potential in Macs for an elegant approach to resource design that was not available on a PC -- albeit this meant ClarisWorks on OS9. Others went much further than this and used Macs to experiment with local area networks and school servers -- this was the time when teachers had free rein to make technology decisions. In the 2000s Apple had the go-to Operating Systems and software for creative design, layout & publishing programs, graphic manipulation, movie editing, and sound engineering. I cut my teeth on Macs as a teacher trying to use technology for more than the flashy gimmick or suped-up overhead projector -- I used tech to challenge my students, develop my storytelling ability, and build solid learning resources for myself and colleagues across the district, province, and apparently China (I've received a few emails from teachers at BC Offshore Schools asking to use my Social Studies junk).

During this time I was fortunate to have many opportunities and district support to teach other teachers about digital technology in the classroom and experiment freely with what we called "transformative educational technology." From 1999-2007 (ish) we had strong technology leadership at the district level and an exemplary standard of collaboration between teachers and management on the vision for integrating technology and learning. It was a time of growing "digital confidence" among teachers, and (at no small cost to the district), and we encouraged teachers and their students to immerse in new technology. I can't help but wonder whether the demise of Macs is a reflection of what has been going on with technology more recently. Our district has had a rough go with educational technology over the last 5-7 years, with many budget cutbacks and restrictive policies creating a tricky landscape to navigate for teachers looking to innovate and push the technology envelope in their classrooms. The "cost-cutting" measure of removing Macs from our district is just one of the ways in which this landscape  has changed. Another example is the global introduction of the iPad in 2010, just after the decision to go PC-only. The iPad's range of educational apps and uses by students and teachers grew exponentially during a period where our district was turning down requests for pilot projects and innovation grants related to mobile devices. Although the iPads were (are) PC-compatable, the fact they are made by Apple put them on a do-not-purchase list and we never got to see the impact on learning that these revolutionary tools have had in other educational jurisdictions. The confusion over new technology in general has led to an unofficial ban on all tablet purchases for school -- I'm hoping this is a temporary blinder and that schools wanting to innovate will not have roadblocks set up on their technology plans. In the whole scheme of things, this concern over technology is not that big of a deal -- we often deal with much more profound problems in the classroom than whether we get a say in the computers we use. Our district does a a good job at tackling some of these other problems, e.g. we have a lot of time and expertise invested in our response to poverty and at-risk students. Technology has been allowed to slip down the priority list, though, and acknowledging that it really is an end of an era might be the first step in figuring out what comes next. The locus of new technology paradigms will not come from district plans or bizarre policies that restrict purchases, it will come from the interesting work that has been going on for years within small bunkers of creativity that have largely been off the grid or under the radar. The expected financial savings from going "single platform" were not realized by getting rid of Macs, they were found by reducing tech budgets at every school and lowering the expectations for what we want to get out of educational technology. Maybe we are at the end of a chilly climate for the support of innovative.  Seriously, we have regressed 10 years. I suppose it was found that to be too complicated and expensive to actually chase new trends in edtech, so we just stopped trying at the district level.  Classroom by classroom, in small cells and pockets of "what if," we keep trying.

Long story short, I have built my teaching practice (the digital part, anyways) around Mac stuff, and it is sad to see the district support finally dry up. Like others, I have and will continue to buy my own (Apple) technology to supplement the "vanilla PC" offerings from the underfunded school district. Apparently this is part of the plan -- students and staff have been encouraged to "BYOD" (Bring Your Own Device). This reflects the reality that each person prefers something different and most already owns the technology they prefer to use. It is also another example of how students, parents, and teachers are subsidizing public education in BC.

Mobile devices (phones, media tablets) are becoming ubiquitous in schools and have helped fill the gaps left by shrinking tech budgets and the extirpation of Macs. We used to beg for a few digital cameras and video recorders, and now most kids have both in their pockets, not to mention an instant connection to the interwebs. Computer labs (Mac or PC) are becoming unnecessary for the majority of tasks we ask our students to complete. I suppose it is not fair to complain too much -- the opportunities for seemless integration of technology have never been better. I do still complain that the decision to remove Macs was made with shaky financial data that was challenged by multiple groups of educators. One of the arguments made was that a "mostly Mac" school (mine, in fact), produced more requests for tech support than any other. When we examined the actual tech request log data, we found that the PCs in the building generated twice as many tech support requests than the Macs. Another secondary school produced a cost-benefit analysis that showed the Macs cost less over time (hardware lasted longer) and delivered more educational value (e.g. price of software) than PCs with similar set-ups and functions. Ahh, bygones.... these arguments and the research was ignored.

I guess if I have to complain it would be about how we educate ourselves about these opportunities and how we've placed barriers on innovation. In 2014, this is no longer a platform problem. These days, there are only a few differences in the range of educational potential between Macs and PCs -- in fact most teachers need only basic office and web-based software, an internet browser, and access to a printer. And while there are a few really cool things that work better on a Mac, in the main it is only "high-end users" that get bummed out at the loss of Macs in schools. Many more, though, are miffed that the district will not really answer the question about why PC-compatable iPads have been banned. As we hear more about how "21st Century Learning" will be empowered by technology, we continue to hope that the creativity and energy among educators and students for this work will be matched by an equally supportive vision at the district and provincial level.

The loss of Macs is a good time to reflect on the fact that many teachers and students have reached a saturation point with technology and look for more tactile and embodied ways to stir learning. The digital overload of the last 15 years (not to mention the money it costs to keep up with trends) has led to burnout and a rejection of tech-for-tech's sake among many educators. I'm seeing a lot more emphasis on mind-body connection, critical thinking, outdoor education, and "made" stuff in classrooms -- a deliberate attempt to unplug, regain all of our senses, and practice skills that foster self-reliance instead of media dependency.

Another issue exists with our final good-bye to Macs. Our school district currently has no strategy for repurposing surplused equipment. This means that discarded books, computers, and other items are sent out for scrap or recycling rather than reused, sold, or donated. In the last four years too much equipment has been trashed that should have had a second life. We have had many offers by volunteers to wipe & restore computers and donate them to needy people, but these offers have been rebuked. At my school, a brand new lab of thirty aluminum alloy 21" iMacs were purchased in 2010. These will now be "spiked" (so they can't be used or mined for information) and discarded as a waste product. When our school is tight for funds and facing program and service cuts (like everywhere in BC), it is truly nasty to be dumping $35,000 worth of computers that have a lot of life left in them.

Alas... the past is not always an indicator of the future; maybe something new is around the corner that will make all hardware and software conversations seem antiquated. For now, I'll take what I can from the past. Here's to almost 40 years of Apples in schools, and to the great teaching and learning that I've had in the last 18 years with some really gorgeous technology and wonderfully curious students. I'm thankful for a very cool job and the freedom to experiment with curriculum, teaching strategies, and even sometimes with the technology.

Final thoughts from Apple: 30 Years of Mac Ads