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Falling water, crashing windows
making computers more school friendly

Ubiquity, Volume 2003 Issue July, July 1 - July 31, 2003 | BY Mary Burns 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

Classroom teachers should not have to put up with the architectural equivalent of leaky roofs.

Falling Water, Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural masterpiece, is considered the "best all time work of an American architect." Yet the famed residence is so plagued by leaks that it is structurally damaged and, consequently, uninhabitable. Wright's roofs were known for their leaks. When queried once about this, the notoriously irascible Wright reportedly snapped, "That's how you know it's a roof!"

I'm not an architect, though I appreciate architecture. Yet I wonder how a building that is so structurally compromised as to be uninhabitable can be lauded as one of the greatest works of American architecture. Is it naivety to think that the function of the building should be as good as its form? Is it heresy to assume that a great architect like Wright should be able to create a building that doesn't leak?

Design wise, Falling Water is lovely and serves as a monument to Wright's creative genius. That said, I'd venture to say that most of us, not as recondite as an architectural master, would gladly swap some of the filigree and innovativeness of Falling Water (perhaps the screw heads aligned to match the horizontal plane of the houses) for a bit more functionality -- like a roof that doesn't leak. So too perhaps with another type of architecture with which we teachers have more frequent contact -- the personal computer.

Like the handiwork of a superstar architect, the PC is regarded as a creative, brilliant, idiosyncratic, even temperamental tour de force. Certainly the personal computer inspires awe and admiration in the way it can simplify and yet broaden our daily activities. Yet the work of innovation that is the personal computer comes with some serious functional shortcomings -- an unstable operating system and too many features that often work at cross purposes, adding more complexity to a task. Though these shortcomings do not make the computer unusable (à la Falling Water), they do make computer use difficult and somewhat daunting for many teachers who already fear and resist technology. For these teachers Windows "crashes" and other assorted computer difficulties merely reinforce their refusal to use computers for instructional purposes.

"Technical problems," the all too common euphemistic complaint, is one of the greatest impediments for all teachers -- not just those innovators and early adopters -- in terms of integrating computers more fully into instruction. Operating systems crash and valuable data are lost; software and operating systems become all too frequently and conveniently obsolescent and need to be "upgraded," causing headaches for the user. An excess of "features" makes even the simplest tasks maddeningly complex. (Should it really be so hard to make a chart in PowerPoint or align text in a bulleted list?) But those of us in education, particularly K-12 education, have been conditioned to overlook the impaired functionality, and told instead that yes, computers improve learning and wow! look at all those "gee whiz" features (Why should I care about numbering a list consecutively from 1-10 in Word, when I can animate text instead?). We all know the joke about the functionality of our cars if they were powered by Windows (having to reboot every 20 minutes on the highway), but such jokes adumbrate an important limitation of computers. Impaired functionality has serious instructional implications. With increasing and myriad tasks demanded of teachers, why should we bother with computers when students can work more easily on paper, without Byzantine grouping structures to ensure equity, and without "segment violation" errors?

Technical support personnel serve as a sort of priesthood in service of the "computer as masterpiece" canon. Though I appreciate the difficulties tech support personnel face, their job as it is sanctioned in the school districts in which I've worked, is to serve the machine, not the teacher -- basically protecting the integrity of the computer from the rest of us Philistines, who to many tech support folks, are just too stupid to appreciate and understand the computer in all its creative complexity. The result? In the schools in which I have worked, teachers cannot download files, save work to their diskettes, be confident that a file they created on the desktop will be there in the morning, or have students conduct Internet research on such topics as "breast cancer." With such impediments, why even bother using computers?

Does the complexity and instability of computers beg the question of why we need to devote so much time and effort to addressing and redressing their shortcomings? Do schools really need Windows? Do teachers want or need all the extraneous and often dysfunctional features of Microsoft software? I believe that the answer to all of these questions is no.

Most of what I see in terms of teachers' overall computer needs involves simple word processing, some spreadsheet use, PowerPoint presentations, and some Internet searching. Microsoft Office, a business application, is just far too powerful, and therefore inappropriate, for the needs of many classrooms. But the Microsoft monopoly (It is indeed a monopoly. Almost all PCs come with Windows and Office software and there are few options for anything else.) forces on schools software that ill serves instruction and that demands an army of technical support people to fix its problems, convincing us in the process that the failure somehow rests with us, the user -- not with the creator of the product. Worse, like leaking roofs, we are indoctrinated in the belief that impaired functionality is somehow a necessary trade-off for "genius."

A good deal of what teachers want to do also involves some sort of graphics -- multimedia presentations, image manipulation, in some instances, video creation -- tasks more natural to the Apple operating system and Mac processor than to that of Windows and the PC processor. Yet in large measure schools are jettisoning their Macs. When I ask about this, I'm told by administrators and instructional technology departments that PCs are "better" (not defined) or are "what everyone is using." Yet the teachers with whom I've worked, who have used both operating systems, prefer the more intuitive file structure and stable operating systems of the Mac. This "Mac as inferior" gestalt (a great irony since Apple has been in the vanguard of design and functionality, spawning the very first "personal computer") impedes teachers' abilities to choose between two types of computer tools -- the Mac or the PC.

In spite of the instability of computers, those of us in schools accord them all sorts of power and are forced to make numerous concessions when they fail to perform required tasks. I have seen schools lose valuable test data; my own conference presentations have ground to a halt when the network has "gone down" (whatever that really means). Organizations in which I have worked have seen teacher survey data vanish into the ether. And in my present school, where all "books" are housed in the E-library and everything is done in Blackboard, reading, one of the most pleasurable and intellectually intimate of human activities, becomes an agonizing task of squinting and clicking; while learning, the raison d'être of any educational institution, is subordinated to a "system" which cannot handle the volume of use at certain hours of the day. Aren't some things just too important to be left to computers?

There are of course solutions to such difficulties, but they involve a re-conceptualization of the way we think about computers. First, we educators need to reject the canon that computers are magnum opi whose limitations should be rationalized and overlooked. They are tools that should be modified to help teachers do their jobs better and more easily. When they don't, the manufacturer needs to address this deficiency or the school uses a different tool. The technology sector has struggled since 2000 (at least as revealed by my retirement portfolio). Indeed, the only growth in technology appears to be in the K-12 market (as I see phalanxes of new shiny Black Dells, I wonder if this is why in part, Dell has managed to do better than most of it hardware rivals). Thus, schools have tremendous leverage in terms of purchasing power with hardware and software companies. Imagine if school districts formed purchasing consortia across state lines, and told Microsoft that they want an educator's version of Office, immediate, real-time technical support, and by the way, a more stable operating system.

Next, teachers need to be brought into purchasing decisions. Hardware and software companies should have to go directly to the classroom teacher, not just some district purchasing official or the Instructional Technology coordinator, and subject their software, hardware and canned instructional programs to the rigor of teacher scrutiny. If computers and computer programs are not sufficiently transparent and easy to use, then they need to be redesigned to become more teacher-friendly before being foisted on schools.

Finally, the definition and duties of technical support must be broadened to include technical education. The reason that many of us break into cold sweat when tech support comes a calling is because many tech support people seem to invariably blame the user rather than the computer for the present difficulty. Additionally, the exclusive and cryptic cipher of technology jargon is intimidating and incomprehensible to the lay person and excludes us from participating in the computer's rehabilitation. If my tech support person could show me what to do the next time Windows gives me a general default error, rather than speaking in computer "tongues," I might actually make his -- and my -- life a great deal easier by fixing the problem myself. I might even feel more charitable toward my Windows operating system and see it as a help, rather than a hindrance, in terms of instruction.

I'm not a technician, but I appreciate computers. Yet classroom teachers should not have to put up with the architectural equivalent of leaky roofs. Shouldn't the genius of the computer be as much the result of its functionality as well as its features?


Hmmm...not an architect and not a technician, yet you speak like you're an "expert" on both....ever hear of taking what you say with a grain of salt?

— Bill, Tue, 03 May 2016 20:08:09 UTC

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