Looking Back In Wonder (That We Achieved Anything At All)

I was struck by Lisa Nielsen's article, There is Such a Thing as a Free Lunch: 8 Free and Easy Ways to Begin Educating Innovatively, because just a couple of days ago I was ruminating on how things used to be.

And feeling glad that they're not like that any more.

Lisa says "The best tools in life are free…at least for educators. There is such a thing a free lunch.”. And whilst I disagree with the free lunch part, as I've explained in my 'non-review' of Chris Anderson's latest book, Free, I most certainly agree with the statement that there are tons of tools available which are not only fantastic, but free of charge.

Now, I am absolutely not one for nostalgia: I believe that, for the most part, the best thing about the past is that it's past. And technology is a case in point. It's only 12 years since I was in the classroom, and in that time the landscape has changed unrecognisably. But if you weren't teaching then, you might not realise it: people never truly know what life was like before the technology they use was ubiquitous, a point made in a recent article I wrote based on a cartoon.

To get a feel for how, I'd like to show you what it was like not by discussing changes in technology or economics (although those things are implied) but by sharing with you what my main two concerns were just over a decade ago, as far as resourcing was concerned. The overarching theme here is quite simple: how to make technology accessible to my students.

One of the things I spent many hours doing was looking for a low-cost alternative to Microsoft Office. I have nothing against Microsoft Office. Indeed, of all the tools I've used, I still think Word and Excel are the best. But that was part of the problem. There were low-cost alternatives to Word and Excel, but the features they cut down on were either essential in curriculum terms, or simply made life difficult, or more difficult than it needed to be.

For example, if you can't remember how a function works in Excel, as you type it in some bubble text appears showing you the syntax. If you still can't figure it out, just press Shift-F3, and a dialog box appears which 'talks' you through it. I don't know about now, but at the time other spreadsheets, especially the cut-price ones, didn't have that.

My philosophy is: why make the tools themselves hard to use, when what you really want the kids to do is use them to solve problems? You know, if I want to measure up my room for a new carpet, I don't want to have to spend a day figuring out how the tape measure works.

Another concern was to increase the amount of kit we had and, crucially, to put it into the students' hands. Thus it was that I found myself spending hours and hours looking through used or discontinued laptops, preferably with adequate software preinstalled.

Unfortunately, even if the software was OK (rarely), the cost of even the cheapest usable laptop was such that, if I was really lucky, I might be able to obtain three or four of them.

I once spent a day driving down to a company in Kent that was getting rid of a whole load of computers, loading them into my car, driving back up, and unloading them, only to discover that they were more or less useless to me. It wasn't a complete waste of time, because the design and technology department took them off my hands, and used them for running some basic word processing and computer aided design programs. But even so....

To summarise, 12 years ago both software and hardware were expensive, and one result of this was that ICT (Technology) Co-ordinators spent half their time looking for ways of increasing their resources to a reasonable level without breaking the bank. Of course, that's exactly the situation now, and it probably always will be.

However, my point is this: in this regard, things are infinitely better than they were even just ten years ago. And the reason for saying that is not to indulge in some sort of inverse one-upmanship about how bad things were in the 'old days', but to suggest that perhaps people, like those two old fossils in Lisa's story, who really cannot see that things are nothing like what they were should be getting their retirement plans in order. As Bob Dylan said:

"Your old road is
Rapidly agin'.
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'."

Cross-posted on the ICT in Educationwebsite.