It was the early nineties. In those days, I worked for an incredibly exciting technology company, one that has since removed the word “computer” from its name. Many of us in the company’s R&D group were passionate about emerging commercialization of what had formerly been called the ARPA Network. Imagine a hyperlinked network of computers enabling anyone, anytime, anywhere to access all of the world’s information! Unfortunately, all of the major vendors still believed that they could somehow own this “online service” opportunity, such as by providing better, proprietary content: America Online, Microsoft/MSN, Compuserve and Apple each had proponents of this belief. That “no one is in charge” of the Internet was incomprehensible. Indeed, when one of our Programs embarked on an experiment where we connected a T1 line to a school, to see what would happen and how it might be used for learning and teaching, we were told by a senior official in K-12 Marketing that it was an ill-advised, boutique project, since schools would never have that sort of bandwidth!
In those days, “using the ‘net” meant learning FTP, Telnet, Usenet, Gopher and such. Most people outside of the computer science community found these applications to be esoteric and inaccessible. However, within R&D we were contributing to sponsorship of a new application being developed at the University of Illinois’ National Center for Supercomputing Applications, called Mosaic. Mosaic enabled non-techies to browse the emerging world wide web — what most people now mean when they say “Internet.” I was charged with organizing a demonstration to try to ensure that our senior decision-makers really understood the significance of this new technology and would continue supporting the project. The meeting was to be at 8:00 AM. My team stayed until very late the night before, setting up equipment, testing the Internet connection to the room, bookmarking the URLs for compelling examples, and so on. When we left for the evening, everything was working well and we were ready for the big event.
Alas, at 7:45 AM the next morning, as the various Vice Presidents were wandering in, we discovered, much to our dismay, that the network was down. Fortunately, we had ordered food and beverages; no one would attend a meeting if you did not offer food and beverages. I was getting ready to do a tap dance, while we continued frantically troubleshooting. The computer was fine, the cable was fine, the wall outlet tested good, and there was even working Internet in other rooms in the building. Finally, at 8:05 AM or so, we found it, just in time to capture most of our audience before they left in disgust! In order to plug in the coffee pot, since there were not enough power outlets, the custodian had unplugged the router. After all, it was just a box in a closet that no one seemed to be using, so unplugging it shouldn’t matter.
The reader might be thinking, “Sure, but that was a long time ago. People know better nowadays.” Unfortunately, that would be incorrect. Even recently, we have seen trouble tickets in schools where a teacher actually unplugged the power to the classroom switch in order to plug in their laptop, and then reported that the network was down. And we frequently encounter schools where the copier, fax machine, and server cannot all be operated at the same time without blowing a fuse.
My point is that there remain serious barriers to successful adoption of technology in schools, challenges that might not seem to matter, until you have spent some time in the trenches. Here are my top ten. In homage to David Letterman, I’ll count backwards; but in honor of Kernighan and Ritchie, I’ll end at zero.
#9. Unenlightened Assessment
#7. Financial Disincentives
#6. Proprietary Lock-in
#5. Regulatory Environment
#3. Systemic Resistance to Change
#2. Inadequate Professional Development and Technical Support
#1. Insufficient and Inequitable Access
Most of these barriers require further explanation; I will elaborate in future posts. I also hope to suggest some ways to overcome the challenges. Some barriers, such as those posed by well-intended parents, simultaneously suggest a glimmer of hope. And, no doubt, I have missed a few. Readers are encouraged to share comments, both to remind us of barriers we have overlooked, and to help find ways to tear the barriers down.