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Excerpt from my Final Document, "Using Emergent Design to Implement Computer-Enabled Learning Environments in K-12 Public Schools"( Copyright 2002 by Carol Caldwell-Edmonds, all rights reserved)

 

From Chapter 8: Teachers’ Roles in the Design of Computer-Enabled Learning Environments

Computer Hardware Issues

              Chapter 3 presented Tyack and Cuban’s observation (1995, 122) that “more complex technologies have had much less impact on everyday teaching than the simple, durable, reliable improvements like the chalkboard that enhanced what teachers were already doing.”  After working with teachers in classroom situations with twenty busy learners, I concluded that complexity is not the critical issue.  The key word in the observation is reliable.  Teachers need tools that will respond to repeated use consistently.  Computers cannot yet meet that demand.  Founding director of the MIT Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, admits in his book, Being Digital:

I spend a minimum of three hours a day in front of a computer and have done so for many years, and I still find it very frustrating at times.   Understanding computers is about as easy as understanding a bank statement.  Why do computers (and bank statements) have to be so needlessly complicated?  Why is “being digital” so hard? (1995, 89)

 

Negroponte blames the “user interface,” which was not considered important in early computer development research.  Personal computers evolved from complex machines built to perform calculations for designing and using weapons in the 1940s (Papert 1993, 157).  “User friendly” graphical displays did not appear until Steve Jobs introduced the Macintosh in 1971 (Negroponte 1995, 91).  If a founding director of the MIT Media Lab can be frustrated by computers in the 1990s, then reliability and ease-of-use continue to be problems.  Computers should not require teachers to transform their teaching to suit the demands of the equipment’s limitations.  Technical support for teachers who want to use computer-based tools in their classrooms will enable more teachers to experiment with unfamiliar computer hardware such as the RCX. 

                The RCX used with the Lego robotics kits is a miniature computer and therefore involves hardware issues.  Troubleshooting robots with dead batteries, bad wires, faulty sensors, and an occasional broken motor was one of my primary functions as a technical-support person.  Another example of a hardware-related issue occurred during the “Destination Mars” project.  As I entered the classroom on the day students planned to begin programming, Sandra apologized and explained that we could not use the computers: messages had appeared on the screens informing her and the students that the network would be down (i.e. not usable) until further notice.  She suggested we reschedule, but I explained that the computers were stand-alone machines when disconnected from the network.  I unplugged the network cables, booted the machines, and we started programming.  The procedure took a couple of minutes.

                Carol’s request for individual mentoring was prompted by her experiences with unreliable computer performance.  Her kindergarten and first grade students were discouraged when they were not able to use a program that they had used the day before.  The computer had serious hardware problems, evident in the messages that appeared as I tried to boot it.  Carol sent a service request to the district technicians, but we could go no further at the time.   Knowing which hardware problems to troubleshoot and which to refer to technicians is not apparent from computer error messages.

 

   For computers to be used as reliable learning tools, teachers should be provided with fast-response technical support.  Technical support should be tailored to the needs of the learning environment.  In situations involving troubleshooting problems with the RCX, I involved students so that eventually they could perform debugging strategies on their own.  However, it would not be appropriate to teach students to disconnect computers from the school network.   The network problem occurred only once during the project, and, as Deb explained in an interview session, she would need to use strategies regularly for them to become part of her knowledge base.  For Deb, observing my solution while assisting a group of students with a robot design problem across the room was not a learning experience—it was an example of technical support.  Most of my troubleshooting strategies were based on experience with the robots, information from websites, and over-the-phone technical support from the company that sells the robotics kits, not information from manuals.  Maintaining computer-based tools is an on-going process.  Therefore, in addition to in-class technical support, teachers need opportunities to learn about accessing available support information resources for computer-based technologies.