21st Century Illiteracy

We’re switching webmail systems in our district in a few weeks. We’ve been using OpenXchange for the last few years, but are switching to Squirrelmail because of its simplicity and extendability. We initially set up OpenXchange with the hopes of implementing a district-wide groupware solution, but the reluctance of some people to give up their Franklin planners, along with Microsoft Outlook’s inability to handle IMAP in a sane way, made this impractical for us. Now, as we try to improve the reliability of the system, it makes sense to go with a simpler product.

I showed the new webmail to my tech team yesterday. This isn’t rocket science. The login screen prompts for username and password, which are the same ones they’ve been using for years. Folders are shown on the left, and the message list on the right. You can sort the message list by sender, subject, date, or size. Click on a message to open it. You can reply, forward, or delete messages. Use Compose to create a new message. There’s a form at the bottom for handling attachments. It’s webmail.

The response was a little unexpected. What kind of training are you going to provide? Can you come to our staff meeting and show us how to use it? Who should the teachers contact when they need help?

Let me put this diplomatically….

No, on second thought, let’s not.

We have had Internet access in every classroom in our district since 1995. We have had computers in every elementary classroom since 1996. Every teacher has had an email account since 1997. If you need someone to show you how to use webmail, you are illiterate in this century, and you have no business working with kids in our schools. I can understand that someone going into webmail would be confused that it looks different. I would certainly be concerned if it was not expected. But if they know ahead of time that we’re changing webmail systems, that confusion shouldn’t last more than 30 seconds.

Today I was stopped in the hall by a professional staff member. “The assistant principal would like this form to be placed online so all the teachers can access it when needed.”

dictionary.com definiition of illiterate“Just put it on the staff drive. Everyone has access to that.”

“Do I just use Save As?”

“You could do it that way. But it’s easier to just drag the file over to your T: drive.”

“Do I have to rename it?”

“You should call it something that lets people know what it is so they can find it.”

“Can you come help me?”

“You can do it. You’re just copying the file from one disk to another.”

“Okay, but I might have to call you. Technology is not my thing.”

Not being able to copy a file from one disk to another is like saying subtraction is too hard, because I never understood that advanced math stuff.

“The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” — Alvin Toffler

If you are living and working in this world, you have to take personal responsibility for your learning. If you are writing down step-by-step directions to do things, and blindly following them, you are hopelessly lost in this society. If you cannot do something you’ve never done simply because no one has taken your hand and shown you how to do it, I don’t want you teaching my kids.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above probably don’t represent those of my employer, who is gracious enough to extend me the professional courtesy of allowing me to express my opinions on a blog hosted on their server. These opinions probably don’t even represent those of the department of which I am the head. So lighten up already. But stop being so helpless, for crying out loud.

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Author: John Schinker

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7 thoughts on “21st Century Illiteracy”

  1. WOW!!! Tell us how you really feel John. I could not agree with you more. Unfortunately, this is happening in schools everywhere. Frustration on your part is well understood and I can definitely empathize with you. Technology to some people is just not viewed as important enough to take the time to learn. That is literally too bad for our students because they are the true sufferers.

  2. I feel your frustration John….
    I have a had a chance to use Squirrelmail, and I really like it.

    Sarcasm in 3, 2, 1:
    If you are going to have an inservice on how to use squirrelmail, can you show me how to turn on my computer when you have some free time?

    Back on track:
    Technology is everywhere. Why is something new such a shock? You only have so many options when using an email program. I couldn’t agree with Todd more when it comes to who suffers in the end.

  3. I honestly think you guys are off base here. When any new tool is introduced to human beings, a basic overview is always helpful and appreciated. A 10-15 minute overview of what’s different, beneficial, more efficient, etc. In a perfect world, all teachers would jump right in and figure out how to use the new format, however similar it might be to what we have. But, because a teacher is not completely comfortable with new technology or they need help with learning how to fully utilize it, does not mean they are unqualified to teach in the 21st Century.

    We all have different strengths and weaknesses. Some teachers have a fabulous rapport with the kids. Others develop incredible new lesson plans that make me envious. Many are excellent at organization, while some really excel with technology. The complete package is rare! So I think you’re being a little too tough on them.

    Teaching in a media center, I work with all staff members. I know they are all along the spectrum of technology literacy. I also know that some of our very best, most creative teachers struggle with the nuts and bolts of implementing technology, but that’s where I come in as part of the technology support staff. Often, sitting down with a teacher, showing them the process, letting them take step by step notes if they need it, (and they often do!) helps to build the confidence needed to try new things. Now, if the teacher expects me to do it all for them that’s another story but this is not usually the case. Most people want to learn but we all learn differently.

    So…in my humble opinion, when implementing any new technology, a basic overview of what’s new and different is a necessary and much appreciated component of implementation.

  4. That’s a well articulated argument, and I do value those other qualities in teachers, too. But the primary thing we have to teach our kids is how to learn. A teacher who needs a training session on using webmail doesn’t know how to learn. There isn’t an inservice session every time the bank updates the ATM software. They don’t have training workshops at the gas station when they implement “pay at the pump.” I would argue that using webmail is as intuitive as those devices.Debbie draws a pretty good analogy about driving a car. If you can’t drive any car, you can’t drive.

  5. “If you are living and working in this world, you have to take personal responsibility for your learning.”

    We can debate about what is important and how we should improve the knowledge of our staff members when it comes to technology…… forever!#$%

    The most important word in the quote above is the word YOU. You have complete control on how you can improve the level of your personal technological understanding.

    I asked a few of my classes this question:

    What if I bought all of you a brand new IPhone?

    They went crazy! (Of course I didn’t tell them why I was polling them.) They all agreed that they would take the time to learn how to use it. Even though it has very few buttons, and many cool features, they all said that they would take their own time to learn how to operate the phone.

  6. I have been following this thread with great interest. I have to say while I respect the opinions of all who have posted; I have to agree with Joe. I work in the Dell Lab at the Middle School. I have found that for the most part, the teachers here at the Middle School are not only accepting of new technology and processes but most welcome them. There are those who are not as “technologically” savvy as I am but I am not sure I would classify them as “illiterate”.

    I have found that some people are able to more quickly grasp a technology concept. Others it may take awhile.
    We do so much for our kids in terms of finding out what type of “learners” they are. Some teachers, just like kids are auditory learners, some visual etc… Just because a teacher graduated from college does not mean they are going to know and understand computers. I find that most people use their computers for what they need, most are not even aware of the options available to them in terms of tools. They click on an icon, and they expect things to be where they left them. When they are not they are confused and unsure of what to do. As a person who worked at a help desk I have encountered many types of people, there were a few who would ask me the same question everyday, this would go on for months. There were a few times when I would think.. “is this person ever going to get this?” But we would go through it day after day, week after week… the same questions, the same explanation. EVENTUALLY they got it. I am not kidding, sometimes it took six months or longer and these were not complicated programs, we are talking data processing, word and yes even email.

    I am a firm believer that whenever a change is implemented, people need to be informed, they need to have basic instructions and or an overview of what has changed, offer it – if the person doesn’t need it they won’t come, if they have questions they will be there… if they need it and don’t come SHAME on THEM.

    Perhaps the problem is not the questions but to whom they are directed? Maybe we need to re-teach people who they need to contact in the event of a problem or question. Stopping the Head of the Technology Department to ask how to copy a file is certainly not the best use of either person’s time. People become comfortable with people, and knowing you are the person in the know leads them to believe that you are at their disposal for questions and problems. Your time can certainly be better spent. I’m not sure there’s a cure for this one. I have been here at the Middle School for almost 3 years, there are still people who go to others when they have questions. They have known them longer; they are friends, they don’t want to look “illiterate”, who knows why. I do know that I can help and devote more time to their questions then the people they are asking. But if the people are not directed back to me they will keep asking others for help. In closing, I think we are being a bit too harsh, give them a chance they might surprise you.

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