Because We Can

I’ve been struggling lately with situations where we seem to be using technology for its own sake. Sometimes, it seems like we use technology just to show we’re using technology, or to show that we’re beeing innovative, or cutting edge. But sometimes, technology just makes things more complicated than they really need to be, or it provides a small benefit for an enormous cost of complexity.

A few years ago, every meeting I went to involved someone doing a PowerPoint presentation. I think they were all really excited and proud of themselves for knowing how to use PowerPoint, and we’d get to see all the new transitions and animations and effects they’d just discovered. Thankfully, we’ve mostly moved on.

A few weeks ago, EdTechWeekly had its Video Extravaganza (and the subsequent Video Extravaganza II, in which yours truly played a role). This is normally an audio program. We certainly have plenty of technology going around, with the Skype calls, Shoutcast streaming, Audacity recording, java-based chat client, and multiple browser windows. Throw in the occasional Yugma screen sharing application, and you have a respectable level of technology sophistication, even for the hard core tech omnivores.

But no, we have to do video, too. so we stumbled through the challenges of broadcasting live video (it really is much easier than it was even a year ago). The bandwidth requirements meant the audio was worse than normal, and the audience was more focused on Jeff swiveling in his chair than on what anyone was saying. The next week we repeated the experiment. I had acquired a webcam by then, but hadn’t worked out the lighting. The video worked, but the quality was pretty bad. 0ave was still having trouble with Ubuntu, so we couldn’t get video from him. The next week, we decided to go back to the low-tech audio-only version, much to the relief of some of the listeners.

Sure, the video was an experiment. We wanted to play with Ustream, and this was a good way to do it. As I’m frequently quoted as saying, EdTechWeekly should be groundbreaking and cutting edge. But it didn’t add much to the show. Viewers basically got to see the hosts looking at their computer screens while talking about the links. Some viewers also noticed that we don’t really pay attention to each other on the show when someone else is talking. But the additional technology — and bandwidth — needed to produce and watch the show didn’t really add anything.

I’m writing this — perhaps ironically — on the computer running Ubuntu. A month ago, I started an experiment to see if I could use a Linux box for my primary computer. As it turns out, I can’t. Or, at least, it’s not worth the effort it would take. I can get most things to work reasonably well. With a lot of work, I can get it to perform almost as well as a Windows computer. But when I buy new computers, they come with Windows. I’m not going to save anything by buying them without Windows. Sure, I buy Microsoft Office. But with the volume licensing deal, we’re only paying $64 for a copy of Office. The saved headaches are well worth that. So we’re not going to replace Windows as a desktop operating system any time in the near future. Next week, I’ll be reformatting this computer so I can start working on the next project. That may be thin client computing, or VMWare, or something completely different. But I’ve answered the question about Linux for now.

Shape-OAnd on it goes. The technologies keep coming. Are wireless networks worth the cost and complexity? Will this intervention software really teach this kid to read, where good teachers have failed for the last three years? Does Moodle provide anything that can’t be done more easily in the traditional classroom? Are there any benefits to using social networking software in a school? Should we be giving email accounts to students, or will that create more problems than it solves? Do wikis have a role in education? Are the kids really going to get anything out of the OpenSim project that they couldn’t get in less time with simpler tools?

When my kids were little, they had one of those Shape-O toys, where you put the shapes into the ball by matching them up with the right holes. Every toddler picks up a shape and tries it in every hole until they find the right one. Sometimes, I think that’s what we’re doing with technology — trying all the pieces in all the holes, until we find one that works.

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Author: John Schinker

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2 thoughts on “Because We Can”

  1. I think your experiment with Linux is one of the driving forces behind Mac sales taking off. Apple is now 3rd in PC sales, behind Dell and HP. A lot of people like what they have in Ubuntu, but there are always nagging little things that drive you crazy, so they try out OS X and realize it is a Unix based operating system that just works. No more fiddling.

    Too bad Ubuntu didn’t work out for you. I’ve been meaning to set my Windows machine up at home to dual boot Ubuntu/Windows, but haven’t found the time. Plus I use my MacBook more than anything. Maybe you should try out a Mac? Worse comes to worse you can always just run Windows on it.

  2. Right. I don’t think it’s as much a desire to go to Unix as it is a growing distaste for Windows. We’re closing in on the end of the first year for Vista, and we still don’t have a compelling reason to use it. Sure, the eye candy is nice, but the increased hardware requirements, the more restrictive licensing, and the ongoing compatibility problems with applications and devices are making XP look really good. Since Microsoft keeps threatening to discontinue XP (which they have to do), that leave a lot of people looking for an alternative.

    Ubuntu isn’t it, yet. Despite the handful of items about it in my RSS reader every day, it’s not going to seriously challenge Windows (or even Leopard) in the near future. It’s worth keeping an eye on, and I really want them to succeed. But the product isn’t there yet.

    So I guess that leaves the Mac. As much as I hate to admit it, I’m not as anti-Mac as people think. I’ll probably put this together in its own post at some point, but I basically have three problems with the Mac:

    1. It’s easier for a school to support one platform than two. When staffing is always a problem, especially for “overhead” items like technology, doing everything we can to keep support costs down is worth the effort. Since people who outrank me are *going* to use Windows, we can either be single-platform Windows or dual-platform Windows and Mac.

    2. When I use a Mac regularly, I have serious wrist problems. I started having wrist pain when I taught in a Mac lab, and it didn’t get better until I went Windows-only. People tell me I’m crazy, but I do think there’s a lot more necessary click-hold-drag-drop on the Mac than there is in Windows, where you can frequently click-release-drag-click again. It’s that holding the button down for a long period of time while dragging the mouse around that drives me nuts.

    3. Mac users tend to emulate their leader, who is arrogant. There’s this smug “we’re better than you” attitude that I can’t stand. When things don’t work right, they’re quick to blame the oppresive Windows world for not playing nice. This may not be true of all Mac users, but I’ve personally seen several examples of this.

    None of these are really dealbreakers. And there are at least two people working in educational technology whose opinions I really respect who think Macs are the way to go. I’m just not ready to take that leap yet.

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