I needed to write a polemic for my writing group – something I felt strongly about
When I first started teaching I wrote on a blackboard. Not much can go wrong with a blackboard. Worst-case scenario is that the chalk breaks, and what does that mean? It means that you have two pieces of chalk.
Then the blackboards were all ripped out and replaced with whiteboards. Less dusty, but pens run out more easily than chalk. Supposedly an improvement but I can’t really remember why. I think they helped the subjects that used a lot of Over Head Projector resources (OHPs). In maths we didn’t really use them. Pieces of acetate were placed on a light box and the pre-prepared material would project onto the board. Maybe geography teachers used them. We tend to think of geography lessons as ‘colouring in’, and multi-coloured, ready made maps were probably a boon to them. The projector had some uses in maths but not enough to have an OHP in each classroom. If I wanted to project some axes for a graph lesson I had to pre-book the machine, carry the heavy, unwieldy box into my classroom, and return it after the lesson. Given we would all be teaching graphs at the same time it was often difficult to get past the first step. Whiteboards: not really an improvement.
Then we got laptops and projectors.
I can’t remember when this shift was made, I don’t even remember it being a big deal but it must’ve been. We must’ve had training. Someone must’ve shown me what a powerpoint was. The Internet suggests that schools began to use laptops in the 1990s and that seems reasonable. At that point everyone saw technology as a plus. In reality, we would only have been using the laptop and projector as a glorified OHP. Writing a powerpoint and projecting it onto the screen. We all made powerpoints. I must have made hundreds of them. This was a real example of technology working against good teaching. It’s ridiculous to think that you can pre-prepare a maths lesson to this extent. Teaching, certainly in maths, is the most interactive of all jobs. How could I prepare slide two when I couldn’t even predict the response to slide one? Worse than this was the obsession with sharing prepared lessons or, God forbid, buying generic powerpoints from suppliers. Let me explain; I currently teach 11A1 and 11B1. Both ‘top’ groups. Both filled with bright students who are going to achieve high grades this summer. I teach the same topics to both groups. For most of the week I teach them in consecutive lessons. I never assume that I can use the exact same materials with both sets. Last week we were looking at 3D Pythagoras. With a 2D Pythagoras example as a starter, the first lesson with one group quickly moved on. With the other group, many of them needed a dozen examples to get them up to speed. This is normal. This is what teaching is like. How on earth could I use a pre-prepared powerpoint? How could I possibly use someone else’s resources? I’m not a technophobe but it has always been clear to me that technology is not necessarily the marvel many think it is.
In the early 2000s we made the next shift. Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs)! Woo Hoo! Now, I know lots of teachers with IWBs who have no understanding of the term ‘Interactive’, who just use them as whiteboards with a projector, who use them to show powerpoints and videos. Teachers who get annoyed because they can’t write on them with their whiteboard pens. Even worse, teachers who do write on them with their whiteboard pens. Teachers who have no idea how the IWB and the software actually work. Not me though. This was the pinnacle of technological advancement in education. I loved my IWB. I loved being able to use a board to write on but never having to rub the work off. If someone got confused I could click back a few slides. If someone was absent I could email the lesson home. If I forgot what I’d taught last lesson, I could check the saved slides. It was great to have graph paper at the click a button, to be able to draw accurate shapes, to use different colours and highlighters, I could go on and on. IWBs are great.
Then things went downhill again.
It’s like cars. We used to have cars that only broke down if something was really wrong. Not now though. From computerised engines, through electric windows, to self-opening boots. There is so much that can go wrong, and one electric fault can cripple the entire car. This is how I see new technology in education. Too many irrelevant advancements that don’t really make things better but offer increasing opportunities for things to go wrong.
The first problem I have is that my laptop is no longer ‘stand alone’. I can’t save anything onto my hard drive. I can’t do anything without being connected to the internet or the school server. Without wifi, my laptop is a brick. Of course, this shouldn’t be a problem; I’m sat here now, on my sofa, typing on my personal laptop, with a lovely full wifi symbol on the task bar. If I bring my work laptop home it happily joins the family network and I can create material, send emails, and even save powerpoints (just joking). Here at home, my work laptop is the Honda Jazz of laptops. So that brings me to the second problem.
The real problem.
School network infrastructures are garbage. Perhaps this is down to budgets; possibly it is just down to priorities. No-one can deny that a teacher in front of a class is a higher priority than an additional wifi point. But, and this is the big but, a teacher in front of the class is of no use if they have nothing to write on. In my classroom I have a small whiteboard, big enough to write the date and the Learning Objective (these need a whole essay of their own). And I have an IWB. It is an RM board, a popular make that can be seen in most schools. I have an interactive pen that costs £80 and needs to be re-charged each evening. I have a laptop with two IWB software packages loaded. Near the door I have my own wifi router. The setup is ideal in terms of teaching with new technologies.
Or it should be.
But it isn’t.
Schools seem to have embraced technology without full understanding. Prioritising speed of implementation over efficiency of systems and structures. My husband, an IT consultant tells me this is not just in education. But education is what matters to me and the quality of education is suffering. Suffering because school network infrastructures are garbage.
Day in, day out I stand there mid-sentence, mid-example, staring at the blue circle of death. The IWB is connected to the laptop, the software is running fine, the projector and pen are switched on. But, once again, the wifi is failing me. The electric windows are broken and the car won’t start. I cannot teach.
The computer is not co-operating. Again.