Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Commentary: Sotir: Books vs Computers: Where Do You Stand?

Quotes are from an article reprinted from the Houston Chronicle by
July 25, 2006 - Vol. 5, Issue 30

AUSTIN - Funds set aside since 1876 for school textbooks cannot be used to purchase laptops or other computer hardware, the state attorney general ruled Tuesday.
Greg Abbott's decision is expected to impact debate in the Legislature, where some lawmakers want to shift funding from books to technology.
Funds designated for textbooks "must be used exclusively for the purpose of conveying information, including curriculum content, to students," Abbott said.
The opinion was requested by Geraldine "Tincy" Miller, who chairs the State Board of Education. The 15-member elected board manages a $20 billion fund comprising oil and gas royalties, which generates about $800 million a year for textbooks and other instructional materials.
"I'm absolutely delighted in the answer to the question that we asked," said Miller, R-Dallas. "I think it once and for all defines that instructional content material is a textbook or software. It is not a device, a piece of equipment or hardware."

My first reaction was, well, shock when I read the article. As an educational technologist, I work constantly to develop a better synergy between technology and traditional curriculum. How dare they ignore the value of technology in today's society?? Once I calmed down, I re-read the article, and softened my opinion, somewhat. I happen to agree with the idea that money should be spent on content. Without content, technology is useless. There are the techno-horror stories of schools that received grant money to develop incredible computer labs, with all the newest hardware. Unfortunately, they did not take into account the fact that the grant would not cover software, so the state of the art computers became state of the dust. What a waste of money.

And more to the point, for years my mantra has been that technology is just a tool, much like writing on a board. Just having a board is no advantage, unless it is used and used correctly. I've seen instructors go an entire year without ever needing to have their boards cleaned. However, we've moved from blackboards to white boards to smart boards. The boards of the future may be virtual, but they will still convey shared information. The very nature of technology is change, and education must change as well.

The problem I have with Texas, is that I sorely want to mess with them. What Texas seems to be missing, is that all forms of learning are needed to deal with the wired students that populate their classrooms. I would never advocate eliminating texts, any more than I would advocate eliminating teachers. I do, however, advocate teaching the tools necessary to engage meaningfully in society.

Miller said she hopes the Legislature will increase the technology allotment using funds other than the Permanent School Fund.She said the forefathers of Texas wanted students to have books they could take home and that the whole family could read. "Nothing is more precious than a book," she said.

So if what Texas is saying is that books are needed along with computers, I can't disagree. I doubt the scene of the family sitting together and reading a math textbook together in front of the fireplace exists, but nonetheless, there is a place in the world for books. What I would like to see is the book money be spent on developing the libraries so that the joy of reading would grow. The Internet gives specific information needed to answer a question. Books expand on that information, and round out the thought process. People should read for enjoyment and knowledge and that does have a place in our tech based society. It's not an either/or situation.

I'd want to see adequate money allocated for technology, not just for hardware but for training and encouraging instructors to develop new ways of teaching their students. Leave the actual texts online, where pertinent portions could be downloaded just in time (JIT). The textbook information would be current and up to date. Expenses would be about the same, but outdated texts would not inundate the landfills, and students would not need chiropractors. Come on Texas, think through the process. Know your end goal, and know your audience. Today's world is different, and you need to challenge your educational institutions to move forward as well. Use the tools that technology provides. And instead of the debate being hashed out in the Legislature alone, include the classroom instructors and the students and yes, even the tech companies. They know what can be done, and how to do it effectively. Engage in meaningful conversation if what you want is a robust educational system. Don't just think outside of the box. Reinvent the box.