There are some ongoing "chicken and egg" questions that technology integrationists constantly wrestle with. Well, some of us wrestle with these dilemmas -- others, who are far more in the know, seem to smugly look down their beaks at us, puzzled as to why we haven't come to the same hard realizations that they have.
The "meaning of life" question for most interested in educational technology integration is this:
For meaningful integration of technology to occur, what must come first? The identified and justified need for technology, or the availability of technology that eventually fills a previously undetermined need.
Another question of equal importance, though, is determining which group of end users to start with. In the event that your district has a finite amount of financial resources, should those dollars first be spent by putting devices in the hands of teachers, who, in turn, will use them to instruct students in meaningful ways? Or, should those resources be spent to first outfit students with devices, who, in turn will use the devices to demonstrate learning in new, meaningful, and possibly even innovative ways?
Obviously, this is more of a philosophical discussion than a discussion on how to properly implement a 1:1 program. There are many alternative implementation plans that do not involve an all or nothing approach when it comes to giving students and staff devices. The core of the philosophical portion of this, though, focuses on which player (either the staff member or the student) would have a bigger impact on transforming educational practice and learning outcomes if they were given access to the device before the other player.
I was engaged in a conversation today that led me down this philosophical path again. Of course, there are valid points that exist on both sides of the issue that can influence somebody's personal philosophy. I, though, am going to explore my "gatekeeper" theory of education here, though, to see how it stands up. I appreciate any comments and attempts to blow holes in the theory...I'm not exactly sure where I stand on this either. I just need to flesh out the idea.
Imagine that 118 Fremont Street is the darling house of the neighborhood. Passersby respect the look and feel of the home, based upon the outward appearance. Craftsmen comment on the quality of the work, based upon the details that demonstrate themselves from the outside. Young women in the neighborhood dream of one day buying the home and raising a family of their own in the quaint little dream of a home.
Depite all of the whimsy the house promotes, there is only one entrance/exit to the home. And oddly, the entrance to that home is constantly guarded by a single gatekeeper, assigned solely to this home for the life of the home. The gatekeeper is responsible for maintaining the home, for protecting it, for furnishing it, for promoting order in the home, for serving and assisting the stream of temporary inhabitants and visitors to the home, and for assuring that the status of the home remains elevated in the surrounding community. Undoubtedly, the gatekeeper has one of those unique jobs where he/she must rise to a challenge that his bigger than himself/herself. The gatekeeper is responsible for maintaining both the actual and the perceived quality of the home. In doing so, the gatekeeper must constantly consider and balance all of his/her responsibilities before making any decisions that will impact the home and its temporary inhabitants.
Each day many salespeople come to knock on the door of 118 Fremont Street. Some peddle simple goods. Some peddle new local services. Some peddle ideas. Some peddle support organizations, while others peddle new faiths. It is a constant barrage of sales pitches, each with its own unique benefits (and unmentioned downfalls). Each of the salespeople are the best in their profession. They are genuine, convincing, and each salesperson has an ability to truly connect with the gatekeeper in a meaningful way. All of the salespeople purport that his/her product, service, idea, or organization will somehow improve the quality of the home, better meet the needs of the people presently living in the home, and lessen the burdensome, weighty responsibility of the gatekeeper in the process.
From within, though, the gatekeeper answers each knock with one eye focused on his/her personal responsiblity to the home (and its temporary inhabitants), and the other eye searching for something that can elevate the quality of the home (thus raising its perceived status within the community).
When the gatekeeper is first hired for the position, each knock at the door, each salespitch, each interaction is an opportunity to improve the quality of the home in a meaningful way. While the gatekeeper's responsibilities remain the same, throughout his/her career, in the earliest days the gatekeeper has little history to draw from as he/she answers the door and interacts with the salespeople. In these earliest days, the gatekeeper makes choices that are not blushed with actual experience, as there is little experience to draw from. Some decisions made by the gatekeeper elevate the status of the home, others detract from the quality and perceived status of the home. Despite the outcomes of these decisions, though, the responsibilities remain. They never waiver. The salespeople and the pitches and the products never stop either, although they change and morph.
As years pass, though the responsibilities do not waiver, the gatekeeper grows and changes. With each salespitch, with each product, with each decision, and with the ever-changing clientelle that temporarily inhabit the home, the gatekeeper forms an understanding of what works and what doesn't, based upon history and personal experience. Increasingly, the gatekeeper finds himself/herself basing decisions about the best/worst investments for the home based upon his/her personal experience as much as on the actual needs of the home. The gatekeeper becomes more wary of the less tangible pitches and products, as they are the ones that have been the least likely to positively impact the home's quality or value. Even as the inhabitants of the home begin to express an interest in products, ideas, or services, the gatekeeper has to weigh the needs of the present inhabitants against all of the other responsibilities the gatekeeper holds, and against his/her own experiences (especially considering that the inhabitants of the home will move on, to be replaced by new inhabitants with different needs or interests). Needless to say, over time salespeople are having a more difficult time selling to the homes with the most experienced gatekeepers.
On the other side of the door, though, clever salespeople have noticed this trend. With the goal of selling goods, services, ideas, or support to the inhabitants of the home, salespeople begin to try a new strategy. They begin to forego the gatekeeper by offering the goods, services, ideas, and support to the temporary inhabitants of the home when they are outside of the home. The goal, of course, is to encourage the inhabitants to take the items, or more importantly the need for the items, back to the home to do the difficult work of selling the product, service, or idea to the gatekeeper from within.
Remember, though, that there is only one entrance to the home, and everything that exists within the home is under the watchful eye of the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper ultimately understands and accepts that the overall quality and the perceived quality of the home is his/her responsibility. No matter what those temporary inhabitants say, want, or bring to the home, the gatekeeper has a larger responsibility than temporary needs or wants, and for that reason alone, the gatekeeper is unlikely to allow these "gifts" from the outside to enter the home with any regularity. The risk to the gatekeeper is just too great.
For the salespeople, this leaves only one reasonable option, if the goal is to convince the homeowner to buy the product. When the gatekeeper answers the door, they must be willing to provide tangible products, ideas, or services that the gatekeeper can experience. Personal, hands-on experience with the merchandise is the one selling point that allows the gatekeeper to overcome his/her history --which is ultimately the reason the gatekeeper has been more hesitant in his/her willingness to purchase from the salespeople to begin with. This approach allows the gatekeeper to evaluate the product upon its merits, rather than upon the sales pitch or the believability of the salesperson. It honors the unique responsibilities the gatekeeper is charged with, by allowing him/her to assess the product to determine if it suits the unique needs of the home. And, ultimately, if the product is worth its salt, it becomes obvious to the gatekeeper that the good or service is invaluable to improve the quality of the home, and it becomes a fixture of the home.
For those of us out here peddling the idea that technology is an invaluable change agent in education, we have to be willing to let the gatekeeper of each classroom "handle the merchandise." That means allowing them to try out our new devices and concepts and sites and tools before we put these things in the hands of kids. We all know that for technology to have any meaningful impact on learning outcomes, it ultimately needs to be in the hands of kids. However, if we want students to have consistent access to that very same technology, it is my contention that we better convince our gatekeepers of the classroom that technology can deliver on the promise of improving both the real and the perceived quality of that classroom. And the only way to do so, allowing us to circumvent the natural inclination of most educators to see educational technology as just another buzz word in a never ending stream of short-lived ideas and innovations in education, is to put it in the teachers' hands first! Let the product sell itself, and trust that our teachers respect their personal and professional responsibilities to students enough that they will make it a pillar of their classroom instruction because it does improve the quality of the learning that happens in their house.