Search this site
Other stuff

All banner artwork by Brady Johnson, college student and (semi-) starving artist.

My latest books:


        Available now

       Available Now

Available now 

My book Machines are the easy part; people are the hard part is now available as a free download at Lulu.

 The Blue Skunk Page on Facebook


EdTech Update





Rules for Pod People and a Proposal for Banning Pencils

Ex abusu non arguitur in usum. (The abuse of a thing is no argument against its use.)

One of the goals this year of our district tech advisory committee is to formulate guidelines for student-owned technologies. At yesterday’s meeting, I thought we’d start with an “easy” set of rules to create – those for the use of iPods and MP3 players. What possible reason could a school have for banning these things?

Well, I got a list (and earful) from the teachers and librarians on the committee…

1. They might get stolen.
2. They make kids who can’t afford them feel bad.
3. Kids might listen to them instead of the teacher.
4. Who knows what kinds of lyrics that the kids might be listening to!
5. Kids might listen to test answers (There’s a stretch.)

Oh, sure, kids might use them to help them study, replay their French vocab lesson, or listen to audio books or an NPR broadcast – but really, what’s the chance of that?

The underlying argument was because of possible misuse, they should be banned - period.

(One of our students on the advisory board had the courage to say that he felt individual teachers should have the right to say whether iPods should be allowed in their classrooms, and added that he concentrates better in study hall and the library when his music drowns out other distractions.)

I gotta say that this “potential misuse” as a reason for banning technologies drives me nuts. If we applied this rationale for not allowing a technology to an old, familiar technology, we’d certainly have to ban pencils from school because:

1. A student might poke out the eye of another student.
2. A student might write a dirty word with one. Or even write a whole harassing note and pass it to another student.
3. One student might have a mechanical pencil making those with wooden ones feel bad.
4. The pencil might get stolen or lost.
5. Kids might be doodling instead of working on their assignments.

Oh, sure, kids might actually use them to take notes or compose a paper - but really, what’s the chance of that?

I cringe whenever I hear a district or school “banning” cell phones, blogging software, e-mail, flash drives, chat, game sites, etc. Each of these technologies has positive educational uses. Each of these technologies is a big part of many kids’ lives outside of school. And yes, each of these technologies has the “potential” for misuse.

One of my biggest worries has always been that by denying access to technologies that students find useful and meaningful within school, we make school less and less relevant to our Net Genners. When are we going to learn to use the kids devices for their benefit rather than invent excuses to outlaw them?

Is there a sensible policy for iPod use?

Doug, we did have an incident with an iPod during midterms last year (girl hid the wires with her long hair and sweatshirt), and she *was* listening to answers. I think that iPods can add value to a learning environment, but should be banned during exams because they can provide a cheat sheet (or whatever we’re calling the modern equivalent!).

Pencils, on the other hand, could lead to pens and markers and should just be burned before they enter a school building.

Comment by Laura — September 29, 2005 @ 5:31 am

A “study hall only at the discretion of the teacher” policy is rather reasonable. Cell phones off and not seen is also reasonable. Kids (and their parents) who know the rules, are bringing expensive electronic equipment to school, and then don’t follow the rules for them and then gripe about it are NOT reasonable. Teachers who only sit at their desk during exams are following the “don’t do dumb things” rule…Laura’s teacher who caught the student with the iPod was probably paying attention.

Comment by Sara — September 29, 2005 @ 7:01 am

The whole ipod thing is just another silly thing that schools like to band. I for one like to listen to music when I’m reading or doing work. But can we have portable cd player no why cause it might get stolen or you listen to music that has cusing in it. Anything can be dangeruos or stolen or used like library books, desk, the teachers telphone that they use to call the office those are just some things. If you bring it to school then that is asking to get stolen and you now that so why band anything in the first place. Example for anything bieng a wapon my friend hit a person with his bag because that person was saying they were a fairy so he swung his bag and hit that preson. So see bags should band too

Comment by Alex Wilcox — September 29, 2005 @ 12:06 pm

We are concerned about students and They are putting out way too much information about themselves including age (under 15) location, school and private pictures, often revealing.
What do you think about this. Myspace is blocked at school, but in my freshman orientations I find about a 3rd of our students having accounts in my space.

Comment by Adam Janowski — September 29, 2005 @ 5:05 pm

First, the cell phones “off and not heard or seen” reminds me of my classroom gum chewing policy - you can chew all the gum you want so long as I don’t see it, hear it, smell it. Seemed to work.

Adam’s question is a good one. My sense is that Adam’s school is losing a lot of “teachable moments” by denying access to myspace - chances to talk about the dangers of revealing too much information online. Who counsels and coaches when kids access this space from home? Doesn’t sound like parents are. Kids WILL have access to these tools. Don’t we have an obligation to help them use it safely rather than simply blocking it and saying “it’s not my problem?”

Comment by Doug Johnson — September 29, 2005 @ 8:18 pm

I think you have the cart before the horse here. Could you first set down any educational reasons FOR having these devices in a school?
Also, in reviewing your opening list of “objections” I could not find ONE that has not already occurred at our school! I see these tech toys in the same category as Matchbox Cars, hacky sacks and Game Boys … they go into backpacks when entering the building, get locked into lockers, and may be taken out to play with on the way out of the building. Jon

Comment by jon elliott — October 3, 2005 @ 7:23 am

Hi Jon,

You make an excellent point. The constructive uses of any technology should be considered before looking at a ban. Apparently, Princeton U must have done so before giving iPods to all its incoming freshman. (Although I’ve heard this has been scaled back.

How are these (from The Digital Backpack, Threshold, Fall 2005)

- Record and playback teacher instructions
- Download a foreign-language broadcast or NASA science lesson
- Listen while reading to improve comprehension
- Help focus in a noisy room
- Compare recordings of a musical selection
- Store portfolio

I appreciate your comment and perspective,


Comment by Doug Johnson — October 3, 2005 @ 8:00 am

Lest we forget that the iPod is like any other mass storage device? In addition to music, DATA files can not only be listened to, but read outright during exams. My feeling is they don’t belong in an exam environment — and probably not in most classroom situations.

Proprietary right/responsibility to the distibution of educational data and, perhaps most importantly, it’s medium, is a great big bug-a-boo in the years to come!

Comment by Kelley Lanahan — October 4, 2005 @ 8:27 pm

Schools’ knee-jerk reaction to ban any new technology that students understand better than administration, is reflective of other authoritarian groups’ responses to perceived threats. This uproar reminded me of the lawsuit brought by Universal and Disney against Sony Corp over the legality of the Betamax. The Supreme Court was asked to impound all Betamax VCRs as tools of “piracy”. As we all know, the court decided not to outlaw the machines, and schools, not to mention movie studios, have certainly benefited from the many legal and positive uses of this technology. Like with all technology, not to mention everything else in life, it’s a matter of selecting the right tools and using them appropriately.


Comment by annette — October 7, 2005 @ 11:54 am

I completely agree that CD players and IPODs should be allowed in schools during certain times. I listen to mine during study and I have found that I get my work done much faster and dont notice the outside world much. The kids I know are smart enough not to listen to music during a class. I think that it should be up to the teachers. I mean, listen to the way we kids talk anyway. we dont speak nicely at all to eachother. So us listening to music with supposed bad lyrics isnt bad. At least kids dont play it out loud. Should schools ban singing in class too?? Because I happen to sing in class when Im bored. Cd players and IPODs take up downtime. After a test or quiz when we still cant move or talk, you pull out music and you wont be talking to people around you. It just doesnt make sense to ban them.

Comment by Katie — October 24, 2005 @ 3:00 pm


Why We Use Macs

Our district is asking its residents to pass an operating referendum to support technology this fall. Parents and the business community are the ones who actually proposed that we do a referendum for this purpose, but one question I get asked on a regular basis is: Why are the schools still using Macintosh computers when “the rest of the world is using Windows?” Thoughtful question.

When our district considers what kind of computers to buy for staff and student use, the answer to this question is more complex than just “what kind of computer does the business world use.”

In many ways, the Mac vs. Windows argument reminds me of those debates I engaged in the schoolyard as a boy: “Which car is better - a Ford or a Chevy?” One’s side was generally determined by the brand car one’s father drove, and most discussion was notably light on both facts and logic. Just as either an Impala or Galaxy would get you from point A to point B, whether to buy Macs or Windows is largely a non-issue.

♦ Users can do about the same things with both a Macintosh and Windows computer of similar configuration. Software, not hardware, makes the computer sing and dance. A scan of an educational software catalog and lists of award winning educational software will quickly reveal that 95% of the most popular software is written for both platforms. This happily includes software like Netscape, Explorer, Acrobat Reader, and Microsoft Office. Even the staunchest Mac or Windows fan has to admit that once a program is launched and running, it’s tough to tell them apart on screen. Our district has a policy that we will adopt only “general use” software that runs on both Mac and Windows systems. Even if our schools were sole platform, I believe we’d still keep this policy. Our students’ homes will have a variety of computers for many years.

Plus, we keep kids locked out of the operating systems of both platforms, the one place where differences do remain. We do not want students downloading and installing software, changing desktop configuration, installing printers, etc.

♦ Macintosh and Windows computers of similar configurations usually cost about the same. It’s not hard to buy a cheap computer. It is hard to buy a cheap computer which has enough processing power, memory, drives and goodies like sound cards to run the latest, most hardware-demanding software. Whether buying Mac or Windows machine, we can spend $600 to buy a machine which soon needs an upgrade, or we can spend $1000 for a computer that teachers and students may be satisfied with for a few years.

♦ Macintosh and Windows computers can easily exchange files and both can access information on the Internet. Networking has basically solved the cross platform compatibility problem. Macs and Windows both talk TCP/IP and IPX, so files can zip merrily between them. An AppleWorks or Microsoft Word file created on a teacher’s classroom Mac opens just fine on the student’s Windows machine at home. The HTML page studded with gifs created on a student’s Windows computer at home, once uploaded to a web server (which can be Windows, Mac, OS2 or UNIX), can be read using any properly equipped computer regardless of operating system or brand. CD/DVD and flash drives read both platforms’ media. Common file formats like QT, RTF, PDF, JPEG, GIF, and DBF are available for most applications.

Some reasons we are staying with Macs at present:

1. Adults are more troubled by different operating systems than are kids. Most of us remember the trepidation and difficulty with which we learned how to operate our first computer, so well in fact, many adults are still using their first computer. Our current investment in professional training, materials, software, teacher skill attainment and staff comfort should be carefully considered if we decide to switch operating systems. Staff development, software, and training materials must be factored into the costs of a large-scale adoption of a new platform.

2. Selecting a specific computer or operating system because it’s used in the “real world of business” may not be in the best interest of employers. I’ve had business people tell me that they look for new employees already familiar with the computer system and software their companies currently use. I suggest that this may be dangerous. As an employer, I would certainly want new employees with good computer skills, but I would mostly want them to be technologically comfortable enough to adapt to new systems rather than be dedicated to just a single system. How else will I know how my new employees will react when my company upgrades? As a corollary, schools should give students practice in transferring skills between platforms and programs. A basic understanding of computer literacy is that if you’ve learned to use one computer operating system, word processor, or spreadsheet, you are about 95% of the way home learning any of them. A command might involve a different set of key strokes, the icons might look a little different, or saving a file might involve one more or one less step, but once a person understands concepts like file organization, cutting and pasting, or records, fields and sorts, the details come quickly. I ‘d like District 77’s graduates on the first day of the new job to be able to sit an unfamiliar computer and be able to say, “I’ve already learned two or three operating systems and a handful of word processors and a couple databases. One more is no problem.” And go to work.

Also, many if not most of our students attend post secondary institutions prior to starting their careers. Both South Central College and Minnesota State University have both Windows and Macintosh computers available for student use.

3. Computers should bought keeping in mind the special conditions under which schools use them. An acceptable business machine is not always the best school computer. Look at some of the differences:
♦ Businesses usually have one employee user per computer; school computers may get over a dozen sets of hands banging on them a day. Excellent “control” programs have been developed for the Macintosh operating system to prevent students from destroying files or changing system configurations.
♦ Most business computers run 2 to 4 applications; our school computers run over a dozen to fulfill a K-6 or 7-12 curriculum. Programs are easily installed on Macintosh computers and rarely do two programs conflict.
♦ Business managers in most cases are directive about how employees use their computers; teachers and students are encouraged to be creative and try new things.
♦ Businesses depreciate and replace; schools keep, maintain, and upgrade.
♦ Businesses hire or contract adequate support and maintenance personnel; schools rarely can afford to. Our technicians report that maintenance time for a Windows computer is far greater than for a Macintosh. “Plug and play” has long been a reality in the Macintosh world, and it still is not here just yet with Windows machines.
♦ And finally, Macs are not yet as subject to the wonderful world of viruses, worms, Trojan horses, spyware programs etc. as are Windows machines. There is debate whether this is due to some superiority of the Mac operating system or because there aren’t enough Macs to make writing these programs worth the time or because Steven Jobs is less hated than Bill Gates. I don’t know, but for now I’m glad we don’t have the security problems faced by large Windows implementations.

Schools need computers which give students a variety of experiences, let them practice transferring skills, can be easily secured from the most devious of hackers (7th graders), run demanding multi-media programs as well as let students create multi-media extravaganzas, and require little maintenance or upgrades for at least 5 years. To date, Macintosh computers have done this quite reliably. As long as our district’s curricula emphasizes using computers as productivity tools rather than computing as a subject in and of itself, we are on firm ground using Macs. I have stock in Microsoft, Apple, Dell etc. and most days, I believe I hate both platforms equally!

P.S. Parents often ask me what type of computer they should by for their homes - a Macintosh or Windows machine. My advice is to buy the same kind of computer one’s most computer savvy friend owns. That way when the learning curve gets steep, there will be a ready tow.

Want to weigh in on the Mac vs. Windows debate?

You didn’t really mention much about which system networks the best, or if they are easy.

The one thing I have been told, it is hard to network both together.


Comment by librarymonkey27 — October 1, 2005 @ 10:35 pm

Dear Library Monkey, (Like the name)

We’ve not had any difficulty using both Macs and Windows when using either Novell or Microsoft as our NOS. Both “talk” IP, just fine, which will ultimately be the only networking protocol we will need to use. (AppleTalk, IPX, etc. are all going away.)


Comment by Doug Johnson — October 2, 2005 @ 4:29 pm


o and, do you follow the particular philosophy that iMacs are better for graphics, or do you feel they are on equal ground….

btw, enjoy the blog === even the political meandering


Comment by librarymonkey27 — October 2, 2005 @ 6:04 pm

Thanks, LM.

I do think Macs have the reputation for being better graphics machines, but I don’t have much to base that on other than they seem to be used in an awful lot of art schools and art departments. My sense is that PCs are closing the gap in this area.


Comment by Doug Johnson — October 3, 2005 @ 8:07 am

The fact that Macs are not subject to viruses, worms, etc. should be buried “finally” at the end of the discussion. Most people don’t realize that Macs have a HUGE advantage in that respect, and it’s valuable.

Comment by Amy Goldsmith — October 23, 2005 @ 11:04 pm


Do We Need National Technology Standards?

One of the more exciting ideas to surface at the ISTE Board meeting on September 24th was that ISTE should consider developing a set of “technology standards” that might serve as goals that E-Rate and other federal monies might help schools meet.

The original goals of E-Rate – that all schools be connected to the Internet – has by and large been accomplished nationally. But as we all know, connectivity alone does not an effective school make.

I believe it will be up to ISTE to create new national infrastructure goals if they are going to be created at all. The chance for creating a strong vision by the federal government was fumbled by the Department of Education with its National Education Technology Plan – a largely worthless document. See my ”Directionless Dictates” column from the May 2005 Teacher Magazine.

Well written national standards are both useful and necessary for a number of reasons, and given ISTE’s success with its student, teacher and administrative NETS standards, it is the logical organization to tackle this job.

From experience, I have found the ALA/AASL library program standards useful in helping educate other administrators about good library programs. (Actually our state affliate organization used the AASL goals as a model for writing state library program standards .) We have used ISTE’s NETS Standards for Students as a guide to writing both our state information literacy and technology student guidelines and our own local guidelines. In other words, good national standards for technology infrastructure would do more than simply provide a rationale for continued E-rate funding.

My experience is that few districts: 1) know how they compare to other districts in their technology implementation efforts; 2) can determine the direction they should be moving to improve technology utilization; or 3) can visualize a technology infrastructure that fully supports learning, teaching and managing. A good set of technology standards - simple, quantitative, and research-supported - could be an authoritative voice that would help remedy these shortcomings.

The standards I most appreciate tend to take a rubric-like approach. In multiple categories, a district might judge itself as minimum, standard or exemplary in each category. And if the rubrics are concretely written, it would be readily apparent how a district could move from, say, a minimum to standard level in any category.

I would find standards (after five minutes of thought) in the following areas extremely helpful as I try to evaluate our district’s technology infrastructure and plan for improvement :

1. Connectivity (LAN, WAN, and Internet I & II capacities)
2. Security (firewalls, filters, policies)
3. Tech support (technicians per computer, tech support response time, reliability rates, policies about technology replacement,)
4. Administrative applications (student information systems, transportation, personnel systems, payroll systems, data mining systems, home-school communication systems, online testing)
5. Information resources (e-mail, listservs, blogging software, online learning software, commercial databases, library automation systems)
6. Staff training resources, requirements and opportunities
7. Staff/computer rations and student/computer ratios (exemplary here might be the one-to-one initiatives)
8. Technology/content area curricula integration (articulated student technology skills embedded in the content areas, assessments)

Each rubric, of course, would need to be accompanied by the research/rationale that supports its inclusion.

What do you think ISTE? Are you up to the challenge? In what other areas might standards be written to help guide districts and power the argument for continued E-rate funding?