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EdTech Update




« BFTP: Reading on the job | Main | Excuses vs. Challenges »

Some technology schools should stop buying TODAY

For about as long as I can remember I have carried a Swiss Army knife in my pocket with my change. It has a small blade less than an inch and a half long, a screwdriver blade/file, a small pair of scissors, a toothpick, and tweezers.

My understanding is that actual members of the Swiss Army can use such a knife to kill an enemy in a dozen different ways, but I use mine primarily for opening boxes, trimming my finger nails, and cutting tags off things. 

None of the tools is as good as having a dedicated tool. The scissors are small; the screwdriver is hard to use; the tweezers are flimsy. But each tool can do the job - and the tool is actually there, in my pocket, when I need it.

OK, I am getting to my point. I had to shake my head when I read Gary Stager's post "Cameras for the Classroom" in which he recommends four models of digital cameras for the classroom ranging in price from $645 (list price over $1,100) to $95. "Every class should have a few of these [$151 model] babies!," he exhorts.

Why? Perhaps a school may need one or two of the models that are specialized for outdoor use. The high school photography class can justify using digital SLR cameras. But to have third graders shoot examples of triangles in nature or for middle school students to document signs of economic problems in the community to put in a slideshow or for high school kids to create a video demonstrating a cooking technique - for 99.9% of the uses we ask kids to make of cameras and photography, the camera in the phone or tablet works great. It is simple - and it's there.

Schools should be asking themselves why they should spend $151 on a camera that only shoots digital stills and video and requires a separate device (computer) to edit the images, when for a few dollars more, they can purchase a tablet* that not only takes pictures and video, but edits them and serves a multitude of other functions as well? Really, just how many megapixels does that fifth grader need? 

I would question not just the need for stand alone cameras. Tablets are on the verge of replacing:

  • Interactive white boards (Apple TV or Reflection will project the iPad screen on which the student or teacher can display work.)
  • Student response systems. (PollEverwhere, Socrative, and GoSoapBox are among the programs that use tablets or cellphones instead of "clickers."
  • Document cameras. Point the tablet camera at the object and project. iPad stands are under $20.
  • Graphing calculators. Use an app.
  • GPS systems. Built into phones and tablets.
  • Labs. Unless one doing high end video editing or copious amounts of keyboarding, who needs a desktop or full-sized keyboard? List three features in Word that you'd miss if you only used GoogleDocs.

And the thing is, a lot of kids already have these devices, know how to use them, and will happily bring them to school if allowed to do so. Schools can focus their tech spending on devices for kids whose families can't afford them - and kids get to use what they personally know and like. Win - win - win.

Are we selling kids short by offering them a "Swiss Army knife" approach to educational technology? No. The trade between a few, high-powered devices seldom used and ubiquitous, multi-function devices that are always available, is a no-brainer. Go for access.

What is your school no longer buying? Textbooks? Printers? Pencil sharpners?

 *GoogleNexus tablets are $199

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Reader Comments (28)

Doug, Never realized you were "packing heat! " I'll watch what I say next time!

I agree with most everything you say here, with the following caveats:
1) It has been our experience that the iPad/Apple TV or App option, while promising, is still not quite there yet. We are seeing connectivity drop offs with our devices as we have tried to deploy them. Now if you had said that there were pedagogical concerns with tying the teacher to the front of the classroom, I'd be totally on board!

2) Our Math department correctly points out that while some high stakes assessments can be done with a calculator now, they may not be internet enabled or have a qwerty keyboard. Assessment also becomes an issue on regular tests in a math classroom, where students can quickly move between their calculator APP and Geogebra or Wolfram Alpha. When we talked about having classroom sets of calculators for assessment, they pointed out that this would be a new tool for students to master, just to take the test. Some might argue that "perhaps they need better assessment questions," but that isn't always realistic.

3) As for labs, I would add the need to administer standardized tests. Currently, the labs in one of our middle schools are used 12 weeks a year (1/3) to administer MCA, and MAP tests. That's a lot of time they can't be used for activities we want them to be used for. Hence, BYOD.

Thanks for starting the conversation!

November 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Walker

I've been a big advocate for cameras in the classroom forever, but, as I tweeted to Gary (he ignored it), kids are already bringing some great cameras, still and video, to school. Teacher just need to understand how to leverage that power in their instruction. Buying even the around-$100 Canon models I used to recommend is not a good use of scarce resources anymore.

As to interactive whiteboards and student response systems, don't get me started. I've stopped being diplomatic when discussing these tools with principals and teachers. IWBs especially are flat out the largest waste of money in our school system. I rarely see a teacher, much less a student, use the interactive part. They are very expensive projector screens.

Thanks for letting me vent, Doug. :-)

November 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim Stahmer

I couldn't agree more with ending Interactive Whiteboard purchases. We should be wary of anything instructional that needs to be screwed into wall studs. I enjoy using an Apple TV, but haven't used it in a school setting lately. With a BOYD setup, it would be ideal to have something that talks with every type of device for sharing student work.

Our computer labs are becoming testing labs. With Smarter Balanced coming down the road, we could have 6 testing sessions a year (if we keep MAP) to schedule. From a troubleshooting perspective I think we need OS and hardware uniformity in testing to try and hold everyone's sanity together. There are enough issues that pop up, we don't need more variables to have to consider. There's always something funky going on with the MAP test. Although, perhaps web-based testing might help deal with those issues.

November 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathan Mielke

Brilliant post, as always! Still waiting for my district to buy into or provide tablets but when we do....I'm ready! I gave up on Interactive white boards years ago....too expensive & we found other Ninja ways around it!

November 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGwyneth Jones

I absolutely agree with almost everything. It is the interactive whiteboard that I disagree with. The way that most high school teachers use IWB's is terrible and they are not worth the money used that way. HOWEVER, is a pedagogy problem, not a technology problem. If you think that the IWB is passé because it keeps the teacher at the front of the room, then you are not using it right. It is a student centered tool where groups of students gather to collaborate.It is very difficult for groups of students to gather around a phone for serious discussions. Projecting a cell or tablet on a wall allows groups to view, but only one person can interact. Mobiles or computers attached to an IWB allows groups to collaborate, discuss, and edit TOGETHER. Phones are individual tools for individual work. IWB's attached to a side wall with student chairs around it is a powerful tool that brings the 21st Century Learning skills together.

The IWB's are getting a bad wrap because of our pedagogy. Many k-1 teachers would see it as an invaluable station because of their student cantered pedagogy. Keep the IWB's, change our teaching.

November 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIfoggs

Interesting that there is still so much focus of time and energy put towards standardized testing and not instruction/learning. IWB can be a useful tool if the pedagogy changes to match. So long as the standardized test is the mesuring stick our approach will never change. If students have technology (smart phones) that can do most of the computing we want them to do...why aren't we teaching them how to use them for our purposes?

November 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChris_Ryan

I would agree except many districts still prohibit students' use of their own mobile devices.

November 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterA. Rothenberg

The $199 Nexus you mention doesn't have a camera to do many of the things you mention. I'd like to see tablets in my school as well, but our district won't open up the wireless network until they can control the choices (they're all about PCs and anti-Apple anything), so we're still buying Mimios and such and limping along with four or five year old digital cameras...

November 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJim Randolph

Agree with another poster, IWB aren't being used correctly. Not that I have my new school using them to their fullest potential yet, but we are on the right path. Using them to tape their lessons to access at later time from our website. Kids collaborating and being engaged. We also use low tech stuff like individual whiteboards to assess the class at a whole on different forms of questions.

November 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan

I have sharing with my IWB providers that if this technology existed 5 years ago - we would have NEVER invested in it. (They do not take that too well - they have to adjust and this does not mean creating a $7 app either!) Last year we had a few pilots in which we purchased Apple TV and even upgraded a few projectors to HDMI. That is also expensive - and we are now looking at AirServer. (Our teachers have windows laptops). This will give us the potential of now having mobile document cameras in our classrooms. Hoping we can roll it out to all our classrooms by Christmas.

As we continue to investigate 1:1 - I think the traditional idea of labs will become a thing of the past. We are looking at cloud services that will take apps and make them publishable to any device. (Including browsers with flash/java!) We currently have 6 computer labs in our high school and it is not enough. I did a little analysis in the instructional time we lose by going using labs (going to lab, logging in, logging out, going back to classroom) and I estimate that in 1 lab alone - teachers lost approx 16 hours of instructional time. I am really thinking lab space has the potential of becoming independent digital learning centers. I estimate we will be doubling (maybe tripling) the number of hybrid courses in our high school. Currently students are either off campus or in in the classroom (with teacher) during digital days. The idea of having some flexible learning space is something to consider. (Edina has done some great work here)

What I really think it boils down to is to keep a watchful eye on purchasing any 1 function device. More than likely, there is already another way to do it by utilizing the technology that is already available to our students.

November 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJen Hegna

Unfortunately. Buying a calculator app cannot replace the graphing calculator most schools now require.
This is largely due to the fact that the college board requires that students use the outdated Texas Instruments style
calculators for the SAT. Until the college board changes its policy, not requiring a graphing calculator will be putting
students at a disadvantage to those that are proficient users of the ti-83 "technology."

November 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIan

In addition to the limitations many districts put on BYOD, how does the issue of bandwidth limitation fit into this discussion of 1:1? In many cases, having one teacher demonstrating on the IWB is much more do-able than having 25 kids accessing the internet simultaneously on a 1:1 device. In S.C. we had to move our annual educational technology conference from Myrtle Beach to Greenville this year because the M.B. Convention Center's wifi was overwhelmed last year by all the internet-enabled devices participants were using! Are school districts any better equipped to handle the demands of so many internet users?

November 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLori June

Hi Mike,

Yeah, I could probably be expelled from my office if the powers know about my weapon of mass destruction.

All the points you make are valid today, but I wonder if they will still be true in six months. We're already working around the iPad mirroring issues and I understand companies are looking at ways to "lock" kids into test apps on tablets. I suspect the math people will face reality one day as well. Have they heard of actually monitoring kids while they are taking a test to reduce potential cheating?

Thanks for the comments,


Hi Tim,

As alway, it seem "biggest bang for the buck" should be the determining factor in making tech decisions. Gary always operates from a best case scenario funding model, not the current realities of public education where a lot of players are all chasing the same dollar. Not that we shouldn't continue to fight for good funding, but until that perfect day arrives, we need to be smart about tech purchases and applications.


Hi Nathan,

If our labs are just going to be used as testing centers, let's call them that and figure out how to provide the keyboards, monitors and test access in as inexpensive and reliable way as possible. I know companies are working hard on making testing "apps" that are secure and that may change the game.

I am not as negative about IWBs as some - I've seen some really cool uses and hear excitement from kids about the activities the teachers do with them. But tech moves on. I wonder if all the stuff being done now with SmartNote book will transfer to apps on a tablet?


Hi Gwyneth,

I suspect you could apply your Ninja ways around nearly anything.


Hi lfoggs,

I'd agree that IWB effectiveness is all about pedagogy not the hardware/software. My question is if the pedagogy can be duplicated using a tablet and projection system rather than the IWB at a lower cost.


Hi Ninja,

The point about prohibition of student devices is a valid, but I am guessing, temporary one. Think how long it took some districts to allow kids Internet access!


Hi Jen,

Great point about travel time to labs - I'd not thought of that. Separating "computing" in a separate room also sends the signal to kids that it is not a real part of education.

I've always admired your forward thinking. Keep us all posted on your ideas on Grin and Bear IT!

See you at TIES?


Hi Ian,

Valid point about the college board. They HAVE to hearing from many about this reactionary policy. Or are they in TI's pocket?


Hi Lori,

You raise a valid point about the need for increased infrastructure demand - not just in schools but in society in general. I know it is something we in our district are spending some major dollars in improving. Thanks for the comment.


November 5, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

This is a reply to an earlier post. it was commented that a tablet /projector combo could do the same pedagogy wth lower costs. i guess that depnds pn what teaching strategies you are using. the right ool for the right task.

I do not know how the pedagogy of a tablet/projector combo can duplicate small groups of students around a SMARTBoard. The tablet project will only allow one person to interact with the content at a time while the rest watch and perhaps talks. But we know that he who controls the mouse (or the tablet) controls the conversation, monopolizes the ideas and learns approx 30% more than the rest of the group.

There is something special about ANY group member being able to interact with the content at any time. Only an IWB can do that. It is not a tech issue as much as it is a group dynamics and team psychology issue.

If I am using my IWB like a fancy overhead projector, then an iPad with projector would be awesome, as I could at least walk around the room. There are certainly days that are like that. The real value is GROUP collaboration. I think the quality of group work decrease with the tablet/projector model. The IWB allows for democratic group sharing.

I appreciate the polite, honest, non-confrontational frespectful feeling to this debate.

November 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIfoggs

College Boards and TI calculators.. What will our tests look like when every kid has a smartphone and ubiquitous bandwidth? We are not there yet....but it is not far away. Perhaps the collegeboard will not survive. Using the excuse of," we will not use every tool in our aresenal because they won't have it later is a bit flawed. Isn't that like not releasing the lifeboats on the Titanic because there were not enough for everyone? A friend of mine said," is that like bullying kids now so that they will used to it later? Are we going to keep using other's poor pedagogical models as excuses for us to maintain status quo? Thx for listening.

November 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIfoggs

Hi Ian,

You make very good points. Again, it is how the instructor uses the tech, rather than the tech itself. In general, I've always viewed (no pun intended) the IWB as a tool for large group instruction and tablets and such for small group and individual work. (Think chalkboard vs slate back in the day.) But creative teachers will make any technology work for any situation when the need arises.

Thanks for continuing this conversation,


November 6, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Remember not to assume all kids can afford all this new technology. Sometimes the only places they can use technology is at school. I agree that schools cannot afford to keep "keeping up" with all the latest and greatest bells and whistles. Students would benefit from using the technology they do already have and incorporate the APPS for school use.

The horror is whether we have to keep upping the ante to make the students engage. Will they be less willing if the school technology is not up to date?

November 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJulie Eckhard

I think we should be spending more money on technology. Students are very engaged with all the new technology that is showing up in the classroom such as SMART boards, tablets, clickers, and touch screens.

November 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterB Lewis

I think there is some truth in this post. However, that being said, I still believe that some technology is important and useful in the classroom. It simply depends on how the teacher uses the technology, how students interact with the technology, and the community the technology is in.

There are so many factors contributing to when, where, and why technology is used in the classroom and should still be used. Students should be exposed to all types of technology and new and different ways to use it.

I have a SMARTboard and my students LOVE it. But again, I use the board the way it is intended. This does not take away from iPads or other BYOD. In fact, many times it enhances its use.

November 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNess

I respectfully disagree with your point on the IWB. They are certainly not a waste in my classroom as my students are up and interacting with it daily. It helps me to reach my students regardless of their learning style. I am also running an iPad pilot in one of my classes so I see both ends of the spectrum. My iPad has never once made me consider ditching my SMART Board because I see them as a compliment to each other. Collaboration is great in this class because my students can share their screens on the SMART Board and discuss problems or situations together instead of alone. With the new SMART Notebook iPad app, it's added another dimension to classroom collaboration.

I don't own a Swiss army knife unfortunately.


November 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMartha
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