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EdTech Update





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?


Dereliction of Duty

I will confess. As a member-elected ISTE Board member, I failed to represent you yesterday afternoon. I instead represented me at the anti-war rally being held in front of the White House here in DC. Me and 99,999 other protesters. More pictures.

I try to keep blatant politics out of all my professional writing, including this blog, or at least comment only when politics impact education. But the war is turning the lives of my friends and colleagues in schools (and especially the lives of their children) upside down. Of the nearly 2000 American dead in this war, each was someone’s child, someone’s student, someone’s love. My good friend Steve’s daughter is shipping out to Iraq soon. For her sake alone, I want this war to end.

If you get the chance, read John Crawford’s The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell, a first person account of a National Guardsman serving in Iraq. It’s a riveting set of narratives with echos of our involvement in Vietnam. Or perhaps just the sad retelling of incidents from any war.

I’ll be back at the board meeting this morning, voting on ISTE fiduciary, personnel and policy matters, never fear. But I hope you will forgive me for being missing in action for a few hours yesterday.

 Oh, and I am refunding a portion of my travel costs to ISTE.

Good for you! I was there in spirit, if not in reality.
BTW: on our local NPR station is *The No Show* — ” a new showcase for the idiosyncratic views and humor of Steve Post, a world-class curmudgeon whose irreverence and iconoclasm have entertained audiences and appalled radio station managers for three and one-half decades. (Give or take.) ”
On his playlist for the 9/24 show: “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” by Pete Seeger, and “Chicken Hawk” by Roy Zimmerman — both most appropriate!

Comment by Alice Yucht — September 25, 2005 @ 2:46 pm

Amazing the number of slogans “repurposed” from Vietnam for this protest. More than a few outfits as well. - Doug

Comment by dougj — September 26, 2005 @ 11:08 am