Saturday, September 08, 2007

Bringing new computers to life

It may be that the implementation and maintenance of classroom computers is a major production for every teacher fortunate enough to have them. If so, it's a thin gossamer thread by which educational technology hangs. Students in my classes have access to classroom computers only because

1. I see significant value in what computers can do for students in my classroom.
2. I was able to prepare a successful proposal for a portion of my school's Digital High School grant, and there was DHS grant money to spend toward the purchase of computers, software, and sensors.
3. I was willing to donate the time, talent, and energy required to transform the computers and software from boxes and discs to computers that students could use to sample and analyze data from sensors, prepare and print spreadsheets, etc. as well as to assemble the charging cart for the computers. All of these activities happened "off the clock."
4. There was support from my district for a wireless computing pilot program back when Apple introduced Airport.
5. My students handle and use computers appropriately in my classroom.

Take away any one of those factors and we're back to a 1970s-style classroom. Or in my case, a 1990s-style classroom. Though I used classroom computers in my high school physics class at Grand Rapids Creston High School in 1981, it wasn't until 2001 that students were able to use computers in my classroom, less than 100 miles from Silicon Valley. And it wasn't me keeping computers out of my classroom!

As the years since 2001 came and went, the classroom computers settled into their role in instruction. We used them where they added value. We didn't use them everywhere simply to use them. But neither did they gather dust. A few years ago, the batteries began failing to hold a significant charge, and the replacements were a nontrivial expense (10 x $100). But the school came through and we thus extended the useful life of the machines.

By 2006, the usefulness of computers built in 2000 had diminished critically. These computers were built to run Apple's OS 9, an operating system Steve Jobs conducted a funeral for in 2002. Though they might have been able to boot in OS X, their CPUs, busses, and memories were not built for it, and they would have struggled in performance and battery life.

So I prepared a proposal for their replacement with their contemporary equivalents, and the school was able to fund the proposal. But the process of preparing these machines for student use--simply to maintain the functionality we had in 2001--was again nontrivial.

The Airport pilot has been abandoned in favor of a new wireless protocol. But the corresponding hardware has yet to be installed at the school. Though it was originally slated for installation over the summer, it is now planned but not scheduled. Fortunately, a network-savvy parent was able to get a new Airport Extreme to pipe the internets to my new laptops. The fiddling and fussing he went through to make it happen was nontrivial, but he succeeded where I had failed in my own laborious attempts.

But other matters had to be attended to. The sensor software had to be loaded and registered to each computer. Each installation required a seven-digit serial number and two 25-digit alpha-numeric security keys. Configuration files I developed for specific labs had to be transferred from the old computers, titles modified for use by OS X, and correctly placed in the correct subfolder of the application support section of each computer's root directory library. Student accounts had to be configured so that commonly-used applications would be easy to find (on the dock) and storage folders for student work were in place before students needed to use them. On each computer. And each computer needed to be configured to print to our networked printer.

I also installed a set of physics simulations on the new computers that simply would not have run on the old ones. On each computer.

Sadly, there are simulations on the old computers that simply won't run on the new ones. They're going to be hard to give up.

So far I've spent many weekend and evening hours to get the new computers student-ready. Their maiden voyages happened this week and so far, so good.

But I imagine places where all the ducks don't line up in a row. Do they simply go without? Are there schools with better support for classroom computers, or is it all a patchwork of individual teacher projects?

Seems awfully late (2007) for things to be this fragile.


Eric W. said...

Probably a bit late, but you could have saved yourself a lot of time by making an .iso of a properly configured computer with Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper onto an external hard drive, and then cloning it back to each of the other computers. I will gladly accept thanks from your 2007 self in the form of brownies from a more recent revision.

Dean Baird said...

You got me, Eric. I worked harder and not smarter. I clearly didn't
a. know better or
b. who to ask.
I paid for my ignorance with labor.

With luck, you will never endure such inefficiency.


And I sent a memo to 2007 me instructing that you are to get all the spare brownies you show up to claim. Enjoy!

Eric W. said...

2007 you said he left a box of brownie mix at the store for you, and that you should go buy it and prepare it so it's nice and fresh for 2009 me to enjoy.