Gadget graveyards

This article appeared in Issue 10 of Khanya – Education through Technology – 2007

Are you a gadget person? Recall the last time you visited a Design for Living exhibition and watched a very enthusiastic person trying to convince you that life would never be the same if you let the opportunity to acquire the most fantabulous pineapple peeler and corer slip through your fingers. What did you do? Did you purchase one? As well as the set of windscreen wipers that promises the clearest vision imaginable when the rain is pouring down? And the foot massager? Or the room dehumidifier? If you went home with a bag full of goodies, then yes, you are a gadget person.

What is a gadget? It’s defined as an unusual and cleverly designed device, which has a useful purpose and function. It’s also sometimes called a contraption, a contrivance, a widget or a gizmo. The innovation of the gadget is often fuelled by technology. This definition in itself doesn’t attach a negative connotation to gadgets. The only problem with gadgets is that they’re often bought on the spur of the moment, when one is taken up with the prospect of a slick application. Once home, however, it’s too much effort to unpack it, to read the manual, to practise using it and, finally, hopefully, to reap the benefits. It’s then that the gadget lands up with other gadgets in what has become known as a gadget graveyard.

Is a computer a gadget? It is needed, according to the definition given above. It is cleverly designed, and no one can question its useful purpose and function. Many schools have seen these wonderful devices and realised their potential value in education. When Khanya came along, they cooperated to make the dream of owning a room full of computers come true. Great was the excitement when the facility was inaugurated and officially opened by one or other dignitary.

Yet, sometimes one visits such a school months after the laboratory has been launched, only to find that the room is locked. It has become a room full of unused gadgets. A gadget graveyard. A very expensive gadget graveyard.

Why are there still schools that are underutilising their computers? When asked why the facilities are not in use at a particular time, a number of different excuses are offered. In the beginning of the year, the schedule has not settled down; shortly after that, sports days are disrupting the normal schedule; exam time is apparently a bad time to use a computer facility; and so the list of excuses goes on. For that is what they are: excuses, and not valid reasons. If the educators in a school are truly convinced that the computer facility can have a positive impact on teaching and learning, it will be used throughout the year, around the clock.

Of course, there are some valid reasons why the computer room may be underutilised. Consider a few possibilities. One obvious reason the room may be locked up is because the technology isn’t working. Some of our schools experience endless problems with servers that are down, discs that crash, software products that fail repeatedly and a host of other technical issues that may crop up. How does one resolve these problems, particularly in view of the very limited technical support resources available to schools?

Khanya has been encouraging schools to become technically self-sufficient. What does this mean? It means that schools will build the required expertise so that they can take charge of their own destiny. Extensive training is made available to LAN administrators so they will at least be able to do some troubleshooting. In addition, schools are encouraged to form partnerships with service providers in the communities that can assist them with technical support. Of course, technical problems will be resolved much quicker if schools have a dedicated technical support person and we hope this will become a reality in the future.

Another reason a computer facility may not be fully utilised could be that educators simply don’t know how to use it properly for its intended purpose. They might have received extensive training in the use of computers, to the point where they’ve mastered word processing, they can use spreadsheets, the internet and e-mail, and they may even have progressed to the point where they can use presentation software such as PowerPoint.

There are reports of educators who’ve become so enthusiastic about the use of technology that they’ve rushed out to buy their own equipment. This they are using as an administrative tool to type test papers and learner notes, as well as for maintaining class lists and mark sheets. Yet many of these same educators are reluctant to take their learners into the computer facility. Why?

Most likely they’re not confident in using technology as a teaching tool. They may be comfortable using it as a productivity tool, but they haven’t yet made the shift towards using computers for teaching. One can understand that perhaps there is a mental block. Teaching is for teachers and computers are for computing and the use of computers for teaching is simply a foreign thought.

Principals play a major role at schools in guiding the thinking of educators and opening new vistas to them. Khanya depends on principals to assist in encouraging educators to make this paradigm shift. It’s not easy or quick process and one has to work at it. Of course, it would be best if the principal led by example, using technology as a teaching tool to convey this message practically and effectively. Let us work together to ensure that any gadget graveyards that may be out there are transformed into vibrant teaching workshops.

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