You've done a great disservice to Ohio teachers," said the man who approached me after my speech at an education conference. "You're advocating new technology, and we can't afford it; we've got to keep building on our installed base," he said angrily.
The technology I was advocating was the floppy disk; the installed base he was protecting was the cassette tape. (In the early PC days, programs and data were actually stored on cassette tape.) That was 1983, and recent news that Dell is no longer installing floppy drives as standard equipment on its higher end desktops reminds me of that episode.
Dell's move, more than three years after Apple made the same decision, makes sense. In these days of mega-memory, the 1.44 megabyte floppy disk has little use. Imagine trying to put your latest photo collection or PowerPoint presentation onto one. Other forms of portable storage, such as CDs and flash memory, not only have far greater capacity than the venerable floppy, they're less expensive as well. My new laptop doesn't have a floppy drive either, but comes with a neat little ScanDisk memory card (USB connectable) that fits into your pocket as easily as a pack of gum. The actual memory card in the unit is no bigger than a finger nail and holds up to 128 Megabytes (that's almost 100 floppies).
That's just the tip of the iceberg. As networks proliferate, most users have access to untold Gigabytes of storage with the click of a mouse. Even if you're not on a network, you can attach a 40 Gigabyte hard drive to your PC for less than $100. This revolution in cheap storage, combined with ever expanding broadband Internet access, also makes possible portable, Web-attached storage; making your "stuff" available to you wherever you have an Internet connection.
It's surprising it took Dell this long to move away from floppy drives, yet it's understandable when we consider the difficulty most users have in moving from the comfort of their installed base. As the educator from Ohio illustrates, this fear persists even when the new technology is clearly superior and less expensive.
Education's Installed Base
The obvious message here is to embrace technical advance instead of fighting it. Take advantage of the new opportunities it affords. Yet there's another, more important, lesson for school administrators: namely, the need to take a formative evaluation approach to every aspect of your district's academic and organizational practices to see if there are legacy applications holding back progress and sucking budgets dry. Do this in light of advances in learning theory and management strategies, and include both program and non-program policies and practices, everything from teaching to transportation, staffing to community relations. Compare present practices with optimal practices based on research findings, new products and services, and technological advances.
In most districts there is an alarming gap between what we do and what we know. This gap is not due to lack of talent or good intentions; it's the result of being trapped in a "this is the way schooling has always been done" mold. For example, why do we insist on defining school as the co-location of teachers, students, and curriculum materials based on geographic proximity? Surely there are models that are better (and less costly, too).
From universal access to universal proficiency
At February's National Conference on Education, AASA President John Lawrence spoke of American public education achieving "universal access." He praised the accomplishment, yet claimed correctly that it isn't good enough and called on participants to rally to the pursuit of universal proficiency.
Universal proficiency is a laudable and attainable goal, but it won't be reached until we reexamine our installed base of policies and practices. Getting from access to proficiency for all students requires radical changes to when, how and where schooling takes place. It's not just claiming a commitment to excellence in your district's mission statement. It's more like going from cassette tape to floppy disk; real change that yields real results.
Daniel E. Kinnaman, email@example.com, is publisher.