View from the Classroom
Why I Prefer Macs in the Classroom
August 1, 2001
There's a letter I had to write to my building administrator this week about why I prefer to have Macs in my classroom tucked in somewhere later on in this column. I really had something totally different planned for this article. It was to begin, "Time flies when you're having fun. Today begins the third year of View from the Classroom columns."
Not a real grabber of an introduction, but it led into "Due to well-justified privacy concerns, I can't write about any of the kids that I currently teach, but I can introduce you to the machines that enhance my students' learning." A lovely tour of the technological tools of my trade in my classroom was to follow.
That all came to a screeching halt last week when I got a call from a fellow teacher saying our principal had asked her to "get all your Mac buddies together" and to have them write him a letter about why they want Macs instead of PCs in their classrooms. I really didn't think much about the call, other than considering what I would write and starting an outline. Since the letter wasn't due until Monday, I didn't begin writing the final draft until early Monday morning after I'd done my daily update to my new smash hit web site, Educator's News.
I made the thirty mile drive to school Monday morning, arriving just as the summer school students were going out the door. My efforts were rewarded with a heartwarming smile from one of my full-time kids (during the regular school year). I was told at the office that the boss was in an "administrative meeting," as one of our faculty members committed a no-no over the weekend involving a motorized vehicle that might easily have run on the contents of his blood. As we're an informal, small town bunch, I just placed my letter on the principal's desk and went to my classroom to schedule an annual case review conference I hadn't gotten done in the spring. Other than a low grumbling noise from one of the Mac Server's hard drive cooling fans, all seemed in order.
All of this Mac versus Windows stuff had really heated up at school last December when I received a notice in my school mailbox just before Christmas vacation which contained the following wisdom from our principal: "In the future we will be adopting one system (probably PC) for the corporation." Along with some other skilled Mac users, I protested this decision, but it seemed little was going to come of it.
Within a day or so, I received an urgent plea from a fellow Mac user at school to look at her Power Mac 5400. It appeared that the hard drive was dead or the motherboard controller had failed. I removed the hard drive from the unit and gently bopped it a few times, just in case it was one of those sticky grease deals. I also pulled the motherboard to make sure everything was properly seated. Lacking any compressed air, I took the incredibly filthy logic board to a hallway trash can and blew the worst of the filth off of it with my breath. At that moment our system's superintendent happened to be walking by and made a disparaging remark about what I was doing to the logic board. He never, ever stopped to think about why one of his special ed staff was servicing a computer! (Until this time, I had been unofficially helping our technology coordinator primarily with the Macs, about which he knew, and wished to know, little. Unfortunately, this had resulted in him doing almost no Mac service!) As soon as the words left the super's mouth, I knew I had contributed the last of my prep and lunch periods, and many, many after school and weekend hours helping service computers outside my own classroom. I so informed the techie and my building principal that day.
I pretty much left the platform wars at school alone after that. I did get seriously bent out of shape in February when Apple Ed released new iMac models with a $50 price increase (later rescinded) to K-12 schools. Either in response to my columns, Educational Sales & Profits Down? Why Not Just Raise Prices? and A "Now" Open Letter to Cheryl Vedoe, or more likely, as a response to the intervention of fellow-columnist-turned-Apple-Higher-Ed-Representative, John Martellaro, I received a pleasant phone call from Mandy Monroe from Apple Education in Austin. As I told in the column, Apple Education: "I'm Not Dead," (Yet), "Mandy wanted to know, chapter and verse, what was wrong and what was needed."
I suddenly found myself propelled back into the political intrigues of school building platform wars. While I was thrilled with Mandy's enthusiasm, I was also dismayed to be thrust back into the fray. My special ed job responsibilities had become crushing with no help in sight. My wife, Annie, frequently would comment, "This job is killing you. You've got to get out." With just a little over two years until early retirement, I thought I could just keep my head down, do the very best I could under the circumstances with my students, use my own Macs in my classroom, avoid building politics and computer platform wars, and quietly slip out the door in a few years.
Even so, I gave Mandy some contact information she would need and sat back to let her take the lead in promoting the Macintosh platform at my school. Over the course of the spring, she came up with several tantalizing offers and even sent demo models to the school for evaluation. She finally met the price our school's techie required for two well-equipped iMacs for video editing. As I left school for the summer, I felt fairly certain our school would purchase its first new Macs in over five years!
Early in July I received an email from a thoroughly discouraged and disillusioned Mandy Monroe. The deal had fallen through, and the techie wasn't returning calls or emails. In addition, Mandy had contacted my building principal about "curriculum advantages with Apple," only to be told that the techie "will decide what computers to buy (which he [the principal] said would be IBM)."
Since this is already an inordinately long column, I'll include my complete, but edited, response to Ms. Monroe:
I carbon copied the message to the superintendent and all of the school board members for whom I had email addresses. Since our building principal doesn't even have a computer in his office, he did not receive a carbon copy. From the boss's tone of voice on the phone last Monday, I suspect I'm back in his doghouse. Since he's not an avid computer user, these platform wars don't make much sense to him. It is interesting, however, that the four or five computer "power users" in the elementary, all MacHeads, were not consulted on platform preference until now. I'm not sure my email got the current round of platform discussions started or not, or whether some other factor has spurred discussion. I am fairly certain that I'll pay for the comment, "the board and administration have totally abdicated any computer selection responsibilities."
That's enough of the background information. No, it's probably way more than you ever wanted to know. But that is some of what led up to my writing the following letter to my principal (at his request). Please note that I have edited out any recognizable references to my school or school system. This is a "family fight." The last thing we need is several thousand nasty spams from Mac bigots. If the school wants PCs, they have every right to choose them over Macs without being flamed.
[Female teacher's name] called last week and said you'd asked for letters from teachers who prefer using Macintosh computers with their students in their classrooms. While I could probably write volumes about the advantages of using Macs in the classroom, I'll just give a few highlights here. There actually is a world wide web archive of many columns I've produced, some for hire and some independently, which document the many advantages of using Macs in the classroom. It is available online at: http://www.mathdittos2.com/columns/index.html.
Ease of Use
When I sit down to work at a Macintosh computer, the mouse and computer are simply an extension of my wishes and creativity. Just as when one uses a pencil or pen to write, or a hammer to drive a nail, or drives an automobile without consciously considering the workings of the machine or the art of driving, so too should the use of any computer be an effortless extension of ones thoughts and wishes.
The Macintosh operating system has long been acknowledged as the leader in ease of use for computer users. In a school setting, this advantage is especially useful. As a teacher, I can direct students to computer tasks with only minimal assistance in how to use the computer.
As a teacher, I found the use of a computer, and especially a Mac, to be an absolute lifesaver. When I took the learning disabilities job seven years ago, I insisted a computer come with the job. I quickly realized that I did not have the educational materials necessary to adequately do the job. Starting as a computer neophyte in 1994, I was still able to use a Mac to build the reading, spelling, and math supplemental materials my students needed, but budget issues prevented my ordering from commercial sources. I believe what I did would be close to impossible with a Windows based system.
Total Cost of Operation
Macintosh computers are less expensive to use in the long run. While initial purchase price and repair parts can be more expensive than other personal computers, the long life of a Mac and reduced training costs make it the total cost winner in the long run. The current bunch of Macs around the elementary school are some of the, shall we say, "less wonderful" Macs Apple ever produced. Yet, the LC5200, 5400, and 5500 series computers are still running valuable apps with almost no support from the technology coordinator for teachers and students today, while Windows based computers of the same age have ceased to be useful.
A case in point is the computer take-home project I began (with your approval -- remember?) last fall. Over the course of the 2000-2001 school year, I placed computers in the homes of 21 of my special education students. These computers were all vintage Macintoshes, usually at least seven years old. None of these units has failed in service in the students' homes. (I am holding my breath on that one, however. Even Macs wear out in time.) Each computer has a word processor, along with many other valuable educationally related programs. Each computer has text-to-speech enabled, allowing the student users to have documents read back to them by the computer. Each computer contains the files for practice spelling tests for the entire school year of each student's specific spelling level (more on that later). Students can and do compose items on their home computer and bring the resulting work to school on a floppy disk. Often, new freeware programs are sent home to students on a floppy.
Rather than get into the technical nuts and bolts of total cost of operation, I'll attach a report [206K PDF document] that International Data Corporation did for Apple last year on the subject. Also, I'm sure our area Apple Education representative, Mandy Monroe, will be contacting you with similar information.
Protecting our Investment
Many teachers at Backwash Elementary have heavily invested in time, hardware, and software for the Macintosh platform. Over the years, I've spent thousands of dollars of my own money on computers, accessories, and software that I knew better than to ask the school to purchase. For example, when the PTO purchased a scanner for my classroom, I purchased the best optical recognition software on the market for my Mac. With it I scan students' stories from their readers into the Mac to be converted to editable text, sent home on floppy disk to their home computer, and/or read to the student by the computer using Apple's text-to-speech technology.
I've developed many instructional materials that run best and sometimes only on the Macintosh platform. Our school also possesses a number of valuable site licenses to software that will not run, or simply does not exist, on the Windows platform. A case in point is the Spell Tutor application.
Over the years my teaching assistants and I have recorded computer practice spelling tests for every spelling lesson in the Steck-Vaughn Spelling and other spelling programs we use in the learning disabilities room. Student use of these practice spelling tests often produces an improvement of ten percent or more in student spelling averages! These are the files that I have also included on each take-home computer I placed. Such a program simply doesn't exist on the Windows platform.
While now obsolete, the previous two reading/spelling adoptions (Scott Foresman, Silver-Burdett Ginn) spelling tests are stored for use by the entire elementary school on the network Macintosh server. Support files in ClarisWorks format for almost every Silver-Burdette Ginn lesson at every level were available!
A quick perusal of the Mac Server might surprise you at the wealth and variety of software for which [corporation name] owns some type of license. Something possibly more surprising is the wealth of educational Mac freeware that exists for use. Many, many teachers who create very specific educational applications (programs) for the Macintosh platform make those programs available to others for free via the internet. I've not found a comparable spirit on the Windows platform.
Several years ago, [techie's name] brought a Macintosh 8550 workgroup server to my classroom. He asked if I could get it up and running to house the school's Mac files and act as a print server for the network printers in Mrs. [Name] and Mrs. [Name]'s rooms. [Techie's name] provided the needed hardware upgrades and the server has been up and running (24/7) since. In my classroom, we regularly use this server to house files too large for the hard drives of the individual student use computers. It also, as mentioned above, serves as the repository for the spelling sound file archives. I weekly transfer the proper files via the Ethernet network to each student use computer in my classroom.
Windows XP or Mac OS X
One of the hot items currently in the computer world is the coming (October) introduction of Microsoft's latest operating system, Windows XP. Many comparisons have been made in newspapers and on the internet of the possibilities of XP versus the new Macintosh operating system, Mac OS X. Most have found the Mac system more user friendly and stable!
Last spring, Apple Computer, in an effort to sway [techie's name] to the Mac platform, loaned him two different models of Macs for evaluation. The second he brought to my classroom. It was one of Apple's new low-cost laptops, the iBook. In the course of evaluating the unit, I loaded Apple's new, but still unfinished (complete version due out in September) Mac OS X operating system. The results were illustrative of why I prefer using a Mac. Under the new operating system, I had students run almost all of our current educational Mac applications successfully. Some of these programs are over eight or more years old and still run well under the newest Macintosh operating system. While some applications do have to be updated with any Mac operating system upgrade, the same cannot be said for updates and upgrades to the Windows platform. Each seems to require another expensive update of the operating system, followed by paid updates to nearly every installed program just to get them to run.
In my Classroom
A number of years ago I realized that computers could be one of the best assistive tools we had in educating our special education students. Because of the sheer volume of students with differing needs, many worthwhile activities are needed to "hold" the students until an instructor is available to meet their individual needs or to expand upon or reinforce previous instruction. At that time, I found a number of 1987-1989 vintage Macs unused around the school. After obtaining permission, I took the ancient computers into my classroom to add workstations for my students. Over the years, I've upgraded the computers in my classroom from other classroom's castoffs and computers I've personally purchased.
As we gear up for the 2001-2002 school year, I've just completed cleaning and performing some necessary repairs to the main computer I use in the classroom. It's a six year old Power Macintosh 7500 that I purchased several years ago. One of the things that had to be done was a power supply replacement, as the one that was installed was close to failure. While I say little about it at school, I find it completely unfair that I must purchase from my own pocket a computer adequate to do the tasks I require, while I see a string of new computers placed in a lab next door to my room and countless laptops purchased for high school teachers. I suspect that if I were enthusiastic about using a Windows based computer, this would not be the case and I would be provided with adequate technology to do my job.
While I may come off as a raving Macintosh fanatic from this letter, interestingly, on the web, I'm considered one of Apple Computer's harshest critics. Even [techie's name], the chief proponent of converting totally to Windows computers, entered my room one day and commented of Apple Computer, "I'm surprised. They know who you are...and they don't like you!" While I have been highly critical of Apple, their operating system is still the best one available for educational use with elementary students.
I'm simply more effective using Macintosh hardware and the Mac operating system. My students can derive more by using Macs. I believe those factors should far outweigh any arguments presented by others wishing to impose their choice of computers upon me.
A few words about "Backwash Elementary:"
While not the most complimentary of titles, I struck upon the name years ago when I needed to substitute an anonymous name for the school's name. My school system serves a small town and the surrounding rural community that is what is now referred to in the press as "the rural poor." When I came to Backwash Elementary years ago from a prestigious, high-powered urban school system near Indianapolis, I was amazed at how well Backwash did with what little resources they had at hand. I later was also amazed at the level of political infighting that went on. While in Indy, I never would have considered calling or writing a member of the school board. You always went through channels. At Backwash, I can easily call or write three of the five board members and call them by first name without offense being taken.
We face some daunting tasks at Backwash Elementary. Considered together, they are overwhelming. We survive by focusing on what we can change or improve, one child at a time.
Odd thoughts while shaving between paragraphs:
The really, really sad part about this story is that the platform wars over whether we have Macs or PCs at school isn't the most pressing problem facing me for the coming school year. It's just the one where folks may sit up and act like they're making a fair, informed decision for a time. The real problem that I wish would be addressed is the ever increasing demands upon the special education staff at school with absolutely no increased staffing or resources. The folks at school either give lip service to the crying needs we face or just look at the SpEd staff as if we're lazy. I suspect that will be their response right up until the day they get a legal document containing the phrase, "denial of services."
I hope I'll have done a Johnny Paycheck before that day comes.
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©2001 Steven L. Wood