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Grabbing Technology by the Tail

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I am pleased to have been given the opportunity to write for T.H.E. Journal. In my tenure as editor-in-chief of Converge magazine, I traveled the world meeting outstanding individuals in all levels of education and observing the successes they achieved using technology. These experiences over the last six years helped shape my certainty about the power of technology, properly implemented, to redefine the practice and future of education.

My purpose for this column, "Making Life Easier," is to help introduce ideas, people and advances that, in the end, will help you understand how to use technology to more easily achieve your goals, overcome your obstacles and allow you to leave the legacy you are working so hard to create.

Afew weeks ago I was working on a special project that required I buy and learn how to use a scanner and optical character recognition (OCR) software. I was asked to help produce, on a very tight timeline, a CD that included more than 20 magazine articles that only existed as hard copies (some articles being as much as 15 pages in length). To complete the project on time, I had to find and learn the needed technology, then instruct others on what to do. I must admit I approached this project with some, all right, a lot of trepidation. But, I knew I could do it. After all, for the past 15 years I had been very much involved in high-tech as a consultant, writer, educator and editor-in-chief of a magazine on education and technology.

A Little Luck G'es a Long Way

Setting up the scanner and loading the software was fast and easy, which made me believe that the project was going to be a breeze. But I was very wrong, and soon found out the project was going to be a hurricane.

The manual that came with the software was horrible, and I could not figure out how to get the software to work properly. However, being familiar with a variety of software applications, I was somewhat hopeful that I could get it to work without the help of the manual - wrong again.

I spent hours trying to create a Word document by scanning in two and three column articles with tables, call outs, sidebars and photos, and then reformatting the material to meet the specifications needed for the CD. I struggled with the manual, going through the various menus, guessing, praying, cursing, threatening and even screaming (you may have heard me), but I could not figure out how to get the software to meet my needs.

I lay in bed that night unable to sleep, concerned that my simple project was going to become the project from hell. Out of my frustrations I thought about those educators who are reluctant to implement technology solutions because they think: "It is too much of a problem - first understanding how it works so it could be used to professional standards, then determining how to best implement it in an educational program, and then determining if it was helping to achieve the goals determined for it." I was definitely sharing those points of view. The only thing that kept me going was that I had promised to meet a very stiff and important deadline, so I had to make it work.

The next morning, by pure luck, I found a way to get the software to work by accidentally hitting a key that caused the magic to happen. It was such a truly joyous moment that I thought to myself: "Technology is wonderful! Life is great! I love technology!" Needless to say, the project was completed on time and was infinitely faster and easier to do thanks to the technology I was using.

Reluctance to Embrace Technology

I believe this experience is very relevant to why so many educators are reluctant to embrace technology in the classroom. First, they are not convinced it will be helpful in meeting their pressing needs; they firmly believe it will be more of a headache and problem to learn and use than it is worth. Second, educators too often don't have the sense of urgency, personal demand and willingness to confront the difficulties they may face in learning to use and implement the technology properly. They don't believe it can really help them achieve their goals more efficiently, effectively and easily once it has been properly utilized.

One of my favorite quotes is by Mark Twain: "The person who grabs a cat by the tail learns something he could not learn in any other way." This is applicable to educators because sometimes implementing technology can seem like you're grabbing a cat by its tail. However, if the outcome is that you have truly found a way to make your work easier and your ability to achieve your goals greatly enhanced, then I say bring on the cat.

Bernard Percy (former editor-in-chief of Converge magazine) is a noted educator, author, producer and Senior Fellow at the Center for Digital Education. Contact him at bcpercy@sbcglobal.net.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.

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