No more teachers, no more books

Before you can write your first essay in school, you learn about primary versus secondary sources.

This is probably introduced at different levels depending on the school, but I got an early start from my Grade 4 teacher. She wanted to prepare us for what seemed like the far-flung future

of Grade 8, where essays were marked more strictly. We were told that the best research comes from primary sources–people who witnessed an event or had first-hand knowledge. After that, you turn to secondary sources like encyclopedias or other books in the library (this was before CD-ROMs, when we were still slaves to the Dewey Decimal System).

Despite having access to first-rate researchers like polling firm Ipsos-Reid, Microsoft Canada decided to rely on secondary sources when it commissioned its National Technology in Education Survey, the results of which were released Tuesday. Check out the headline on the release: “”Canadians cite inadequate hardware and teacher training as barriers to student computer proficiency.”” The “”Canadians”” mentioned are not the students who actually use the hardware or even the teachers who try to make a part of classroom routine. Instead, Ipsos-Reid polled the parents, who presumably based their responses on whatever they hear anecdotally from their children or the few Parents Teacher Day visits over the course of a year.

Now look at the numbers. Ninety-five per cent of the parents surveyed said they thought their child had access to a PC at school, but 68 said they thought kids used it a few times a week or less. One-third felt they should be using it more (a figure Microsoft highlights), as opposed to the two-thirds that do not. Nowhere is there any hard data that suggests the level of use, teacher training or age of equipment has had any detrimental effects on students’ proficiency with computers. There is no real sense of how well or badly they can use it at all.

I couldn’t help asking about the discrepancy with Janet Lazaris, Ipsos-Reid’s senior vice-president, during a conference call this morning. Here’s what she had to say:

“”I can tell you that 45 per cent of the people surveyed said that they use their home computer for educational purposes,”” she said. “”Our biggest challenge is the U.S., because they are 10 times bigger than us. If they are increasing the technology in school, I think there is a public perception that we will be left behind because there is a difference between the access to technology in U.S. versus Canadian.””

Whatever. Technology in Government has offered a number of stories this year profiling the many ways academic institutions are upgrading their infrastructure, like one I did on the Calgary Board of Education and Avaya. Lazaris actually told me this was a “”perception survey,”” which I take to mean that it doesn’t actually provide anything other than cursory information. It does, however, provide one number that Microsoft will be trotting out until the end of time: 78 per cent said it would be a good idea for private sector companies (i.e.: Microsoft) to partner with or sponsor schools to teach children about the Internet.

The respondents who contributed to this frightening statistic may not be aware of a major court decision rendered early this year by a federal court judge in Baltimore. As part of a settlement proposal that would have ended about 100 private class-action lawsuits, Microsoft was to give US$1 billion in money, software, services and training to about 12,500 underprivileged public schools, along with one million Windows licences for refurbished PCs donated to the schools.

Sounds great, until you consider that the software company was trying to make amends for what U.S. courts have described as its anti-competitive conduct in the IT industry. The judge in this case decided the level of funding for the schools and for a private foundation to administer the donations was insufficient. The judge said this shortfall was “”more acutely problematic when viewed in the context of the proposed settlement’s potential adverse impact on competition.”” Exactly.

Stressed-out IT managers in school boards may be gratified the statistics in the survey encourage greater investments in hardware and training, but they should also keep their eyes open. The agenda here is perfectly clear, and it shouldn’t take a secondary source like me to point it out.

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