OTTUMWA — Bob Meyers isn't sure when the invasion started, when he first saw computers making their way into schools.
“Oh, gosh. Let me think here for a minute because I've been out for 10 years now,” he said. “Maybe as far back as the late 1980s.”
Sure, there were computers in the schools earlier, but the encroachment was gradual. It proceeded at different speeds in different areas.
Early computer companies were transitory. Survival wasn't guaranteed, and if you bought the wrong system, you could find yourself out in the cold. Texas Instruments is an example. They still make calculators, but they once made computers.
Such a fluid environment posed a risk for schools, which often had small tech budgets, and the teachers who occasionally brought computers in from home.
“Some of us purchased those on our own and started using those on a limited scale,” Meyers said.
It happened slowly. The Apple IIE came with floppy disks that were actually, well, floppy. Microsoft rose, bringing early versions of the world's dominant operating system into education. In fits and starts the silicon advanced until it achieved a level of dominance those early users could never have expected.
Perhaps nothing has altered classrooms more in the past couple decades than technology.
Never has more information, both accurate and otherwise, been so accessible. Looking up answers with a few keystrokes is a vastly different exercise than tracking it down in a library. Where technology once meant a card catalog, today it most often involves a keyboard.
There's broad agreement on one basic point: Students must graduate with basic technological skills. They will use computers, spreadsheets, databases and email on a regular basis in most professions. Even trades will use a computer interface to track materials and make sure employees have what they need to get the job done.
But how do you prepare students to use new tools while still ensuring their basic skills are solid?
For Joel Pedersen, superintendent of the Cardinal school district, balance is key. The district has clearly embraced technology, becoming one of the first in Iowa to issue every student in middle school and high school a laptop. That changed in 2012 to the Kuno tablets, and the district introduced a mobile app the same year.
This past spring, Cardinal students used Skype to talk live with an orphanage in Uganda. They spent a half-hour talking to people on a different continent eight hours ahead of southeast Iowa.
“We really feel like technology in some regards prepares students for the 21st-century skills that we need,” said Pedersen. “But technology cannot take the place of quality instruction.”
For Cardinal, the tablet blended those approaches better than other options. It allowed students to use software that was aimed at their education while screening other content out. There's another advantage as well, since it can help with students managing their assignments.
Technology can be a generational issue with younger people generally more willing to take on the challenge of mastering something new. That poses an additional hurdle for schools, which may have teachers with decades of experience in everything but technology.
Pedersen said that's where the district's leadership has to step up. Providing people with the tools doesn't mean much unless you are also willing to give people the chance to learn how to use them.
“The leadership in the school has to embrace technology. They have to be sure support is available,” he said. He added that even the support means little if the district isn't willing to ensure it is used.
For a lot of people, that's part of the concern. There's a limit to the trust given technology in schools. Everyone agrees it is necessary, but something interesting happens when you ask people about it: A clear distrust emerges. People fear schools are abandoning basic skills in a race for a technological edge.
The Courier asked people on its Facebook page what the most critical piece of technology is for students and how people use it in their own lives. The first response: “A book and you read it.”
Some granted the importance of technology, but said the basics of education, “pen, paper and listening skills,” as one person put it, are getting overlooked. They wondered whether students are learning to do research or put their thoughts into a coherent form without relying on the Internet.
Tonya Putnam sees both sides as a teacher in Van Buren County. She knows how it can help ease the process or hold it back.
Tools reach their limits when they become crutches. Text lingo seeps into written assignments. Homophones become insurmountable challenges as students struggle with the difference between to, too and two. Technologically advanced students' abilities are crippled when they lose the ability to right-click mistakes off the screen.
“Spellcheck,” said Putnam, “didn't do us any justice.”
Technology is both an opportunity and a challenge in the classroom. It can teach or disrupt. Students aren't the only ones who need help; teachers can be just as lost. A lesson plan built around Internet videos can be tossed out the window when the Internet connection goes down.
That makes flexibility key. Putnam recalls one class when she was a student teacher in which the students were told to get out their cell phones for a quiz. Cell phones are anathema in many schools, disruptive at best and tools for cheating at worst.
But this quiz was multiple choice, with students texting a code to answer. A website processed the texts, showing the results in real time. That gave the teacher valuable feedback on whether the lesson from the previous day needed to be reviewed or if students had absorbed the material. And the students loved it.
“Most of the time we tell students, 'Don't have your phones out,' ” she said.
Even those with concerns recognize technology isn't leaving the classroom. Things have changed and will continue to change. Adaptation and integration are the keys to moving forward. Teachers need the same technological proficiency as their students.
“Technology really takes all of us to make it work,” said Putnam.