Mac Lab Report

SPECIAL EDITION

Open Letter to the Board of Education on Single Platform Computing

- 2003.02.21

This is an open letter to the members of the Antioch Unified School District Board of Education - and any other district board considering making a migration from Macs to Windows PCs. It will eventually be posted online at Low End Mac. I would like to ask Dan Knight, publisher of Low End Mac, not to include any email addresses of board members or district staff in the posting, and respectfully ask my readers to direct comments to me and not district personnel. I am posting this message as an open letter hoping it may assist others in similar situations.

Dear Board Members,

I found out a couple of days ago that our district is suddenly making a unilateral switch to "single platform" from "dual platform." This message is one of those "heartfelt and sincere" viewpoints you may have heard about. My views on the Mac vs. PC debate are well documented (http://www.lowendmac.com/lab/), but for this letter I am going to present only a few of my best arguments for keeping the district dual platform.

Let me be clear, however, that I believe sincerely that the proposal being brought to you to go single-platform was written with the district's best interests at heart, in a sincere attempt to improve services and reduce expenses for information technology within the district. However, I do not believe going to a single platform - Mac or PC - is the best decision. Here are my reasons why.

  1. Curricular requirements
  2. Teacher Preferences
  3. Budgetary decisions driving curriculum design
  4. Basis for the decision
  5. Discarding our considerable investment in Macintosh computers and expertise
  6. Technical merits
  7. Decision making process
  8. Unseen contributions to school technology infrastructure and support

1. Curricular requirements

At least two programs I plan to use in my classes are Mac-only programs. A change in curriculum would be required were I eventually forced to switch to Windows. These programs are NIH Image from the National Institutes of Health, and A-OK the Wings of Mercury. There is a supposedly equivalent program for NIH Image called Scion Image developed for Windows, which I learned at a conference last summer will not run well on Windows 2000. A-OK the Wings of Mercury, a program I am planning to purchase for simulating a space mission over a network mimicking Mission Control for a Mercury Redstone flight, is a Mac only product. Since this kind of thing is undoubtedly true in reverse, this is an argument for dual platform rather than Mac-only platform.

In keeping with this point of view, I asked the DVHS Department chairs to survey their staff and ask the following: Based on curricular requirements (best platform for teaching a topic in your judgment) how many teachers require Macs or PCs or don't care? The responses were 9 teachers said the Macintosh is essential to their curriculum (as in #1 above). 22 teachers said the PC was critical, and approximately 50 said platform didn't matter.

This isn't about voting for personal preference (see #3), but rather about these teachers' professional judgment about the best way to conduct their class. Other comments sent to me included mathematics, music, art, and journalism software which is either Mac-only or has a superior Mac version compared to the PC version. That means a significant number of students would be impacted if forced to switch to the PC platform. This once again supports cross-platform over single-platform. And this is only a single school in the district.

This point alone is a necessary and sufficient reason to direct the district staff to keep the district dual platform.

2. Teacher Preferences

In the same survey above, there was another question about simple platform preference. In this question, 19 teachers preferred to use a Mac at work, 32 chose PC, and 19 didn't care. Once again, cross platform preferences are clearly more desirable than single platform. No one is suggesting we make the district all Mac; despite the many advantages that would present (not the least of which is near freedom of attack from viruses), I am writing this in support of letting teachers make the best professional judgment of what tools they need to teach with.

3. Budgetary decisions driving curriculum design

Are we allowing the IT department's slice of the budget drive our curricular decisions? Wouldn't this be equivalent to making the math department all only inch-based rulers because they are cheaper than metric? Given that choice, I'd vote for fewer metric rulers, not more inch-based rulers.

Personally, I'd trade a dozen PCs for one good Mac. Really. Maybe the answer is fewer machines, not identical machines. Maybe there are other solutions as well.

We make these kind of difficult decisions all the time when we opt to buy classroom sets of books instead of buying an alternative (but inappropriate) book for everyone simply because it is cheaper. If it works for books, why not computers?

The critical question which must be asked is: Do we have a policy of Educational Technology or a policy of Technological Education?

4. Basis for the decision

We are told that it will be cheaper to operate a single-platform district than a dual-platform district. Without seeing the precise calculations involved, it is difficult to judge alternative methods of cutting expenses. What is the total cost of ownership over the life of the machines in question? Although Macs are more expensive to purchase - sometimes - how long is their useful life?

I have machines in my classroom which are six years old (and older) still fulfilling a useful purpose. How many classrooms are still doing useful work with six year old PC computers?

You should ask for a specific breakdown of exactly where the expenses will be saved. There are a number of papers posted on the mechanics of TCO calculation at the following website: http://www.macvspc.info. This is an independent website created by a concerned citizen of a school district back east when his district suddenly decided to switch to all-PC computers despite the fact that most of the computers in the district were Macs.

5. Discarding our considerable investment in Macintosh computers and expertise

We have hundreds of Macs on our campus, and to gradually withdraw support for them will effectively waste hundreds of thousands of dollars we worked diligently to obtain through grant sources for this districts - not to mention the many hardware sensors that only work with Macs and site licenses we have for Mac versions of software. The discarding of so much effort cannot be ignored by the hard working teachers who completed the applications for Digital High School, for example. This has the effect of devaluing the work done on these projects. Good technology-savvy teachers are hard to find.

6. Technical merits

New machines running OS X can function just fine on the school network; I have been piloting the use of an OS X machine for nearly a year. The only application which does not "behave" properly is ClassXP, which I understand is being ported to OS X this spring. I could write a long message on this point alone, but again I refer you to the archive of over 100 articles I have written on this topic posted at http://www.lowendmac.com/lab/ and the excellent independent web site http://www.macvspc.info .

One point I will make: Just because a Mac (like any computer) can be infected with a virus doesn't mean it's likely to be infected. There are over 35,000 known viruses for PCs, and just 50 or so for Macs. None have so far been reported for the new Mac OS X as far as I am aware. The payoff for virus writers to wreak havoc is clearly drawing them to the dominant platform.

Last summer, I attended a workshop at the University of Arizona where users were asked which platform they would like to use to connect to the University network for file sharing and printing. 10 teachers chose Macs, and 20 teachers chose PCs. When we arrived at the computer lab, all 10 Macs connected to the network and were able to print within 15 minutes. Connecting my own machine took less than 2 minutes.

It took the better part of three hours for three instructors and a technician to connect the PCs to the network and select the printer properly for all of them; computers running Windows Me never could connect, and a couple of users running Windows 2000 were unable to run the main piece of software chosen for the workshop. The problem repeated twice as we moved to Kitt Peak National Observatory for further work and then returned again to the original lab to finish.

The reason I am relating this story? I was the one who figured out how to configure the PCs to surf and print.

I am not a programmer and not trained in networking. I am just an experienced user. I can use a Mac, and I can use a PC. It may or may not be easier to network with the all-Microsoft infrastructure we have established over the past several years. That question is better left to technicians better trained than I am. However, the Internet functionality and LAN access beyond my classroom is not terribly critical to my curriculum, as I am asking my students to create content more often than they look it up somewhere else.

Letting the networking requirements drive my curricular decisions represents misplaced priorities. I choose the Mac because it is the better platform. However, I am not unaware that the PC has its merits as well, such as the larger number of choices for software.

There is also the somewhat questionable argument that students should be trained on the platform they will use in business in later life. Given that schools always lag behind the latest version of software, it's highly unlikely that by the time they reach the work site they will see an operating system that looks the same as what they used in public school. Do you think that the training they received on Windows 3.1 in the 5th grade has relevance to the world of work they enter after the 12th?

Students need to understand what the computer does in general, know what is possible, and be brave enough to go figure it out in an unfamiliar environment on demand.

I have students who regularly ask "Where is the Internet on this computer?" and "How do you get to the typing thing?" These students are victims of the one-platform mentality that prevents them from understanding how a computer works in general. That is why I am an advocate of dual platform over single platform. It's better for the kids.

7. Decision making process

I have not yet seen any specific details of the transition plan. Logic suggests certain characteristics must be included. Given that any transition plan would have to be long-term, because there certainly is no money to suddenly replace all the Macs in use on campus, why is there a sudden urgency to bring this decision to a conclusion? While it is true that input was solicited from the various departments downtown at the district office, technology teachers and others, according to your briefing memo these meetings were not about if we would switch, they were about how and when to switch. (Do I count as a technology teacher? I don't teach technology per se - I and my students just use it when necessary. Isn't that the point of educational technology?) For the record, I knew about the meeting for technology teachers mentioned in your briefing paper, but I could not attend on short notice.

When I was in college, I was involved in exactly one protest. I reported on it for the college paper. It was, believe it or not, about the sudden announcement of the administration to reduce library hours on Sunday nights. Students held a sit-in on the library steps, the news media showed up, the administration came and asked for students to disperse, the whole nine yards. What I came to find out as I interviewed the protesters was that the issue wasn't with the library hours themselves, but the fact that the administration has switched them without talking to all the stakeholders involved - in this case, student government.

It seems to me that the recently disbanded Technology Council might have been the appropriate venue for this sort of decision.

8. Unseen contributions to school technology infrastructure and support

Many teachers have invested training time, effort, and money in purchasing software and equipment for their home computers - which are often Macs. When I was hired in the district, frankly, one of the things that attracted me was that Macs were prevalent and Mac users were welcomed. It was a selling point in my recruitment.

It is also true that a number of us have donated many hours of volunteer effort to assist other teachers in setting up labs of computers, troubleshooting, piloting various combinations of software and operating systems, refurbishing older machines and configuring newer ones to work on the various network configurations that have been adopted over the past several years. For example, I and my TA's converted over 100 computers from the old proxy servers with fixed IP addresses to the new DHCP networking protocol. A switch from dual platform to single platform will convert all of these donated services into IT expenses.

There are many other points which could be made - such as the old standard about Macs being made from a sole-source vendor instead of PCs being made from many different vendors (a specious argument, because no one is suggesting that the entire district go all Macintosh, therefore they cannot be a sole-source vendor) - but I will leave you with this. We understand that cost cutting measures are necessary in these tight budgetary times. We understand that hard and unpopular decisions may have to be made. From my perspective, this is not a question about popularity or personal preference or even just being comfortable with what you are familiar with.

All that we ask is that you direct District staff to find other ways of reducing IT expenses besides converting the district to a single platform, and at the very least provide more time for the discussion to be scheduled with all stakeholders. One of those groups are the non-technology teachers who use technology every day.

Disclaimer. You should also know that I am not employed in any way by Apple Computer; my role at Low End Mac is as an independent columnist, free to express my opinion on any matter related to educational technology.

Thanks for your time,

Jeff Adkins
Science Department Chair
Deer Valley High School
Antioch, CA 94509
http://homepage.mac.com/dvhscience/

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is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.

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