Mac Lab Report

Defending the Mac in Three Minutes or Less

Notes on Working with the School Board

- 2003.03.06

Last night (Feb 26) I went to the school board meeting to hear what was going to be said in the drive to turn our district into a one-platform (read: PC) shop. Prior to the board meeting, I had written a missive on the various reasons why our district should stay dual platform and had corresponded with most of the board members and spoken to one on the phone.

Of the five board members, one is a systems analyst and fairly well committed to a single platform (but is willing to listen), another has always used PCs at home, and the other three essentially seemed neutral but actively solicited input.

During the course of the evening, we heard from our Deputy Superintendent, Mr. Macy, who presented a variant on the "staff position paper" presented to the board in their briefing book. The variation on the original addressed many of the points brought up in my message and other folks' messages that were sent internally. For example, the rapidity of the transition was softened, a loophole for Mac-only software being an excuse for having Macs was added, the assumption that Dell would be the only vendor for PC purchases in the future was deleted, and the assumption made by myself and others that the Technology Council was disbanded because it hadn't met since last May was apparently false. We were told that the Council would meet again.

Nevertheless, the board's briefing book contained the position paper on the selection of PCs over Mac, and it suffers from several misconceptions and errors, in my opinion. I have written a separate document (below) detailing some of my opinions regarding the conclusions made in this document, and I'll send the board a message directing it to their attention.

The loophole for the use of Macs for specific purposes essentially solves my problem, but there are still larger issues afoot, so I continued to attend to the presentation.

All those points notwithstanding, the position held by district staff still centered on the fact that single-platform districts are simpler to maintain. This point was reiterated, again without any estimate of total cost of ownership or plans to reduce salary expenses from staff due to increased efficiency. A Gartner group study citing the factors involved in migration to single operating systems on single platforms was presented. This report contained the obvious conclusion that having an enterprise with identical workstations is cheaper to operate or maintain than one with mixed platforms and operating systems.

Another Gartner Group study is cited below; be patient and you will be rewarded.

It was also stated plainly that this shouldn't be viewed as a Mac vs. PC debate; even though the briefing paper in the board binder clearly delineated all the supposed advantages of PCs vs. Macs, the argument presented to the board verbally stated that the issue was really single platform vs. dual platform.

...by going all PC we will be "trading down" to the less versatile platform.

One of the issues repeatedly mentioned during the board meeting was the compatibility issue. It is pointed out that the Windows machines in our school cannot open the AppleWorks files that people still occasionally send. On the other hand, Mac users apparently can open everything the PC users send (except executable files and viruses); so by going all PC we will be "trading down" to the less versatile platform.

Speakers representing staff members throughout the district were then allowed to speak for three minutes.

What can you say in three minutes? Basically, you can just reiterate your position.

We heard from a district tech who bravely disputed that PCs were easier to work on than Macs. We heard from two technology teachers who asked where the funds would come from to replace the thousands of Macs we intend to use for years. A parent employed by Lawrence Livermore National Labs estimated replacement costs of hardware, software, training at several million dollars spread over the five years of the "backwards migration" plan. (Okay, forgive me for that little phrase common in the Mac community.) He also noted that the lab uses a variety of operating systems, because each is chosen for the job at hand.

When it was my turn to speak, I thought carefully about what I planned to say. I could extol the virtues of the platform, but on careful consideration I thought that wouldn't hold water with people who had their own opinions on the matter. I could question the financial wisdom of initiating a potentially controversial change with no predicted economic benefit. The result of that, even if the argument were successful, would at best be a temporary advantage because it would undoubtedly be easy to generate a report which would only bolster the case for a single platform. Undoubtedly such a report is already in the process of being generated.

In the end, I decided to go with the curriculum argument, almost but not quite using the words academic freedom. Based on my notes, here is what I said in my three minute allocation:

"I've already corresponded with the members of the board in a rather long message about my point of view on this issue, so I won't repeat those points here. Instead, I'm going to tell you a little story.

"I don't teach technology. I use it to solve problems. I don't believe it is our job to create lessons about the location of items in menus on someone's proprietary software that will be obsolete by the time my kids leave high school.

"It's not about networking, it's not about personal preference or market share or convenience. It's about teachers making choices about how to teach the standards.

"You've heard from the road department; now you need to hear from the person driving the car. I have to get from A to B. That means I have to make choices.

"Any day now in my class, we will begin analyzing photos of the Andromeda Galaxy. In these photos stars are seen to go nova, which means they explode. Using software to analyze the digital images, students can track how the brightness changes over time. We are close - this close - to doing professional level research in my classroom. We're not there yet, but we're very close. And the software that allows us to do this amazing thing runs only on the Mac.

"Well, strictly speaking, there is a PC version. But I learned this summer in a workshop that it doesn't run as well on a PC. And, in particular, it doesn't function correctly at all on Windows 2000, which is our standard implementation at this time for Windows machines.

"I believe this argument isn't really about Mac vs. PC; in fact, I think it is more about teachers making professional judgments about what are the right tools to get the job done.

"Today in my class I presented my students with a problem involving calculations on each of 54 stars. I left the method of getting the job done to them, and on their own some of them decided to break out a spreadsheet and figure out how to copy the data from one program to another and then process it. I told them, you have learned every lesson about technology you need to know. Don't wait for someone to tell you how to push every button. Pick the right tool for the job and get the job done."

Then the 3-minute bell rang, and we all went home. Eventually, the board went home, too, after finishing their agenda.

On March 12, the board votes on the plan.

In the meantime, the board is facing a serious multimillion dollar deficit due to state budget cuts, and has to make painful decisions. From some perspectives, this single-vs.-dual issue is small potatoes compared to writing hundreds of pink slips. On the other hand, I believe this decision is not going to save significant funds but instead will drive costs up due to replacement equipment, training, loss of functionality, purchasing of replacement software and site licenses, and, frankly, morale.

Several teachers I spoke to about this issue said "the board's gonna do what the board's gonna do" and didn't even come to the meeting to express their opinions. I think you should express your opinions but keep the tone professional and respectful, and try to help wherever you can.

When this issue comes up in your district, it'll be easy to look for reasons why the switch to single platform came up in the first place. John Droz suggests on www.macvspc.info that the cause is either ignorance of the Mac's advantages or some scheme to consolidate control of IT services for the purposes of the eventual expansion of the IT department. That's the only flaw I have with his otherwise excellent resource site. You can't make persuasive arguments by assuming that your staff is making unethical decisions based purely on motivated self-interest. I don't think that approach is productive or respectful of the many people who want the children in our district to have the best education possible.

If I have advice for anyone in a similar situation, it's this: Be considerate and open-minded of everyone's opinion. Without evidence to the contrary, you must assume that all stakeholders are in this for the benefit of the kids and are doing what they think is right. It's a principled position, and it carries the risk that you must be willing to comply with the eventual decision. But I feel confident it is the right way to approach this issue.

Notes on Platform Briefing Paper

There are many hidden expenses when switching from dual-to-single platform, some of which we heard discussed at the meeting. One of those hidden expenses is the loss of free services you get from those of us who want to promote the use of technology in ordinary classrooms. I and my TAs have spent hundreds of hours configuring my classroom lab, refurbishing older machines in my department, setting up wireless laptop carts, fixing things, and teaching others how to fix things just to help out.

Our campus technology coordinator reports that we handle 80% of our service calls on campus and forward only 20% to the district. The ratio will undoubtedly shift towards the district if we eliminate the donated services of the many teachers and students who are capable of helping themselves solve problems. If we are to be prevented from this in the future, who will absorb these types of hidden costs and replace these kinds of experiences for the students in my classes?

Will there be a plan to replace the machines that I assembled myself from scrap or discarded machines to retain the functionality I have developed for my classroom, or will I be forced to start over collecting and building PCs from scratch to re-equip my lab? Frankly, I'd rather do without the Internet connection than go through that. Is there an option to "opt out" of tech services to reduce the workload?

I also thought I'd share with you the results of an additional survey I conducted since the last one. I was asked to survey the classified staff about their computing preferences and requirements. The results are that classified staff prefer PCs over Macs by nearly a 9 to 1 ratio. That is an interesting bit of information that Apple Computer ought to note.

Nevertheless, I believe it makes an even stronger case for a dual-platform district. It once again reinforces the idea that we should let the people on the front lines of doing the work choose and use the best tool for the job.

Here are some other specific points related to the briefing paper.

1. AppleTalk is chatty

This is a common misconception; it is based on the "common wisdom" of about ten years ago, before TCP/IP took over the world and the Internet was widespread. Read this site if you're interested in the technical details: http://mac.excaliburworld.com/appletalk.html. This contains network configuration advice that eliminates the problem even on older machines. Bottom line, AppleTalk isn't really necessary on many of the Macs we have. Even the aging Power Mac 5200 common in our elementary schools can run Mac OS 8.1, which can address servers through IP instead of AppleTalk. (Why we require these aging machines to run OS 8.6, which has a much higher processor overhead and hard drive space requirement, is a mystery to me.) When AppleTalk was disabled in my classroom last year, I reset everything myself to use IP addressing - even on my older machines.

2. Ease of transition

It is claimed that it will take as much training to make an Mac user comfortable with OS X as it would to make them comfortable with Windows XP. That is not true, because the OS X machine runs the older Mac software that the users are familiar with in classic mode, which looks exactly like the way they are used to. Aside from moving a few menu commands around and the addition of a taskbar like Dock (note that the Task Bar and the Dock were both copied from the NeXT machine), OS X still has many of the same conventions as previous Mac operating systems, such as having a fixed menu bar at the top of the screen with the ability to open multiple windows without moving the menu commands around. Print is always in the same place, not in a variable location depending on the location of the active window, as it is with Windows. The OS is still aware when disks are inserted and does not mount them until the OS knows what they are; PCs can still eject floppy disks without the OS being aware of it, causing "error reading drive z" errors. So the transition to OS X from OS 8 is far gentler than the transition from OS 8 to Windows XP.

3. SASIxp prefers PCs to Macs

If there were no other choices in the world for student information systems, this would be a more significant point. It's that whole cart-before-the-horse thing. It would be cheaper to replace the SIS than to replace all the workstations accessing it. I hope Pearson is listening.

4. Market share

Apple's current US market share is approximately 3%, according to an Apple executive speaking a couple of days ago. However, when estimating the likelihood that a person will encounter a Mac at home or at work, market share is not necessarily the best indicator because of the higher purchase frequency of PCs due to their shorter lifetimes. In other words, Costco might sell more cheap tires than expensive ones, leading one to believe that cheaper is better because it's more popular. Or it might be the fact that the cheap ones must be replaced more often. Some estimates of Macs "in use" are as high as 10%, and much higher in venues like education, as in our example of 80%. Anecdotally, some of my students prefer PCs, but a surprising number own or prefer Macs. Many of these students and teachers bought Macs because that is what the district has always supported.

5. Single vs. Dual Platform again

I am philosophically inclined to support dual platform over single platform, even if the single platform is Apple. However, with an 80% installed base, perhaps we should consider a single (Mac) platform. Apple servers, unlike servers based on the Windows operating system, allow unlimited clients to connect without charging individual seat fees as Microsoft charges. With regard to desktop use, I found this interesting Gartner Group report online. Gartner is the same group which was noted in the single-vs-dual platform considerations chart presented at the meeting.
Other relevant reports and articles include the following:
Here's an interesting reason to consider removing Microsoft Office from all of our computers campus wide:
2002: "And because the public schools in Portland have 25,000 computers spread across 100 buildings, completing the [Microsoft] audit on time would have required hiring extra personnel at a total cost of around $300,000, Robinson said. Microsoft's licensing agreements include the offer to send out auditors, but the audit cost would fall to the district if company auditors uncovered any undocumented software, he said."

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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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