Mac Lab Report

I Am Not a Mac Fanatic

- 2003.10.09

I am not a Mac fanatic.

I prefer Macs. For many of the tasks I do, they suit me just fine. I must use a PC for some tasks, because there is no Mac alternative. I have no problem with that. Using the right tool for the job is logical and prudent.

Of course, I've written many advocacy articles about using Macs, which you can access here at Low End Mac. I have my suspicions about the motivations of Michael Dell and Bill Gates; but I have misgivings about Steve Jobs, too - none of whom I've met personally, of course, or for that matter even seen at a distance.

People who prefer Macs are often marginalized as "fanatics" who cannot act for the common good because they are blinded by brand loyalty, swayed by ad propaganda or outdated myths of Mac superiority, and so on.

If I'm not a fanatic for Macs per se, why do I expend all this effort? Why do the events in Pinellas County make me disappointed and angry - and wonder if my own district is moving in exactly the same direction? (At the moment we are in a Mac-purchases-are-not-being-approved mode.)

There are exactly two reasons why I am a Mac advocate for schools, and they are both necessary and sufficient to keep me that way. Neither is sufficient to brand me to be a fanatic.

Diversity

Reason #1. Ever hear the phrase "Don't put all your eggs in one basket?" There's a reason why people use this expression. If you put all your eggs in one basket, you risk breaking them all at once.

If every computer ran Windows - every single one without exception - then the right worm or virus or Trojan could bring them all to a halt. Raise your hand if you were inconvenienced by the recent spate of attacks.

Homogenous networks of computers are easier to compromise, because if a flaw is found, they all share it, and it is unlikely that they can all be patched or fixed before they are compromised. (As an aside I think a similar argument can be used to advocate for colonizing other planets post haste - just in case.)

I really believe computer operating systems are almost evolutionary (in the biological sense). In a predator-prey simulation, if one group becomes too numerous, other factors come into play such as disease or starvation or lack of food, and eventually balance is restored. If the world were all Macs, some flaw would cripple the world's networks and by necessity drive the development of something like Windows. If all but a few systems are Windows, then the very thing that makes Microsoft successful - its ability to leverage its monopoly power - will create the Achilles heel that provides opportunities for other operating systems (such as Apple's or for the various flavors of Linux and Unix) to succeed.

The monopoly chokes itself because, once established, it becomes more expensive to deploy (Hello! That's What A Monopoly Is For!) and maintain and eventually drives people away for economic reasons. A monoculture of computers - even in a school district - becomes more vulnerable to attack from a single source. Innovation begins to slow down or cease in a monopoly because the monopolist no longer needs to compete. They may innovate all day, but when profit's at stake, creativity fades and bulk purchases rule - else Michael Dell's life's work has been in vain.

I say this to you in all sincerity: Nothing less than the future of computing is at stake.

We must support multiple platforms for the health of the industry as a whole. We must.

For a robust computing-based economy, there must be competition or the monopoly will die suddenly, like the dinosaurs did. A new version of Linux will burst forth from India or China or the Netherlands or somewhere in the U.S., and its user friendliness and robust nature and low price will grow a market fast enough to make application development profitable.

Our monolithic support of Windows will be our (Americans') undoing if we are not careful; if we import our operating systems as well as our hardware, what will there be left for our undereducated populace to do?

Speaking of education....

Solutions

Reason #2. Dealing with schools specifically, there has never been enough support for technology for most teachers to feel comfortable using it in the myriad ways that are possible. The teacher is the first line of defense for computer problems; the teacher must be the one who decides how to use the software in the classroom; therefore the teacher should assume the responsibility for the choice of tools to be used in the classroom.

Forcing a particular platform, choice of software, or even a textbook should not be done lightly or capriciously, as it was done in Pinellas County. There should be input from all the stakeholders.

Despite the Superintendent's assumption that a change in platform cannot be decided by committee and must be ordered in a sudden, top down way (as was done in that unfortunate circumstance), there is more at stake than just the financial state of the school or the convenience to the IT department.

I'm sorry if your efficiency and underfunding-obsessed budgetary brain can't wrap itself around this concept, but it's true nonetheless. I would rather have one Mac than three PCs in my classroom; that's a cost savings for you. If you're really interested in savings you'll take that one and run with it.

Now for a little parable that happens to be true.

When I was in college, I was involved in exactly one sit-in protest. During this protest students attracted the attention of the local press. News reporters from newspapers and television visited our campus and interviewed the protesters. As editor of the college paper, I was interviewed as well. I was asked if the students were sincere in their complaint.

The complaint? Believe it or not, the complaint that prompted this sit-in was triggered by a sudden reduction of library hours on Sunday evenings.

Hard to believe, eh? But it was true. I told the reporters then that the entire protest was not really about the library hours. The protest was about students being removed from the decision-making process and being made to feel as if their opinions were so unimportant that they didn't even bear listening to.

Students felt as if the administrative decision was made without any regard to the hardest working students who used every minute of time to get work done on the weekend. The ones who put forth the greatest effort were the ones who would be penalized the most (sort of like the Mac fanatics in the PC school), and they were not only not asked, they were told their opinion was irrelevant as the decision was a done deal.

The decisions of administration have a direct impact on morale, on the sense of a community of learners, that weighs heavily on our minds no matter how trivial the issue seems from the top.

Sound familiar?

In district after district, individual administrators are making these sorts of abrupt decisions and assuming that the Mac using staff will simply give up, accepting the change as they accept the extra five students they had compared to last year's class because the school is overcrowded; as they accept the necessity of attending meetings beyond contracted hours; as they accept relenting to pressure from squeaky-wheel parents to magically make certain strategic students' academic problems go away.

This is not the way to build an inspiring, mission-oriented school environment. This is a way to add one more straw to the rickety camel's back.

I don't know how I can say it any plainer than this.

The choice of computer platform and its associated software is a curricular decision. Administration should not meddle any more than is absolutely necessary with these decisions. I am not interested in being convenient, conformist, or cheap. I am interested in doing the best job I know how to do.

As I told one school board member, the administration's and the IT department's job is to assist me. I do not assist them. It seems that in some cases, administration (Mr. Pinellas County Superintendent, I'm talking to you here) has forgotten that.

They can either help me, or they should get out of my way. Any other point of view represents misplaced priorities.

Having said that, let me make myself quite clear.

I am not a Mac fanatic.
I am not a Mac fanatic.
I am not a Mac fanatic.

I am an advocate of choice, of curriculum-driven, teacher-controlled learning environments.

I decorate my classroom. I decide to use metrics and not English units. I assign which problems to do for homework. Why should I want, allow, or even tolerate someone telling me how to run my classroom computing environment?

One last point.

I am not a Mac fanatic.

I am persuadable. I am, really. I've used Macs, PCs, and even God-help-me Atari STs in the classroom. Given the choice of a room full of PC hardware or nothing, I'd choose PCs.

So far, however, no one (no one) has presented me with a compelling argument for me to switch from Macs to PCs. No one has even tried. Is that because they believe I am so vested in my reputation that I can't be persuaded, or because (insert ominous music here) my opinion is simply irrelevant to the decision making process?

There may be plenty of reasons for the district to switch; some of those may be legitimate. Some might not, such as the so-called savings from supporting one platform (nobody has yet responded to the challenge to demonstrate any cost savings from going Windows) or the ability to fire all the Mac technicians and rely on existing staff to work on the increased numbers of PCs. (Has that ever happened either?)

It could be I might even become an advocate for going all PC (Can you believe such a thing? Heresy on a Mac site! Heresy I say!) if and only if someone can convince me that these districtwide reasons are more important than the curricular reasons that drive my decisions. It's unlikely, but it's possible.

I call upon all the PC-using teachers and all so-called Mac fanatics in every district - even if you have PCs at home or own Apple stock - to consider your position carefully. You may claim that Apple computers are easier to use; that may or may not be as true as it used to be, as my own (now dated) analysis of the two platforms began to show two years ago.

You may take the party line that students should use Windows at school because that's what they'll use in business; but do you really believe Windows will stay enough the same that the training they get in school will be relevant in the slightest? I hardly think so, not with the breakneck pace of innovation flowing from Redmond. Wouldn't you rather have a student who was more versatile rather than a student who only knows one way to do things?

Choice

I call upon all of you to consider this question: Do you want to be a single-platform advocate or an advocate of teacher-driven choice?

Sooner or later, someone downtown is going to make you make that decision.

If I am not a Mac fanatic, what am I?

I am a choice fanatic. My choice is Mac. Your choice is whatever it is, and more power to you. And from now on, every time someone snickers at me when they sheepishly admit to my face they prefer PCs, I'm going to point that out to them.

And now, one last question: What are you?

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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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