FTLComm - La Ronge - November 9, 2000

Heather Robertson

So what does it mean, when a noted author and journalist like Heather Robertson suggests at a Prince Albert Conference that the technology explosion in Schools is not being questioned enough. Heather Robertson is not someone to be taken lightly, she has distinguished herself with some remarkable work and is one of the few Canadian authors who has been able to see her country as a whole and with this expanded viewpoint she has often seen considerably more with a greater perspective than most.



levelling the playing field

Perhaps the most important point she made speaking to delegates to the School Based Administrators Conference was that: “Some of us want to believe there’s something magic that happens when we turn to machines. We (middle class parents) see it as a strategic advantage for our kids in terms of levelling the playing field.” She went on to explain how it is really quite the opposite as technology is creating a much wider rift in society and that largely benefits those who already have power.



surprisingly late

What is surprising about her comments is that it has taken so long for a writer of her stature to point this out. What is even more distressing is that society as a whole is so completely unaware of the power and forces that have already utterly reshaped the society in which we think we live. I have stated this before and must remind you, that when we become aware of a major change, we are only seeing its results, the change has already taken place and we are talking about a historical situation. To help you work this problem through, let’s just go over the time line here and it might help you to realise why this revelation by Ms. Robertson is so surprisingly late.




By 1962 most large businesses had already made the transition from paper based to computer based data handling. It was my first year in college and I used to hang around the IBM office on Albert Street in Regina. The machines of the day were laughable, but that was when Heather should have been paying attention, because that was when it happened.




With a teacher as the President of the United States in the 60s the US developed a Nation Department of Education and a remarkable movement toward “machine” teaching had begun as vast sums of money poured into education as Johnson wanted to see America’s Blacks catch up academically.




In the seventies the military take over of the United State’s economy was complete and both the space race and Viet Nam, saw technological advances at an unprecedented rate. The Internet had already been functioning for a decade at this point.



Commodore Pets

In 1978 the first personal computers were being slapped together and were little more than toys, but no one I knew thought they were going to stay that way, and at a teachers convention in 1979 a fellow from Regina was selling Commodore Pets.



Apple ][+

In 1980 the school I was principal of received its first Apple ][+ computers and they really worked. I remember my wife coming frantically over to the school in the middle of the night thinking something had happened to me and discovered me happily and busily devouring the things that little box could do. We had ours by December 81.




By 1984 we were on line, I was at graduate school in Regina and my wife was teaching and looking after the family in the Yukon and each night we exchanged our daily reports in e-mail and used a chat line. (That was sixteen years ago friends.)




In 1986 my computers was a portable and in the fall of 87 I was carrying a sewing machine style portable PC from school to school and did most everything with the machine at home and my little Apple portable at work.




In 1989 I was drawing up lab plans for school GS systems, using a Mac server and in 91 my son bought his Mac over the Internet from a guy in New York. That same year I had a Mac lab running a network. I would do that in each of the two next years.




In 1993 the new Mac on my office desk could talk and was using a modem to transfer files and access the Internet (Saskatchewan did not get SaskTel’s Internet operational until May of 95). In November of 93 my school was being run on a Mac server, all reporting, data handling, attendance and correspondence was online in the school’s network.




In 1995 Saskatchewan got the Internet across the province with SaskTel.



thirty eight years

The Question is, if this is a technological explosion where was Heather Robertson from 1962 until 2000. The stream of technological development has gone on continuous and for most of us ponderously slowly for the past thirty eight years. We have had computerised systems in our cars since 1978, twenty-two years is a very long time.



more work done by fewer and fewer people

In the late sixties my father was moving from labour to management and I can remember him explaining completely and articulately how automation in the railroad industry would move rapidly forward seeing more and more work done by fewer and fewer people. He knew that this world was coming and you can talk to him by e-mail any time you want because he has been online since 1996. He is on his second computer and is much more satisfied now that he has a high speed connection.



same thing five full
years ago

If you have missed the point folks, that’s all right, most folks were left in the dust over twenty years ago and that rift Robertson was talking about is widening exponentially. Yesterday, I talked to a Director of Education, he is the CEO of an operation that handles millions of dollars a year and he told me he knew he was behind the technology curve, he uses the Internet at home but has just not made the transition at work, he told me the same thing five full years ago and I am convinced that when he retires he will be in the same position. Now for the important part, it doesn’t matter. He has people who can do things for him and he does not need to develop his skills any further.



eighteenth century

That’s fine for the Director of Education, but what about your kids? There is a divide, it is intellectual and it is skill oriented and it is as real as any difference in society has ever been. Those who are with a mindset that will let them see the rest of the world and those who will live their lives in the 19th century. You see the Information Technology age is almost past us as we move further into a cyber-economy and to go back in history and find a similar time to now you have to go back to the amazing world of the eighteenth century of Emma and Heathcliff and Milton. The isolated interdependent, yet self contained world of the individual is once more upon us. Personal communication matters, so does personal opinion and personal preferences. The mindset of the factory, of the assembly line and work crew, is as foreign as Martian sand dunes.



technical peasant

If we swept Cree away from everyone who speaks it, if we outlawed French and Spanish, with each language we would lose important cultural elements, intangibles of concept borne in the words and phrases that embody the thoughts of those speakers. If you fail to become involved in the dialogue of the present, the flow of thought and experience that goes with it, will not be a part of your world and you will not be poorer because of it, but you will find it incomprehensible, an outside and forever a technical peasant.


a full
blown language

Information Technology is not new and the ways of handling information of all kinds is becoming far more complex than anything we as a species have ever dealt with since we left the tribal jungles. Today a girl in my class wrote an essay using all capitals and I had to explain to her how offensive that was. Not to her, or perhaps others, but to the people in the Information Technology world, the use of all capitals is consider rude, it is called “shouting”. There are subtleties in every culture, but one as vast and expansive as that which is evolving about us is loaded with a maze of communication innuendoes, that only experience of a lifetime can teach. If you miss out on what is going on when you are a child you will never catch up for those learning moments will have passed, and the child will never know what he/or she did not “get”. Language is like that and Information Technology is for all intents and purposes, a full blown language.




Heather Robertson is right to ask people to question Information Technology but for schools to think that they can muddle along is to be dysfunctional. Birmingham England is a big place and they have decided to make sure every kid in the city has access. No folks, not in the schools, in the homes. The first home connect programs were carried out in the United States in Illinois and California half a decade ago. Every US classroom is online.




In 1998 I discovered a minor change had occurred in the way I was selling computers. I no longer extolled the virtues of the machines capabilities, its operating system, its memory, hard drive and peripheries. No, I discussed with the customer the colour that would best go with the room they would be placing the machine and how was the best way to wire it into their home network. If this seems like foreign stuff to you, then you realise I am talking about something that took place two years ago. That sales pitch is now two years old, its history.




The last set of computers I sold involved four machines and no wires. All machines are networked without a hard wire connection and all access the Internet at the same time using a single telephone line. Even this story is four months old, just as my middle son began routine video streaming online six months ago, and routine video conferencing in my office is a full two years in the past.



teachers are twenty years behind

As we talked about this issue my wife pointed out that declaring the problem twenty years old does not solve the immediate problem. Teachers are in classrooms dealing with their students and they are at the point we were twenty years ago. We have to start now and figure out a strategy to handle this serious matter. The problem is these teachers are twenty years behind the times, no wonder they feel like they are in a technology explosion. They have been living in their isolated world, that is not connected to the real world and suddenly they are confronted with students who have computer technology in their homes and they have to deal with a resource based curriculum that demands that they utilise materials that involve a technology that to them, is completely in another language.



technological vanishing point

The rift valley is real, it is a technological vanishing point and those who have been involved for the many years in the past can view the world through the eyes of awareness and with them is insight into the good, bad and the ugly parts of what Information Technology is doing to their lives and their society. On the other side are those who are oblivious and yet aware that something is going on and up until now we have cheerfully acknowledged that being ignorant is acceptable.



catastrophic mistake

Acceptable ignorance is the cause of this rift valley. The people who pay for things, board members and the community at large, had little or no awareness back in the late seventies and when computers were placed in schools they associated the technology with electronic games and for this and other reasons demanded that the equipment purchased for schools be placed in the school on the expressed caveat that it be for student use. This is not a minor issue, this was a catastrophic mistake. This technology belonged on the teachers desk and in the teacher’s study at home. Schools should have insisted that teachers either buy computers or that they should have been provided with them. But that did not happen and hence we now have the rift valley.



accepted ignorance

The charitable things we, the computer geeks have said and done have been as mean and nasty as the things that have been done and said by the pencil and book crowd. We who knew and realised that if we all did not get involved there would develop a major difference in the way we worked and perceived things. But what did we do, we were gentle and polite and we let them make their little jokes about how they don’t know about technology but are getting along just fine. We accepted ignorance and perhaps even encouraged it while at the same time the no adopters of the coming world further fell behind.




Think about a car built in 1981 and compare it with one built in 2001 and you immediately realise what it means to think that time can stand still. Those on the IT side of the valley don’t even need roads, think in another dimension and are aware of the next age of both technology and software that is dawning and they do so with awareness that, “well so things evolve.” But the folks on the other side of the valley are in 1981 and no matter what they do now, they have missed twenty years of development and they are away more than overwhelmed with what has come down the pipe already, what will they do with the thoughts that created the stuff to show up this time next year.




Four years before the present grade twelves entered school we were using e-mail, reading news groups and interacting with one another. This is not a present day technological explosion it is perfectly normal and what have the education planners and teachers been doing for those years, the time it takes a kid to be born and grow to an age to qualify to get a drivers license? They have been ignoring, yes hoping that this fad will pass away like the hoola hoop. Yeah, I know if you were not a kid in 1956 you don’t know what a hoola hoop is, well Whammo made millions off a piece of garden hose stapled together and like the leaves turn from green to ambler the hoola hoop was just a quick fun fad. Information Technology is now the main economic engine of North America, it has replaced General Motors and all the other hardware based things that made up the consumer economy of the past and it is evolving at a remarkable but predictable rate.



electronic knuckle draggers

Almost everyone who reads this is on the wired and connected side of the valley but just in case you are over there with the electronic knuckle draggers, here is what is coming.


  1. Every computer online connected to the Internet all the time.

  2. Because of continuous connection the spread of inexpensive (almost free) work terminals that get their operating system, store their data and obtain their software online.

  3. Software development is now almost entirely based on what can be done from a connection, individuals buying software is approaching the end of its time.

  4. Ubiquitous dedicated appliances that have limited function but offer access to specific things like e-mail, news and information readers and communication devices (Internet based).

  5. Electronic books, there are several on the market now that use an LCD screen and memory to hold several volumes and can be carried around just for reading. Those will be soon considered interesting fading technology as cheap, page like books with plastic sheets that will reconfigure with each loading. The technology for this is now over a year old and the page circuitry is so inexpensive it is actually printed with an Epson inkjet printer.




Who will use these devices, those on the electronic side of the valley, just like they have been snapping up MP3 music players and wrist worn cell phones. The printed circuit and memory chips are driving imaginations and manufacturers will make anything that the geeks will buy. Should you fear or be concerned about this? Damn right you should because with every new product the rift valley gets wider.
  Timothy W. Shire