I used to love Food Network. My wife and I would make time to watch Alton Brown and marvel in the science of food that we would have no hope in making ourselves. Alton had a practical way of dealing with cooking appliances, focusing on what was the best value for the task. He once smoked a beef brisket using a couple of flowerpots because spending all that money on a commercial smoker, which only did one thing seemed pointless. He called these frivolous devices “uni-taskers” because they only did one thing. Grapefruit spoons, lemon zesters, egg-slicers all fell by the wayside replaced by practical devices that cost less and did more.
The same logic would seem to work in teaching. Why spend a lot of money on a device that only does one thing? Why shell out valuable budget money on a one-shot wonder? The two things that relate to me right now are iPods and Netbooks, which, I am told are set to replace my beloved Alphasmarts and Clickers.
The Alphasmart, as many might know, is a little keyboard thingy with a small black and white screen attached to it. All it does is type. Kids type up a report on it, then when they are done, they plug it into a computer’s USB port and it is automatically (no software needed) imported into whatever open application you might have open. The going debate is to replace Alphasmarts with netbooks, which act as a full-fledged computer and cost only a hundred dollars more.
Clickers are a remote response system that allows a teacher to give students “tests” using little remote-controls. There are dozens of products out there and many of them do a great job. I have used them in the past to great effect and am waiting for a new set here in Greenwood. I am told by people in power that the clicker will soon be replaced by the iPod touch. which will act as a do-all device for students, clicker, email, calculator, research device and so on.
Maybe I am a bit of a Luddite in this department, but I love my Alphasmarts because they are simple and they work. I never have to deal with students playing with fonts when they should be typing, they are tough enough for me to send them into the lunchroom when a student needs to get caught up, and there is no way they could play games or surf the web. They are distraction-proof; being boring makes them better. The same goes for clickers. They are simple to set up and never seem to go wrong. I don’t have to direct students through menus or apps; I don’t worry about them playing Angry Birds. All they have to do is turn their clicker on, put in their lunch code, and start working.
Both of these devices do only one thing. But I think that Alton might be wrong on this one. In the classroom, sometimes the best answer is not the Swiss army knife of electronic gadgets; sometimes you need a dependable uni-tasker.