Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Autobiography of a Technology User

By AdamBaronPhoto
It is very difficult to write an autobiography of a technology user in a short space. This is especially true when you are in your mid forties and realize that you have experienced quite a bit of the history of the personal computer. I started with PCs that did not have hard drives and used 5 1/4 inch floppy disks. I remember my older brother getting a calculator in the mid seventies that cost a few hundred dollars and now can be bought for less than twenty. My experience with technology has been a bit like riding a wave. There have been times in my life that I have nearly been left behind and other times I have been nearly crushed at the front of it and other time have ridden high on it. 

My first encounter with personal computers was in 1979. I had joined a computer club in grade eight but there was no computer—we couldn’t afford one. We talked about building one from a kit. By grade 11 I was taking the first computer course offered at our school. We had six Apple II computers to use among 30 students. It was all about programming using BASIC. We wrote our code long hand and waited for our turn to type our code into the computer.

 My life as a regular technology did not start until several years later. My first degree is in political science and history. I loved it but did struggle somewhat as a writer and a researcher. Nearly every paper I wrote could have benefited from more editing and massaging. I could not touch type and wrote every paper using the hunt and peck technique on a manual typewriter so time was an issue. As a graduate student I had a number of research jobs and contracts.  Secretaries had large word processors on their desk and other workers had terminals that hooked up to the mainframe but a lowly student researcher could not be afforded access to such technology. It is difficult to believe or even admit but in 1988, I ended up quitting a research position partly due to my lack of computer knowledge. I finally was given a computer terminal to work at. There was no graphical user interface and no one designated to train new users. Everyone was just trying to survive.
386SX--My First Computer
That experience made me feel like I was falling behind. I realized that my technological education was not going to be just handed to me and that I needed to become the author of my own learning. In 1990 I went out and bought my first computer, a 386SX with 2 MB of Ram and a 40 MB hard drive for $2000. The computer was running the amazing Windows 3.1 operating system. The only thing more expensive I owned was my car.
Shortly after my first computer purchase I went back to university to study English. I did it through distance education. Everything was paper based and I mailed all my assignments. Nevertheless, this was the first time I could compose and edit entire papers using a computer. The experience was a major shift. Writing was a much more dynamic process.  For the first time I was able to edit and re-edit my work with abandon. It was truly revolutionary. My academic performance improved by an entire letter grade. I wondered what else was possible. By this time a computer was part of daily life. All my writing tasks were done on the computer and all my volunteer work for a church board, including budget items were all computerized. The internet was to come later.

In 1991, I began working on my secondary teaching degree. Even though computer labs were a common sight in many schools, none of my teaching methods teachers or books mentioned using computers. I did not have much room for electives in my program but I did however get to take one course on the evaluation and selection of educational software.  The focus was the pedagogy used by the software. “Drill and kill” software was contrasted with simulation software and problem solving games. The whole concept of what constituted edutainment was heatedly discussed.  Fast forward to today and it seems that the edutainment debate continues but the discussion of what is good pedagogy at times is inverted. Our idea of what constitutes good pedagogy sometimes originates from the technology around us rather than the educational technology arising out of the application of principles of good pedagogy.

In my first year of teaching in a small town in central BC, I ended up with a teaching load that included teaching “keyboarding” in a computer lab. I got this part of the job because it was considered undesirable; no one else on staff “knew” how to operate network features of the lab. I didn’t either but my experiences with my home computer had given me confidence that I could learn how and teach myself if necessary. I didn’t even know how to touch-type so I bought a keyboarding program and was typing 40 words a minute by the time classes started. The school had framed the course more as computers an object of study or at the best something to type a final draft of an essay on. I turned the course into a school newsroom and desktop publishing centre.  We only had Microsoft Word and one copy of MS Publisher to work with, but the kids immediately recognized that what they were doing now was connected to the real world and that the technology they were using was helping them produce work and meaning that they had not been able to or motivated to do before.

Two years later I found myself being interviewed for a job as an educational consultant. The job was to teach teachers how to use the World Wide Web and educational software and how to integrate it with their teaching.  In hindsight the interview process was an excellent example of the shift in thinking about technology, job skills and lifelong learning. Most of the short listed applicants knew nothing about the Internet. We were all called into the company office and told we had one week to learn everything we could about the Internet and how to use it and put together an hour long educational workshop for teachers. We were lent laptops and given access to a dialup internet connection and told not to come back until our scheduled presentation time. After getting the job my employer said they were far more interested in an employee’s ability to learn rather than the knowledge they possessed at the time they were hired. They knew everything about technology was going to change and that what their employees needed to know to do their job a year or two for now no one would know. Ironically within a few years of ending my employment due to a lack of technological knowledge I began a new career centered on technology and my ability to learn it.

With the rollout of the Provincial Learning Network (PLN), an initiative to have high-speed Internet in all BC schools, my work became less and less about educational software and more about how to use the Internet, highlighting the resources that were available and how to publish to it. Once schools became connected and access speed increased I saw the Internet as the cheaper alternative to educational software. The access to information and the ability to communicate and publish worldwide was something the educational software couldn't do.  At the time, I did not consider it a better alternative to some simulation and creativity software since the web's interactivity was so limited. In those days I spent hours searching for websites and making bookmark lists which I would export and give to my clients.

As a technology user I also became very much immersed in web publishing. I set up my own website for my consulting business using the simple web editors of the day. I had a little HTML programming knowledge but it was the growth and maturation of programs such as Adobe PageMill and Microsoft FrontPage that really made this world accessible to me. The amount of time I spent keeping my website up-to-date was horrendous and took valuable time from my other work responsibilities as a consultant.  I was also a father of young kids and my wife worked full time as well. I had to become more efficient. I started to use a laptop on all my road trips so I could do all my invoicing and billing on plane flights and do my workshop preparation in my hotel room.  I bought my first digital organizer for telephone contacts and addresses.  I began to upload all my workshop handouts to my website so I no longer had to copy them for workshops which was a great time and cost saver.

In 1999, after working several years as a consultant, I switched to a job as an educational technologist for the Greater Victoria School District. This experience took me from being a user to a deliverer of technology. I helped create and maintain networks. I helped schools develop technology plans and set up school websites. My job involved making the best out of the technology that the schools had.  I was often involved in keeping older Mac and PC networks running and making do with the software that was in the school and even promoting less reliance on the Web since the older computer were becoming less and less capable of navigating the ever expanding requirements of the Internet. Since the district could not accommodate very much of what was new in the world of technology my development as a technology user began to stagnate. It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to return to the classroom that I got a real wake up call. The students wanted more.

In 2004, close to the time I returned to the job of a classroom teacher I purchased a newdigital camera. The picture quality was starting to match that of a film camera. It transformed how I viewed and managed my memories. It sparked a new interest in technology and gave me a new focus in my work with students. Digital cameras were becoming very affordable and schools could acquire a few without too much sacrifice. I got very interested in multimedia presentations. Budgets at school being limited I stuck with existing programs like Hyper Studio, KidPix Slideshow, PowerPoint and Moviemaker. I combined this technology use with my previous Internet skills and did a lot of resource based learning with kids and we created presentations to share learning. I stayed in this mode until I started doing my diploma in teacher-librarianship.  I began seeing a lot more interactivity being used in my online courses and then the buzz about Web 2.0 began. I have dabbled with a number of Web 2.0 tools but have not yet integrated them to any great degree with my teaching. I find it a difficult leap with my K to 5 students.  Managing all the online accounts and having some problems with bandwidth in my school lab and library has made reluctant to move forward. My reticence is beginning to lift however.  I believe this is largely due to my growth as technology user in my personal life.

With my kids getting older we are now travelling more and farther. These trips have led to a lot of my growth as a technology user. I suppose it began with my adoption with the rest of the world of digital photography.  The management of photos was tremendously challenging as we have multiple laptops storing photos from multiple cameras.  This finally brought photo management to a crisis. I had tried a number of tools to organize our photos but have settled on using Picasa over the past few years because it is free and has a great facial recognition feature which allows me to put albums together centered on each of my children. It also has the wonderful feature of being able to upload albums to the web. I then starting seeing web based applications as a solution to many problems.

It was a seven week road trip across Canada in 2009 that finally got me to fully switch my music to an iPod. I was concerned about keeping everyone entertained on this very long road trip so I investigated and downloaded podcasts and audio books for the trip.  The result was a diverse and rich audio collection that we could take on the road and it all fit on an iPod Nano. I purchased a power inverter for my van so my kids could use our laptop on the way to play movies and to pick up Wi-Fi to communicate with home and do extra travel research on the way. This trip also led us to use online classified to rent out our house while we were gone. A couple of years later we went to Brazil for a month and found Skype to be a wonderful free way to talk to everyone at home. We also found connecting with people in Brazil so much easier when we could refer to photos from home on an iTouch and use the Portuguese translator app. We even found planning Canadian tunes from our iPods to a fun way to bridge the language divide.

My daughter went to school in France for three months. This led to the adoption of eBooks. My daughter is an avid reader. I bought her a number of books from Amazon to read on her laptop when she was gone. This also lead to a solution in our house when we all became interested in the Hunger Games at the same time. I was able to buy the entire trilogy as an Books for under fifteen dollars. With my account I was able to have it available on my iPhone, iPad and laptop so three of us could read it at once.  
Our upcoming nine month long trip to Europe is the next push in my development as a technology user. We have already used the Internet over the past several years to booking our flights on line, leasing a car and booking apartments and hostels. What is new this time is our web research. We want to learn about prolonged travel with teenagers and how to study on the road. I then discovered there were all sorts of families blogging about their experiences. I had not been a blog reader until then. I am now looking at specialized blogging sites such for travellers so we can share our trip such as getjealous.com instead of using Facebook. I am thinking of using getjealous.com. I also just added Skype to phone as a quick way to call home when I can't find our family online. I have downloaded maps for all of Europe onto my GPS which I also have discovered is Bluetooth capable so I can talk on my phone hands free when I am driving. I have a PayPal account now to make my overseas transactions easier and at times cheaper since I can debit straight from my bank account via PayPal and get a better exchange rate than on my credit card. I have started to take more advantage of taking books out of my library electronically. I hope to continue to check out my books this way when I am overseas and will see if I can continue to use my Netflix account on the road.

As with my personal life my work life is full of technology use. I am using some sort of technology throughout the day.  In my job as a teacher-librarian I maintain a school website, a librarywebsite, and have two smaller websites that are also related to my teaching role.  My entire library system is run with Follett's Destiny Library Manager.  I order the vast majority of my library books online with my top two purchasing sites being United Library Service and Titlewave.  I enroll and moderate my grade 4 and 5 students using the social networking features available in DestinyQuest, I also am the school network administrator for a number of pieces of networked and web-based applications. I teach in a computer lab using a variety of software and web-based tools and network management tools. I teach kids to use or teach with the Microsoft suite of programs but I also use an assortment of free software and websites but use little true web 2.0 websites.  I teach animation using Scratch Animation and do work with students in Google Sketchup as well as work with images and video using Moviemaker. I teach using a Smartboard and document camera.  As an administrator I do a lot of work using the provincial student management system BCESIS.  
 At the beginning of the last school year I bought an iPad to replace my daybook and personal planner.  I have had some limitations in using it because or district has halted to rollout of WiFi in elementary schools due to concerns voiced by a number of parent groups as to its safety.  I then began using my iPhone as my daybook and planner when I was not able to use my iPad. I recently learned to use my iPhone as a hotspot to connect my iPod and laptop to the web.

My purchase of an iPhone last year has started my texting with my kids and with a few friends. I have found texting an invaluable tool for communicating with administrators. Email does not get the quick responses that texts do and they are received much more favorably than a telephone call which can interrupt a colleague's work flow. I use the camera on my iPhone often. I document repairs or safety problems at school with it. I take pictures of screens during presentations so I don't have to take notes and I use it shopping. I look up reviews of products I am considering buying or I show a picture of a big ticket item via text message to my wife so she can weigh in on it. I take pictures of objects using my Google App so I can find it quickly on the web.  It is also my instant reference source in a conversation with my students or family. If I have a question I now immediately look for the answer. I will speak the words into the Google search engine if I am on the fly.

I am now a technology user most of my waking day. When I go for my morning walk I listen to the news on my iPhone and at breakfast I browse the newspaper on my iPad.  I use technology throughout my work day and connect with friends and family when I get home using Skype. I do all my banking online and shop for electronics and books online. I watch most of my television through my Netflix Account or CBC Television App. I use AppleTV to view these items and photographs on my television.  Technology permeates all my life.


  1. Wow Ben! The pictures the stuff you have done! I feel awed to the point I have to digest this and think about what to say.
    Your Adam Baron Photo looks just like a Salvadore Dali!

  2. Interesting to note that in your earlier technology path there were times/moments when you seem to have given up on technology and walked away from it. However, you did not give up and quit but gradually embrace it. Technology is both a blessing and a curse.
    I am going to try Google sketchup and Scratch animation. Also, I'll try and save up for an Iphone. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Ben, I think we are about the same age as I remember the floppy disks and the old calculators (with the red numbers). Oh how things have changed, and the change is exponential. I find it inspiring how you have embraced technology and are using it in so many ways in all aspects of your life. I don't have a smart phone yet, and I've been holding out. I love my ipad, and for now my old cell phone is OK. However maybe I need to take the plunge!