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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 11|No 9|June|2002

Review: Bringing the Internet to School:
Lessons from an Urban District

by Janet Ward Schofield and Ann Locke Davidson
Jossey-Bass, 2002 - ISBN 0-7879-5686-4

Reviewed by Jamie McKenzie
(About the Author)

We need more studies like this one - an honest look at what really happens when Internet computers come to class. What works? What doesn’t? What are the obstacles and barriers? How can we best overcome them?

Schofield and Davidson bring a scholarly ethic to this report. While enthusiastic about the potentials of new technologies, they are looking past the promises to what actually happened in one large urban district.

They report in a balanced manner a blend of accomplishments and disappointments. Most importantly, they identify the key factors that blocked use, discouraged use or facilitated use.

Unlike many technology promoters and vendors who associate change with the number of computers per classroom, Schofield and Davidson look for evidence that the new technologies are used frequently and meaningfully. They examine the technology efforts of this district with a focus on changes to classroom practice and climate.

I. Disappointments

The project began with high hopes, grant money and support from higher education. Without sufficient funds to equip all classrooms or schools, the project asked for proposals and volunteers. The study reports what happened in these project schools and classrooms over a three-to-five year time period until the grant came to a close.

Unlike many technology initiatives, there was no attempt to spread computers across all classrooms regardless of readiness or inclination. Participant teachers were eager. They wanted in. It was a source of pride to be recognized as a participant.

Given this volunteering, Schofield and Davidson’s report of limited use of the networked computers is all the more telling and worrisome. Hank Becker’s research prepared us to expect a large percentage of “traditional” teachers to make little use of networked computers, but here we have volunteers who find it difficult to blend use of the equipment into the daily life of the classroom.

While Schofield and Davidson report some impressive projects and some teachers and schools that made more frequent use of the tools, the majority of teachers and schools failed to achieve the dramatic kinds of learning effects hoped for by the project’s founding planners.

. . . many factors came together to limit Networking for Education Testbed (NET) teachers’ and students’ use of the Internet in the classroom. In most cases, it was not the effectiveness or value of Internet resources in support of the curriculum that was at issue. The issue was overcoming a series of barriers that stood between teachers and students and those resources. Indeed, until such barriers are reduced, the value of the Internet resources cannot be well explored.
p. 135

It is Schofield and Davidson’s discussion of these barriers that makes this book so important.

II. Barriers

Chapter Three – “School Versus Internet Culture” – offers an illuminating exploration of conflicts between prevailing school norms and the norms accompanying the new technologies. Schofield and Davidson explore four “mismatches” they felt influenced Internet use in the project schools:

1. Individuation vs. Batch Processing
2. Continual Change vs. Constancy
3. Open Expression vs. Control Over Content
4. Technology as Plaything vs. Tool

These issues are rarely addressed by any of the technology promoters and vendors, yet a technology plan that ignores them is probably doomed to fail. Classic organizational development literature advocates the use of Force Field Analysis to guide innovations forward. This approach requires the identification of barriers and obstacles prior to implementation so that plans can be drawn to address those challenges.

As I read through these passages, I was impressed by the authors’ understanding of the school context. Their grasp of these issues stands in dramatic contrast with the untutored assumptions and presumptions of technology promoters who have spent little time working within real schools – the misguided and unlikely presumption of the Star Report, for example, that penetration (lots of computers per classroom) equals curriculum integration.

It is easy to install and to count units, but far more difficult to integrate.

Educators may view anything that weakens control, threatens teachers’ authority, or distracts students from the school’s learning objectives as suspect.

NET educators did indeed emphasize the importance of using the Internet as a tool to accomplish predetermined curricular goals rather than as an instrument to support play or exploration. Educators’ visions of work-centered Internet use and the tensions they perceived between their agendas and what the Internet actually offers were quite apparent during interviews.
p. 87

The authors found such conflicts to be a major source of disillusionment for many of the teachers who had initially felt enthusiastic and committed to the notion of blending Internet use into daily classroom practice.

But they do not stop with analysis of barrier and difficulties, fortunately. They move on to consider the factors that contributed to more frequent and valuable uses of the new technologies within some of the project schools.

III. Factors Associated with Extensive Use

Because some of the project schools were able to achieve significantly more impressive types and levels of technology usage than other schools, the authors contrasted these school programs in order to identify those factors most closely associated with success:

1. Team Cohesion
2. Project Ownership
3. Collaboration
4. Active Librarian Involvement
5. Strong Teacher Leadership
6. Ease of Integration
7. Discretionary Professional Time
8. Technical Reliability

Table 5.1 Social and Organizational Factors Associated with Internet Use
Page 145

The discussion in each of these sections is obligatory reading for those who wish to lead a program past the mere installation of cables, equipment and networking software. As has been so often stated in FNO articles, a failure to cultivate the organizational soil prior to and during the launch of a technology initiative is folly.

Schofield and Davidson’s work is part of a new wave of cautionary tales – books that describe the challenge of networking schools in real terms. This book “tells it like it is” instead of promulgating utopian, grandiose visions of radically different classrooms.

For those who work in real schools with real teachers who would welcome straight talk and straight writing about real innovation, Bringing the Internet to School is a real gift.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.

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