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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 9|No 7|March|2000


How many hours of Excel
lead to classroom integration?


The Software Trap

This article first appeared in the July, 1999 issue of eSchool News. It is a chapter from How Teachers Learn Technology Best (McKenzie, 1999) (click here to learn more)

by Jamie McKenzie
about the author


Blue Sky High School* has more computers than any other school in the state. They have the best ratio of students to computers. Add to both of these facts a history of intensive and well funded staff development for teachers.

What's wrong with this picture? Great equipment, great software and lots of training. On the surface it looks like they have done everything right.

The principal invites us for a visit. She is worried. Something doesn't feel right. Can we come spend a day observing and a second day meeting with staff? She'd like an honest appraisal.

"Are we getting a good return on our investment?" she asks, a bit anxiously. "Do we need to change our program?"

Driving down the freeway from the airport into the suburbs, we enjoy a startling view of mountains edging sharply into a clear sky. We realize why they call it "Blue Sky High School."

A student guide greets us and begins the tour. Each department has a computer lab. The business department has three.

We walk into the science computer lab. No students. Glowing screens. Screensaver's disease.

"Probably an off day," our guide comments smoothly and reassuringly, well schooled at 17 in the art of public relations.

"Is there a schedule?"

Looking at the schedule posted on the wall, we see that the lab is scheduled 25% of the available class periods. It is empty 75% of the time and only 3 of the 12 science teachers are using it that week.

Evidently an off week.

We go down the hall and find every lab empty except for computers and glowing screens. Equipment galore. We encounter little use until we reach the business labs which are humming and fully scheduled. Each student is busy learning how to use four different kinds of spreadsheets as well as an arsenal of other applications.

The next day we meet with teachers during prep periods. They are proud of their training, but they confess some distaste for the software in their labs and some confusion about purpose. Most of them complain that computers seem peripheral. Some use the word "frivolous."

"Since your students have learned to use 4 spreadsheets and you have learned 3 spreadsheets, can you give us some examples of how you have asked your students to use spreadsheets in your science or math or social studies classes?"

The question is met with silence . . . sideways glances . . . awkwardness.

Three of the 120 teachers can report the use of spreadsheets in class. The school has prepared students and staff to employ spreadsheets but failed to identify their value for schooling and learning.

We complete our diagnosis . . .

"This school suffers from the 'software trap.'"

The Software Trap

Blue Sky High School had fallen into the trap of confusing software programs with purpose. The high school operated on the premise that teachers would integrate technologies into the regular classroom if they just had enough time to learn basic software programs such as ClarisWorks or Microsoft Excel.

In making this assumption, the school effectively placed the cart before the horse and ignored the most important learning issue of all, which is how to use these technologies to enhance student thinking and performance.

Sadly, when asked to produce their technology professional development program, many schools display a list of classes in assorted software programs . . .

1. Introduction to Word
2. Intermediate Word
3. Advanced Word
4. Introduction to the Internet
5. Advanced Internet
6. Introduction to PowerPoint
7. Advanced PowerPoint
8. Introduction to Web Publishing
9. Advanced Web Publishing

After 20 years of working with this strategy, most reports indicate that the majority of teachers have still not integrated new technologies into their classrooms.

The approach, while popular, is flawed because it ignores the most important needs of teachers. It fails to address the teaching and learning issues which are central to the challenge of blending these tools into daily classroom activities.

The 10 Myths Behind the Software Trap

The focus on software applications is based a curious mythology which ignores most of what we know about maximizing adult learning while encouraging shifts in behavior.

Myth 1

Knowledge of software translates into the delivery of technology rich lessons. Additional hours of software training translate into additional hours classroom usage.


Software may change classroom lessons if teachers identify "entry points" that will improve student performance. A spreadsheet may enhance the study of acid rain if the teacher can see where the tool fits into the gathering and analyzing of field data. On the other hand, if the teacher never asks students to interpret data, the tool will rust in a corner.

Myth 2

Teachers respond best to instructors who are super skilled in the application.


Many teachers, especially the reluctants and late adopters, are looking for comfort and reassurance. In many cases, a razzle-dazzle software teacher may intimidate learners. Sometimes "less is more." Warm support and encouragement are often more important than skill. Awareness of curriculum and classroom "entry points" may be more important than mastery of software features. A track record of successful classroom is critically important.

Myth 3

Classes are the most productive adult learning system.


Given a choice, many teachers vote for small group tutorials, study groups, individual study and informal learning opportunities over formal classes. Classes rarely address the concerns and interests of teachers and often leave them asking, "How do I use this with students?"

Myth 4

Teachers cannot teach themselves software.


Classes too often foster dependency. While early adopters and pioneers teach themselves most of what they know about technologies, late adopters are prone to wait for more classes and more training. We show teachers how to learn programs independently. And we should give them support and encouragement to do so.

Myth 5

Skills are primary and feelings are secondary.


We know that human learning engages both the cognitive and the affective domains, but much technology training ignores feelings, anxieties and human needs while outlining skill goals which may be overwhelming. Participant comfort, confidence and competency should always stand high in the list of course design criteria.

Myth 6

This is about technology, not teaching and learning.


The bottom line for most teachers is student performance. This focus intensifies as states elevate curriculum standards and introduce increasingly demanding tests. Few teachers see technology as a goal and need to see how it might contribute to their bottom line. They want to see how technology might make their students better writers, readers and thinker. They don’t care much whether they are good word processors.

Myth 7

One size fits all: learning styles, pacing and developmental differences do not matter.


Participants in skill-based software classes often spread out across a broad continuum of readiness and preparedness which usually means that the instructor is almost doomed to move too fast or too slow for someone. Differences in learning styles also mean that the choices are essential to provide a good match between learner and experience — choices which are rarely possible during software classes.

Myth 8

Learning is most productive when experienced out of context.


The teacher’s most important context is the classroom. More precisely, a social studies teacher’s context is a social studies classroom. Even though the teacher needs to know how to use the tools within the classroom context, software classes are almost always generic, K-12 experiences which ignore the classroom issues of the participants. The instructor rarely knows anything about the challenges of teaching middle school social studies and can provide no cogent examples of how a spreadsheet might enhance student learning within such a context.

Myth 9

Teachers cannot consider classroom issues unless they are first firmly grounded in all of the software programs.


Groups of early adopters and late adopters may gather as invention teams to create technology rich unit plans and lesson plans. Late adopters prove valuable participants even though they may not possess advanced software capabilities because they can contribute good curriculum suggestions. During the invention process, late adopters will usually pick up many technology skills and will gain confidence and enthusiasm for the potential of these tools to change their classrooms. Holding them back at introductory levels is patronizing, demoralizing and wasteful.

Myth 10

There are no other options.


This column has proposed more than a dozen adult learning strategies during the past year (invention teams, study groups, workplace visits, etc.), most of which emphasize curriculum, learning and student performance. It is clear that curriculum and strategic teaching should take precedence over equipment and software. We need to untie the cart and place it where it belongs . . . behind the four horses of curriculum, learning, teaching and exploration.


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