From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 11|No 8|May|2002

Tech Smart:
Making Discerning Technology Choices

By Jamie McKenzie

Two decades after the introduction of personal computers in the nation, with almost all schools wired for the Internet and nearly $6 billion spent annually on school technologies, the results get a failing grade.
   Larry Cuban
"System Crash."
Boston Daily Globe
November 25, 2001

(This article first appeared in the March 2002 issue of Multimedia Schools, © 2002, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.)

For decades, Larry Cuban has been noting the failures of new technologies to influence or improve the daily practice of teachers in their classrooms.  Despite more than twenty years of fumbling efforts, we still tend to put the cart before the horse, believing foolishly that new laptops or handheld devices will teach Joan and Johnny how to read or grasp mathematical functions.

By now we should have learned that toolishness is foolishness.  Showering fancy equipment and toys on classrooms without smart planning is unlikely to produce gains in student performance.

It is not that all new technologies must fail.  Achievement of learning goals with new technologies requires a blend of powerful professional development, program development and discernment.  There are many dumb ways to use the new tools that will create no changes worth noting.  There are other smart uses that promise to sharpen the analysis, interpretation, inference and synthesis skills of students.

This article is about wise choices - Smart Tech!

When we approach the adoption of new tools and practices with discernment, gains in student performance are more likely to accrue.


1. The act or process of exhibiting keen insight and good judgment.

2. Keenness of insight and judgment.

The American Heritage¨ Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition.  2000.

Teachers and administrators may combine and orchestrate a dozen strategies to achieve discerning use of new technologies.  These strategies help sort through the noise of conflicting marketing claims to focus upon value, reliability, authenticity and results.

1.    Prospecting - Looking for the right combination of promising program elements and indicators. in the January 2002 issue of Multimedia Schools.  See " Prospecting for Digital Riches."

2.  Focusing - Keeping an eye on prime philosophical commitments and program purposes.

This effort is not about networking schools just to be networked.  It is not about installing the latest technologies and digital toys just to stay ahead of neighboring districts or schools.  We must not embrace technology for technology's sake.  It is neither PowerPointlessness nor Tomfoolery nor mere handholding (as in handheld devices).  We should only acquire new technologies that will improve student performance on learning tasks that match state curriculum standards or address important local learning goals.

Smart districts create brief, four-to-five paragraph summaries of the learning goals to be addressed with new tools.  These clear statements are drawn from the staff, refined, carefully discussed and then widely distributed once final drafts are approved.  Walk into any classroom and ask the teacher what the district is hoping to achieve, and she or he will be able to answer succinctly. 

"We hope to improve the information literacy skills of all our students by challenging them with problems drawn from the curriculum.  We emphasize analysis, inference, interpretation and synthesis - just like the state standards."

Such belief statements help to screen out unworthy technology programs, products and activities.  If programs do not deliver the kind of student learning chosen by the district, they do not qualify for purchase.  Virus protection!

For more on this strategy, consult "First Things First" in the November/December 2000 issue of From Now On at

3. Challenging - Demanding evidence, data, results and substantive theoretical underpinnings.  Considering the risks, the costs and the dangers.

We are often assured by vendors and program cheerleaders that new tools and products will shift classroom practice and results dramatically.  But where's the beef?  These claims and promises are rarely substantiated with program data gathered in a credible fashion.  In most cases, the data is what might be called "testimonial research" - meaning that we are shown a bunch of rave reviews by pioneering teachers and administrators who swear that the classroom, the school and the district were transformed by the innovation.

"But what happened to the reading and writing scores of students?"

In those cases with numerical data showing student progress, the design of the experiment is often seriously flawed, allowing volunteer, pioneering teachers to teach the experimental classes, for example, while non-volunteer teachers are left as control groups.  The resulting "progress" may be heavily tinged by the special qualities of the volunteer teachers as well as what is known as the Hawthorne Effect - the tendency for any group getting special attention to improve performance because they are being watched,

For decades, consumers have turned to Consumer Reports to compare the gas mileage, safety records and repair records of various automobiles.  The same kind of data gathering makes sense when it comes to technology shopping.

But the data should include more than evidence of success.  A smart technology planning team looks at the dark side of any innovation and tries to discover what might possibly go wrong.  Technology proponents and vendors will often hype the innovation and emphasize nothing but the positive.  Without a full understanding of the risks and challenges likely to accompany the product or program, the chances of making a successful launch are reduced significantly.  See "The Post Installation Action Plan" in the November/December, 2001 issue of From Now On at

4.    Testing - Setting up small, low-risk pilot programs and reviewing the results of others' pilot tests.

The fashion these days is to plunge into major initiatives without running pilot programs to assess their worth and then determine how to adjust the programs to work well under local conditions.

This elimination of conservative change strategies is a side product of the boom times of the 1990s as industries and schools joined together to build electronic highways that seemed to promise wondrous futures for us all.  Sadly, the bubble burst and the extravagant investments in infrastructure have not produced the expected profits and benefits in either world.

5. Investigating - Looking past the surface claims to find out what really happens when the tools and practices are installed and implemented.  Finding prior innovators to learn the "true story" of what happened.

Which implementation models are most likely to produce learning gains?

To avoid repeating the mistakes of early adopters, if an innovation has already been field tested by other schools, a wise team devotes considerable time and attention to considering what others have learned. This learning requires considerable tact and skill because many early adopters may promote the innovation without sharing stories of frustration and disappointment.

The trick is to find innovators who can be trusted to share the trials and the tribulations as well as the triumphs. This search for verity often requires some probing past leadership levels to see what rank-and-file teachers report about the innovation experience.

The important words are "likely to produce learning gains." This is not about flash or excitement and fireworks. We are looking for solid results substantiated by concrete data. Testimonials are abundant but rarely reliable.

When early adopters claim glorious results, it pays to ask, "How do you know? What evidence do you have?"

6. Comparing - Examining the full range of choices (vendors and models, for example) within a category along with alternatives that are substantially different.

In some cases, options may narrow too quickly, as what seem to be special opportunities sweep the district along a path that does not allow for comparison shopping. Perhaps a vendor offers a "deal" that means the district will be first in the region. This kind of program glory may seduce leaders into premature commitment.   It may even feel comforting for some time to focus energy on a narrow range of program strategies, but wisdom calls for a more deliberate approach that weighs the pros and cons of different approaches, avoiding traps associated with infatuation.

7. Remembering - Reviewing past experiences with innovations (and vendors) that promised similar results and changes.

Memory can fail, sadly - especially when it comes to recalling missteps.  Denial is a serious liability when trying to learn from one's previous mistakes. Institutional memory loss allows a pattern of blunders to persist.

The serious study of organizational history is an essential safeguard against perpetual stumbling.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana

To some extent, the process of implementing innovations requires a trial-and-error adjustment of strategies in line with experience.  Lessons from the past should prove illuminating and instructive when launching new efforts, but in many cases, the leaders of the earlier efforts may have moved on, taking history with them, or the organization may be inclined to admire the emperor's old clothes as well as the new ones.

A healthy organization heeds the lessons both of research and history.  For more on this approach to leadership, consult "Beware the Shallow Waters! The Dangers of Ignoring History and the Research on Change in Schools," in the June, 1999 issue of From Now On at

8. Triangulating - Developing multiple, independent, potentially conflicting sources to support the evaluation process.

In the search for verity, we compare and contrast testimonials. We seek out the naysayers in order to balance and assess the claims of the cheerleaders and the promoters.

When the principal or superintendent claims heavy and effective use of the innovation, we ask for data.

"How do you know that?"

If the teachers report 30% utilization weekly of curriculum rich, technology enhanced lessons, what do their students report?  Do the numbers match?

If we simply take notes when sitting at technology conferences, we become the blind following the blind.

Informed skepticism requires some detective work and some off the record conversations. Much of this negative content would not normally find its way to conferences or into publications inclined to trumpet the wonders of technologies (and advertisers).

School leaders need workshop sessions and articles that share openly the obstacles and challenges one is likely to encounter.  In those same sessions, innovators offer antidotes and strategies to avoid those pitfalls.

9.    Debunking - Stripping off the hype, the marketing claims, the myths and all excessive promises to consider the prospects for success rationally and analytically.

Technology cheerleaders often create pressures for change and the purchase of more equipment by suggesting that the failure to keep up with the toys of one's neighbors will lead to severe deprivation - a future marked by unemployment in some digital ( workplace.  The "Digital Divide" sometimes seems more like a marketing ploy than a reality, as vendors wring their hands over the gap (in purchasing) between rich and poor districts. The vendors' concern seems disingenuous at best, since recent Market Data Retrieval reports (cited in Cuban's article) show little effective use of networked computers by most teachers. 

The real question - mentioned earlier - is whether this innovation will produce learning gains.  The best measure of this goal would be educational assessments aimed at the analysis, interpretation, inference and synthesis skills required by tough state or provincial curriculum standards.

Technology cheerleaders are fond of separate technology standards, assessments and programs, enshrining such dubious skills as powerpointlessness and handholding as major program objectives.

Educators should focus on teaching students to read for meaning in books and on screens.  Reading e-books on a handheld device is a trivial goal.  Interpreting a passage from Macbeth is challenging regardless of whether the words appear on paper or a screen.  Providing handheld CliffNotes is unlikely to promote original thought or develop interpretative skills.

When new technologies make it easier to slide by on the thinking of others, they do this generation of students a disservice - a point that some companies seem to miss as they announce the availability of handheld CliffNotes with pride.

Promoters of new technologies offer packages of fabulous new century skills that suggest that being modern requires being equipped.  Ironically, many of the skills in their package are not at all new.  Many can be taught without digital devices.  Their not having been taught in the past was not because we had the wrong tools.  The explanation for failure to teach those skills is rooted in social and organizational patterns that are deeply set in our culture.

Hank Becker (1999) reports that some 70 per cent of the teachers in his national study are quite traditional in their approaches to classroom activities.  There is no evidence that these teaching styles or strategies change when computers are placed in the classroom.  To the contrary, Becker found they let students use the equipment one-third as often as their more constructivist colleagues.

Teachers since Socrates have struggled to develop the thinking, problem solving and questioning skills of their students, but now we are told that an educated citizenry must be wired and digitally savvy.  The implication is that the new technologies will promote a new, more powerful literacy.  Yet we see little attention to emerging problems associated with such tools - the powerpointessness, cut-and-paste thinking, new plagiarism, info-glut and mentalsoftness reported by many teachers and commentators who see the Internet and digital resources as a mixed blessing.

The real question is whether this innovation will produce learning gains.

10. Deconstructing - Breaking the innovation into its component parts to see how well they fit together, how they are meant to work and where the vulnerabilities may lie.

How is this program supposed to work?

Packaged programs imported from outside a school district rarely succeed unless customized to match local conditions and special needs.

The process of deconstructing a program is a bit like taking apart a lawn mower or automobile engine back in the days when there were few electronic parts.  By disassembling the motor or program into its parts, program managers may consider modifications and adjustments.

A district might identify a successful writing program that employs Inspiration™ and wireless laptops, for example, to teach students writing as process within the guidelines and expectations of state standards.  Upon close examination and deconstruction, the district team determines that the program needs bolstering at the idea generating and the editing phases.  Because the district has already invested heavily in an approach to editing and revision called "The Six Traits Approach to Writing," the team protects that investment by adding it as a major program component.  They then go in search of idea generation strategies to enhance the model.

In many cases, innovations proceed to installation as if such tinkering and adjustment is unnecessary and burdensome, but a failure to modify a program may undermine past efforts like the one mentioned above and may also limit the potential of the new program to shift daily practice.

11. Inventing and Evaluating Locally - Engaging local staff members in the development and testing of innovations so they have first hand knowledge of what works and what does not work, thereby reducing dependence on and vulnerability to outside promoters.

Homegrown innovations may stand a reasonable chance of taking root, especially if the district nurtures the development of human resources devoted to the invention process.  This process requires cultivation, encouragement and investment.

See "Creating the Vanguard: Identifying, Grooming and Rewarding the Champions" at

Metaphors drawn from the world of gardening may provide illuminating insights for those planning innovations.  If we are doing our jobs well, we will be raising seedlings in hothouses, testing them, clearing areas, weeding, cultivating the soil, fertilizing, planting, weeding, pruning, thinning and weeding some more.

We are careful to plant where conditions are right.  Unfortunately, some school planners leave out some of the most important steps in the planning (or gardening) process, installing a network without cultivating the soil - without investing in program development or professional development.  They may plant desktop units where there is little willingness to use them, the equivalent of planting sun hungry plants in heavily shaded areas.

Most of these missteps occur because these planners do not view the change process as organic. They focus on wires, cables and equipment. They neglect the human and organizational elements that are basic to a thriving and robust effort.

But invention is not enough by itself.  Unless informed and guided by astute data collection to assess which aspects are proving effective, the innovation can turn into a new suit of clothes for whatever emperors are shopping.

12. Delaying - Slowing down the purchase and installation process so that schools can learn from the mistakes of others - avoiding the bleeding edge of change.

Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.

                                        Paul Simon

When it comes to networking schools and classrooms or adopting new technologies, some leaders tend to rush things.  Just as folk wisdom argues that "Haste makes waste," research on change in schools warns against riding change mobiles through avalanche territory (Fullan, 1991).

Even though the shortest distance is usually a straight line, most road and railway

builders know better than to head straight up a mountain without providing plenty of curves.  They rely on switchbacks to keep the angle of ascent reasonable.  They know engines have their limits.

Schools should follow this example. They should make the strategic pacing of change a priority if they hope to see a real (and beneficial) shift in classroom practice.

See "Pacing Change," an article that originally appeared in the September 2000 issue of Classroom Connect.

There are many advantages to delay when it comes to new technologies.  School districts that come to the game late may find that slow and discerning decision making means they leapfrogged over some of the silly and misguided efforts of their neighbors.

Sometimes it turns out that we end up ahead of the game by letting other fools rush in.


Cuban, Larry. November 25, 2001 "System Crash." Boston Daily Globe

Culham, Ruth and Spandel, Vicki "The Student Friendly Guide to Working with Traits" at

Becker, Henry. 1999. "Internet Use by Teachers" Web site at University of California Irvine

Fullan, Michael. 1991. The New Meaning of Educational Change. Teachers College Press.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.

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