Important Ed Tech Book Reviews

Just in Time Technology


 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 11|No 3|November/December|2001

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by Jamie McKenzie
About the Author

© 2001, J. McKenzie, all rights reserved.

Worthy, frequent use of new equipment requires careful consideration of program strategies as well as professional development to cultivate the faculty's readiness. There are also many organizational strategies that may increase effective use. Schools with strong post installation plans are more likely to win a healthy return on their technology investments.

A post installation plan will address issues and questions like the ones below. Laptop schools, handheld devices and rolling carts of wireless laptops are used for illustration purposes, but the same kinds of questions might be applied to the introduction of any new tools or strategies.

1) What are the 5-7 models most likely to produce learning gains?

So as 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 key words in the question above 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.

If you check the closets of some schools, you are likely to find an ample supply of dusty bandwagons from the past whose glories were trumpeted by early adopters during the first two years of installation.

Discovering what has really happened at a laptop school (or a school with laptop carts or handheld devices) is sometimes a struggle against political forces that are heavily invested in the appearance of success and the stifling of dissent. Doubt, skepticism and honest appraisals may be characterized as heresy rather than wisdom.

The purpose of this team inquiry is to identify those strategies most likely to succeed in a new setting while weeding out strategies that prove to be of questionable value or significant risk.

The outside team must interview and probe beyond the front lines of corporate and educational marketing, speaking with those who work within the school. Rank and file critics are too often dismissed as slackers or heretics. In fact, their skepticism can sometimes be the voice of experience and wisdom.

How do you know?

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

Some promoters and cheerleaders tend to answer with exuberance unsupported by data.


"We can see it in the students' eyes and their enthusiasm."

"The teachers say the kids love it."

"We can't get students off the laptops."

The same could be said about arcade games and video games.

The question deserves repetition, "What evidence do you have that this program produces learning gains?"

Some vendors seem incapable of grasping or respecting educational values in any real sense. How could any company forging partnerships with schools to improve student results also brag about supplying CliffNotes to handheld devices?

What's wrong with this picture?

Is the sudden infusion of CliffNotes via hand held devices really an improvement in High School English? What will the English teachers say? Should we applaud the arrival of hand held CliffNotes?

Why bother reading the real Hamlet or Moby Dick when you might fake your way through class with your handheld device?

Palm recently announced with apparent pride a partnership to provide access to CliffNotes.

Quoting from an October 31 Palm news release . . .

"Palm is building a thriving eBook business for consumers, mobile professionals, educators and students," said Jeff Strobel, director of Palm Digital Media.

"CliffsNotes have enjoyed immense popularity among students worldwide for more than 40 years, and Palm Reader is an ideal reading platform for learning and teaching, with features that include auto-scrolling, bookmarks, the ability to annotate, large fonts and several viewing options."

"We expect students and teachers to gravitate quickly to eBooks as more academic books and materials become available in this format."

In August, the New York Times disputed these rosy predictions by E-Book vendors and provided data to show that sales of eBooks have fallen far short of vendor claims and predictions.

Forecasts of an E-Book Era Were, It Seems, Premature"

By David D. Kirkpatrick (from the August 28, 2001 New York Times)

Laurence Kirshbaum, chairman of the books division of AOL Time Warner (news/quote ), pledged to lead the charge: "We want to see electronic publishing blow the covers off of books." Andersen Consulting had recently estimated that by 2005 digital books could account for 10 percent of all book sales.

A year later, however, the main advantage of electronic books appears to be that they gather no dust. Almost no one is buying. Publishers and online bookstores say only the very few best-selling electronic editions have sold more than a thousand copies, and most sell far fewer. Only a handful have generated enough revenue to cover the few hundred dollars it costs to convert their texts to digital formats.

It is worth noting the types of eBooks Palm has been selling. Quoting from an October 31 Palm news release . . .

Palm Digital Media Top 10 Best-selling eBooks
October 2001

  • "Black House" by Stephen King and Peter Straub (Fantasy)
  • "The Talisman" by Stephen King and Peter Straub (Fantasy)
  • "Straight From the Gut" by Jack Welch and John A. Byrne (Business)
  • "Rift In Time" by Michael Phillips (Fiction)
  • "K-PAX" by Gene Brewer (Science Fiction)
  • "Star Trek: S. C. E. #8: Invincible: Book Two" by David Mack and Keith R. A. DeCandido (Star Trek)
  • "The Ice Limit" by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (Espionage & Thrillers)
  • "Blood and Gold" by Anne Rice (Horror)
  • "The Coming Anarchy" by Robert D. Kaplan (Non-Fiction)
  • "By the Rivers of Babylon" by Nelson DeMille (Espionage & Thrillers)

What would the English teachers say?


School leaders and planners need to be cautious about business partners who suffer from excess inventory, excess capacity and disappointing sales and profits. These conditions can induce hungry behaviors and intense promotion. Sometimes desperation may inspire give-away programs that help reduce excess inventories while distorting educational agendas by flooding classrooms with products the schools might not have chosen if they were costly.

When philanthropy is thinly veiled marketing, schools should view such programs as Trojan horses. Some have jokingly warned, "Beware of Geeks bearing gifts!"

What if someone built a highway and hardly anybody used it?

In his article, "In Excess," published in the November, 2001 issue of Attaché, the U.S. Airways flight magazine, Daniel Gross, a fellow at the New America Foundation comments . . .

"From Wall Street to Silicon Valley, investors and technology gurus are lamenting the excesses in the fiberoptic-cable market. Fueled by visions of an infinitely expanding need for Internet pipelines that would carry voice and data traffic, pioneering entrepreneurs and established companies went on a building binge in the 1990s."

( . . . )

"But something happened along the way to cyber-nirvana. Neither the expected traffic nor the projected revenues materialized as predicted. And so, on any given day, just 5 per cent of the fiber optic cable is pulsing with information."

In addition to requesting evidence, how does a team protect against false or exaggerated claims?

One tactic some researchers employ is "triangulating" - the tactic of finding several independent sources to play against each other.

The outside team is looking for models that have real promise - models grounded in classroom practice and classroom results rather than rhetoric, advertising and fantasies.

What are the key elements of each model?

What are the prime strategies?

In the search for verity, we compare and contrast testimonials.

When the headmaster claims heavy and frequent use, we ask for data.

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 might become the blind following the blind.

Seeing is believing.

School visits are an essential. This is no time for distance learning. "Take it on faith? No chance!" The district must provide a healthy travel budget so the team can visit far and wide. Chances are, the best models will be dispersed across the country and will require substantial travel.

But teams should be wary of schools that offer guided tours with promotional overtones. The best visits tend to be to schools whose leaders openly discuss mixed results and seem to value verity.

Cheerleaders, trend-setters, enthusiasts and owners of stock are sometimes guilty of toolishness - a fondness for tools that transcends purpose and utility . . . as when folks grab a hammer to paint a flower just because they like hammers or because hammers are trendy or when they allow a computer to speak for them to an audience instead of telling their stories with a natural voice or when people turn to search engines to find truths more likely to reside in books or their own hearts.

Toolishness is closely associated with other terms such as Foolishness, PowerPointlessness, MicroSoftness, Mentalsoftness™, Disneyfication, Edutainment and Infotainment.

For more on avoiding or noticing this trap, see the September, 2001 issue of FNO at

2) What school strategies (such as scheduling and unit building) will work best to make sure the resources are not dominated by the 25% of staff members who are most enthusiastic and prepared?

Without taking strong measures to facilitate, encourage and structure the broad-based use of a new technology, there is an ever present danger that a minority of the teachers (the early adopters) will corral the equipment so that reluctants and late adopters might claim that they cannot even win access. This phenomenon often leads to a kind of "separate peace" as enthusiasts taste abundance while reluctants go about business as usual.

The antidote? The creation of standards-based unit plans at each grade level provides practical, well designed lessons that should win the respect of all teachers. Once these units are embedded in the curriculum, the school designs a schedule for the broad-based use of new technologies.

For more on this approach, read the November, 1999 issue of FNO at "Teaching to the Standards."

3) What are some of the best choices a principal can make regarding strategies to support media specialists and teachers implementing curriculum rich units with rolling carts?

Drop shipments of new tools rarely promote significant use. Once they are unboxed and unwrapped (a process that can extend over several months in some districts), the real work begins. Given already full schedules and commitments, few staff members have the time and resources to figure out, test and modify effective program strategies with the new tools.

Principals may promote innovation by clearing away obstacles, rearranging resources and establishing an organizational culture supportive of growth and risk taking.

Growth rarely occurs in schools caught in a survival mode.

To move away from survival to healthy growth, principals may turn to online resources such as the Journal of Staff Development and its library of articles, many of which suggest strategies to reorganize schools and schedules to free up additional time for adult learning.

The principal should be orchestrating professional development offerings to dovetail with the introduction of new tools. Often the new tools prompt a 2-3 hour introductory workshop . . . and then silence. The support should be ongoing and well spaced through the school year - just in time learning as opposed to just in case learning.

In order to overcome obstacles and frustrations, part of the learning should focus on classroom management strategies rather than mere equipment operating.

The principal should be sheltering staff from excessive demands, from frivolous program experiments and from topsy-turvy surprises and disruptions.

4) If the new program is successful, what data could a principal share with the superintendent and other supervisors as evidence of success?

The school can gather evidence that the new tools are being used frequently and according to plan. Furthermore, the staff can indicate that such use is universal. It is a simple matter of scheduling and tracking use.

More important than frequency is the alignment of use with the local curriculum, state curriculum standards and the school's plan to produce student learning results. Alongside the schedule recording number of hours, there is a place to record activity codes from the list agreed upon by the staff.

Activity A - Text Literacy Challenges (analysis, inference and interpretation ---> synthesis)
Activity B - Numerical Literacy Challenges ((analysis, inference and interpretation ---> synthesis)
Activity C - Visual Literacy Challenges ((analysis, inference and interpretation ---> synthesis)
Activity D - Problem-Solving Challenges
Activity E - Decision-Making Challenges

Beyond recording the time and the ways tools are used, schools should also measure changes in student skills, performance and attitudes.

When technologies are no available in sufficient numbers and depth to reach all classrooms, the school should make a sincere effort to create control groups that are quite comparable, avoiding traps like the assignment of early adopters to the experimental groups.

Do the state test results of students participating in these pilot programs surpass the results of those without the new tools? Or is the reverse true? Can we see any differences at all?

5) How can clear expectations help to stimulate effective use?

In many schools, new equipment is purchased and rolled into buildings without the staff agreeing in advance upon how, when and why the technology might be used. This lack of definition and clarity allows each individual to do as she or he pleases and leaves the success of the innovation to happenstance.

Illustration used with permission of AmerAsia Imports.

"Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil."

Without assessment and clear expectations, participants are free to go about their business as usual. (See full illustration and carving at Bandwagons have passed through schools this way for decades, with little discussion or consideration of changes in student performance.

The remedy? The staff builds curriculum rich units involving the effective use of the new tools. If the fifth grade science curriculum calls for every student to do a stream study using handheld devices to analyze data, then all teachers are expected to schedule for the use of equipment and all teachers are expected to do the unit. The principal works with all teachers to make certain they have the resources required to meet the expectations clearly expressed in the curriculum guide.

6) What informal support strategies and resources can be launched and sustained to extend the benefits of introductory professional development sessions?

Regrettably, most teachers must work through innovations in relative isolation from others. This isolation increases the sense of risk while enlarging the enormity of what Michael Fullan calls the "daily press" of classroom teaching. These pressures and the anxieties occasioned by disruptive new programs create a sense of "battle fatigue" in some schools. This fatigue can make the introduction of new learning tools and strategies seem daunting. Classroom routines become an important survival strategy under these conditions, and those routines are not readily exchanged for new ones.

Encouraging partnerships can make a big difference. When combined with liberal doses of time for meeting, discussing, planning and launching, partnerships can give teachers the boost in spirit they need along with the skills required to attain good results.

In all too many schools, pressures for change are heaped in top of already stressed performers without considering the impact these pressures might have on the spirit of the staff as well as their inclination to welcome and embrace the innovation.

Many "change agents" project visions and lofty goals without taking care of the needs and feelings of those charged with carrying out the new marching orders.

The focus in many schools is the provision of formal training in software. While everyone needs software skills, there is a tendency to teach lots of skills out of context. Seeing no practical use for many of these skills and having no occasion to practice them, many teachers find that skills slide away like run-off after a storm.

According to research by Bruce Joyce, innovation is more likely to stick when teams of teachers learn and practice new strategies together over a substantial period of time.

In order for this kind of informal teaming to thrive, most schools must commit to organizational change.

  • Resources - Funds must be dedicated to adult learning, providing time, opportunity and staffing to keep teams moving forward.
  • Attitudes - It takes some courage to work in teams on new behaviors that might cause discomfort or embarrassment. Positive attitudes usually require cultivation. The leader or leadership team might begin with a survey of attitudes to determine which deserve attention.
  • Norms - The basic belief system, the rules and the expectations of the organization can have a profound effect on any innovation's chances. As Peter Senge explains in considerable depth, several levels of beliefs may require attention. Sometimes the substrata go unrecognized and untreated even though they may block, weaken and frustrate particular change efforts.
  • Procedures - Within this category would fall organizational habits of being and acting - the types of meetings, the ways of sharing concerns, the kinds of messaging and communicating, etc. In some schools, these procedures can lead to a "closed system" - one that is impervious.
  • Structures - Time schedules and other organizational structures can ease the passage of innovations or frustrate and hamper them. Do the third grade teachers ever get a common planning period?
  • Goals - What are the real purposes of the organization? Some schools are focused on the adults that work there. Others are fervently committed to engaging and challenging all students. These goals must be congruent with the innovation of the innovation is going to take root.

7) What school districts have already discovered good ways to move past installation to challenging, standards-based learning with frequent and broadly distributed use?

The answers to this question depend upon the kinds of visits described earlier in this article. During the visit, the team tries to focus upon specific strategies that have helped to make lift-off a reality.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.

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