From Now On

The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 14|No 1|October|2004
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Thinking Through The Technology Puzzle

by David Bowman

(about author)

© 2004, David Bowman, all rights reserved.

We are seeing the beginnings of a backlash against technology use in classrooms, especially computer technology.  The reason for this backlash is that in spite of so much talk about technology, and so much money spent buying it, little has changed in student achievement.

It's our own fault. We've been focused on the technologies, not on effective teaching. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said, "On top of everything else, now I have to teach technology, too." 

The fact is teachers are not supposed to "teach technology." They are supposed to teach their subjects and create conditions for student learning, which is the foundation of technology integration. In brief, appropriate use of technology can provide learning opportunities not otherwise possible.

What amazes me most is that although computers have been in schools since the 80's, so many teachers still don't know how to use them, much less use them to enhance instruction and learning.  Technology integration isn't about replacing what we do. It is about doing what we do better.  It's about teachers and how we teach. It's about students and how they learn. Anything less is technology education, teaching substitution, or, worst of all, behavior modification.

Poor uses of technology in a classroom

Technology education means taking time away from subject area learning and focusing on the acquisition of technology skills. The only time this is acceptable is in vocational education courses that are specifically designed to promote job skills in technology fields, such as network management, PC repair, or web design.  Otherwise, students should be engaged in meaningful learning experiences to help them demonstrate achievement of content standards.

Moving down the scale of poor technology use is technology substitution. In this case, students use technologies to replicate activities they used to do without technology.  A friend of mine relates a story about observing a group of third grade students making Valentine's Day cards on a word processor. Previously, they would have used construction paper, safety scissors, glue, and markers. Markers are more fun, and glue tastes better. The kids probably had more fun the "old fashioned" way, too.  Nothing is gained with substitution. The kids don't learn more, and time is often wasted. If students need to learn specific technology skills, then the teacher should help the students do so during a meaningful learning opportunity where the focus is on making progress towards meeting content standards.

The worst use of technology in a classroom, if we don't count dust collecting, is behavior modification. In this case, the teacher either "allows" computer use as a reward for completing "real work" or as a way to occupy students who have finished their "real work." Imagine telling a surgeon, "Once you have finished sewing up the patient, you can play with the machine that goes ÔPING.'" Here's why this is wrong. First, it means that the teacher hasn't planned the use of time well so that students will be continuously occupied in learning activities. Second, it denies that technology use is a part of accomplishing the "real work."

Appropriate use of technologies in classrooms

Here is what technology is for: questioning, exploration, discovery, analysis, understanding, application, and communication.  This is also known as the learning process.  Teachers need to ask themselves, "How can students learn the concepts central to this field of study better through the use of technology?"  This is a hard question to ask and even harder to answer. Remember what it was like to be a first year teacher? Everything had to be figured out for the first time. In a very real way, asking teachers to use technology appropriately is like asking them to return to the first year of teaching. Here are some suggestions:

English/Language Arts: Use the Internet to view satellite photos of places described in novels and visit the Chambers of Commerce from those places to understand the social dynamics of the community and, therefore, the context of a novel.

Mathematics: Use a spreadsheet to record times of travel between two cities, figuring in travel speeds, weather conditions, and distances, and represent the data in several graphical forms to gain an understanding of dependent and independent variables.

Science: Use sensory probes, microscopes, and spreadsheets to examine the effects of water temperature on algae production.

Music: Study sound wave patterns to examine harmonic patterns and learn about chord structure.

Physical Education: Observe basketball techniques in slow motion video to improve shooting techniques.  Measure brain activity as a result of various lunchroom dietary habits.

Sociology: Videotape students in hallways and use a spreadsheet to chart the length and number of interactions a student engages in compared to his grade point average.

I want to briefly revisit a point almost made earlier. Teachers know that students typically like to use computers, which is why they are used as a reward or to motivate students. I hear again and again that students will write, study, research, etc., using computers and are more motivated to "work" when using a computer. This is generally true, and because it is generally true, teachers should be doubly motivated to find appropriate ways to use computers, and other technologies, to help students understand difficult concepts and develop new knowledge.

On the other hand, technology use is not always appropriate, nor are computers, nor any particular type of technology, always the appropriate type of technology to use. Panaceas do not exist in education. There is no replacement for quality teaching governed by effective pedagogy.  In light of this, I am reminded of research performed by the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL) on technology use in classrooms. The conclusion they drew after exhaustive examination of classrooms is that appropriate technology use is an essential component of optimal learning environments. When we take the reverse of this, it means that without appropriate technology use, it is impossible to achieve optimal learning environments. Impossible.

Changing the way we think about technologies

I seem to hear the same two phrases used to support the use of technologies in schools, and they are both wrong. One is "prepare students for the 21st century." The other is "life-long learning."

Why do we, as educators, talk about preparing students for the 21st century? We are in the 21st century. It's not some future event with strange technological demands. Students need technological abilities now, both to learn and to live.  Instead of talking about "preparing students for the 21st century," we should be talking about preparing students for their lives when they wake up each day.

What is life-long learning? As a grants program coordinator, I was always disappointed when I read that one goal of a proposal was to help students become "life-long learners."  How do you know if students become "life-long learners?" You can't measure it.  Our job as educators is not to prepare "life-long learners." Our job is to help students develop the skills and abilities they will need to succeed in whatever path they choose. Instead of "life-long learners," we should be preparing life-long succeeders.

Here we need to talk about "No Child Left Behind." According to NCLB, Enhancing Education Through Technology program, by the end of 2006 technology must be integrated into the curricula and instruction in all schools to enhance teaching and learning.  This is the federal government forcing into practice what educational research tells us about the use of technologies in schools. It is also a warning bell for die-hard technology resistors.  I have little tolerance for teachers who do things a particular way simply for the sake of tradition and their personal comfort.  Traditional practices are only as worthwhile as the results they produce, and schools are not for teachers' comfort but for students' learning. The wheel that doesn't squeak isn't always the best wheel for the cart.

Professional development to enhance teaching and learning

Surprisingly, a significant percentage of teachers use technology for their personal needs but don't employ it in the classroom. Why do so many teachers find technology, especially computer technology, useful themselves but don't carry that understanding to their students? Maybe this is because it's a conceptually difficult thing to do, and teachers aren't given the time and training to figure out how to do it well.  On the other hand, many teachers do figure it out, on their own time and without training. They may be the ones who are continually re-evaluating their practices, the ones with a high degree of tolerance for risk-taking and making mistakes, the ones who understand that technology provides great potential for enhanced teaching and learning and are accustomed to trying unfamiliar things for the sake of improved teaching and enhanced learning. 

For the rest, schools must consider professional development needs very seriously. Forget the one-day workshops. Forget the show-and-tell sessions. Forget the inspirational speeches about "preparing students for the 21st century." These do little for changing instructional practices. Professional development leading to enhanced teaching and learning comes in two types, equally important: technology skills and technology integration.

Teachers need to know how to use the technology. This is skills training. This is everything from learning how to turn on computers, navigate a network environment, use various applications, and create products, to programming, creating multimedia presentations, and performing basic maintenance and repair of computers.  Once upon a time, I was sitting in a conference session hosted by Linda Roberts, the former Director of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. One of the panel members, whose name I have blocked from my mind, made a statement that many students know more about technology than the teachers, and that this is wrong. This is not wrong. This is simply an opportunity for teachers and students to change roles, which is fundamentally a good thing. When we let students teach us, we don't lose credibility—we gain respect.

Technology training alone will do little to change classrooms practices because it doesn't deal with instructional design, teacher and student behavior, or those beliefs that provide the basis for a productive educational environment.  Professional development in technology integration is much harder, lengthier, and requires a strong commitment by school leadership. This professional development deals intimately with how the technology is and can be used to support student learning.

Here's what it may look like.  Study groups. Team lesson revision. Classroom observations with feedback by other teachers. Model lessons. Study in pedagogy and curriculum development. Workshops that use the technology as a part of the teacher learning. Mentoring. Opportunities to meet with other teachers for extended periods of time to examine and reflect upon methodologies. Team teaching. Support for trying, failing, reflecting, and trying again. Sharing with colleagues what has been learned.

And on and on. Professional development is only effective when classroom practices change and students are able to demonstrate achievement of content standards. So often, the only time we see teachers using technology in professional development is when the professional development is about technology.  However, if the students are going to use technology to learn, teachers must do so, too.  If we are going to change the nature of education, the way kids learn and teachers teach, then we must start by changing the beliefs of educators.  The result is not "life-long learners." The result is students who can ask questions, explore, discover, analyze, understand, apply, and communicate understanding.

Computer technology and the learning environment

The final issue to be discussed here has to do with the educational environment, specifically where the technology is in relation to the students.  I am not a fan of computer labs. They tend to promote very ineffective uses of computers. When it is the scheduled time for a class to attend, then that class has to go, regardless of the instructional appropriateness. As a result, computer labs tend to promote two types of computer use: typing and learning basic computer skills. Neither of these may bear any relation to the academic concepts students are engaging. Instead, they generally either replace existing practices (replacement technology use) or interrupt students from instructional settings to "learn computers" (skills training).

I admit that computer labs can be used effectively, but only with great consideration for the learning objectives.  The best uses of labs are either in a free-for-all setting in which students and teachers may come and go as needed or when they are used sparingly for whole class learning engagement in a meaningful learning activity (i.e., helping students make progress towards meeting standards).

What works better under most circumstances is to put the computers into those classrooms where they will be used appropriately. Every teacher should have one for his use, at a minimum. Teachers need them to work efficiently and will certainly need one to explore various ideas for technology integration.  This is especially true for resistant teachers who may need extra assistance, motivation, and support to meet the December 31, 2006 deadline. In those classrooms where computers will be used appropriately, place a lot more (all networked to the Internet), given budget and space constraints. U.S. Department of Education research indicates that a 4:1 student to computer ratio seems to work best in most instructional environments. With most effective use, not every student needs a computer all the time, nor do all students typically need a computer at the same time. If the instructional design limits computer use to whole class exercises, then the instructional design also limits effective learning.

Making technology invisible

When do we teach various technology skills and applications? As they become relevant to students' tasks or needs. Who teaches those skills? Whoever is closest, has time, and has those skills or is able to figure them out. When do students use technology? Whenever relevant to the learning tasks, whether by teacher direction or by student choice. As students mature academically and learn self-responsibility, they should be given the flexibility to determine and follow-through on their learning needs.

When I need to use my computer to accomplish some task, learn something, perform some operation, etc., I don't have to ask permission, schedule time, or get a hall pass. Students shouldn't have to either. To require this is to interrupt the learning process.  If our overarching goal is student learning, then our primary responsibility as educators is to establish those conditions that promote student learning, which include effective instructional strategies, appropriate use of resources, and a productive and empowering learning environment.

Recommendations for policy makers

Finally, here are four recommendations for education leaders seeking to improve use of technologies in schools, leading to enhanced teaching and learning.

1. Encourage the use of technology for questioning, exploration, discovery, analysis, understanding, application, and communication and discourage behavior modification and activity replacement.

2. Determine the effectiveness of technology integration, and instruction in general, by the degree to which it helps students demonstrate achievement as measured against content standards.

3. Focus professional development strategies on the teaching and learning process and the beliefs that underlie effective teaching, using technology to help teachers enhance their professional abilities.

4. Place technology resources where learning is occurring so that they are available when needed by the learner.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie .

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