Technology in the Schools, So What?

Responding to the Common Questions About Computers in the Classroom by Stephen L. Kleinsmith

When we ask parents, administrators, teachers and students, "Do you want technology in the schools?" the answer is predictable.

A parent typically responds, "My child needs to be prepared for the 21st century." Administrators contend, "When students have access to technology, they show improvement in both academic performance and behavior." Teachers tell us, "Technology has given us the ability to conduct experiments we could never have run five years ago." Most importantly, students share with us their love for computers and technology, saying, "We’re more enthusiastic to learn."

But even with overwhelming support among stakeholders for the use of technology in the schools, others, including some of our own colleagues, remain skeptical. They wonder if the computer age will have no more effect on education than did the use of television in the classroom starting in the 1950s. TV, remember, was going to change radically how we did our business as educators. Many of us continue to wait for that to happen.

After witnessing some appropriate use of computers and other forms of technology in our schools, we are convinced we must use the teaching tools of our time to influence young people in a positive, interactive way. We are not suggesting that the use of technology alone provides the means for improved learning. That comes from the synergy of all the teaching strategies we use to help students learn what is essential. Of course, in our professional lives, the use of chalkboards, overhead projectors, film strips, and calculators also has served us well in the teaching and learning process.

Like many educators, we believe the same thing is occurring with the use of computers. What many school districts are able to do now with the use of computers is take learning to a higher level, making classroom learning a more relevant and satisfying experience.

Worthy Questions

However, before technology can lead to more effective learning, school leaders will need to answer many worthy questions from teachers and other staff, parents, community members, and school board members. These are the significant ones we have had to address in our district as we have moved forward in our use of educational technology:

* How are we supposed to fit technology into our already busy days?

We already have enough to teach, but we tend to find time to learn to use a new tool if the benefit is significant and immediate. Technology in learning relates little to what we do but a great deal to how we do it.

Tools and techniques change over time. How many businesses now allow their employees to figure a bill by pencil-and-paper calculation? Do you watch the news on television when you could be reading a good book? Even though understanding the concepts of math and reading books remain important, we have adapted to the calculator and computer for speed and accuracy and television for timely information.

* If teachers have to use technology, how are the many non-users going to learn how to do it?

In our district, we are adopting standards that will not allow any teacher, principal, or secretary to be a non-user.

To help them develop proficiency, two district-level staff members have primary responsibility for training staff in technology. They manage a learning lab in which they hold classes and work closely with the director of effective schools to make sure they are responsive to district needs and plans. They also meet monthly with building representatives monthly to plan site-based in-service programs.

We also ensure proficiency through our teacher evaluation process, which asks teachers to develop a personal plan for learning to use technology.

In addition, the district provides a "help desk" that provides technology support to users via electronic mail and telephone.

* Where will we find the money to pay for this technology?

We will either wait for someone else to provide it or we will take action. Since we cannot afford to wait, why not consider how we might redirect the money we now have?

To secure new funds we must develop good plans and share them with all the education stakeholders to raise consciousness about our needs and enlist support for our solutions. Those who persevere will succeed.

Encouraging Staff

* Since technology becomes outdated so quickly, how are we to keep up with the latest innovation?

Technology tends to strain budgets. Buy some new equipment each year to avoid getting too far behind the state of the art. Recognize the continued usefulness of earlier purchases and place that equipment where it meets a need. Many older models can be dedicated to special purposes to which they are still suited.

* How do you make your staff use technology?

Educators always respond to the needs of their students. Explain the benefits. Demonstrate the technique. Give them access. Then make it safe to risk and try. Don’t forget to celebrate the best practices.

* How do you know what to buy?

Clearly state the problem you want to solve (in learning terms). Ask educators in other school districts who have been successful. Give end users the responsibility to recommend. Allow them resources (sample products for evaluation and time to try them out) for research and development. Treat it as a process and not an event.

* What can technology do that a good teacher can't do?

Classrooms are for teaching and learning. For instruction, technology comes in second to any good teacher. But as a tool in the hands of the learner it is useful for activities involving writing/publishing, calculating/problem solving, research and information gathering, simulating a difficult or dangerous situation, and communication and collaborating at a distance.

Justifying Expense

* How can you justify spending time on technology when more of an effort needs to be spent on the basics?

Where is the conflict? Most good instructional software reinforces reading and comprehension skills, communication, or problem-solving. When used appropriately, technology will help teach and reinforce basic skills.

* How do you ensure community support for the expense of the technology initiatives?

We are completing a major evaluation of technology in learning to be reported to the school board and public this spring. The evaluation is being handled by an outside consultant with financial support from the district’s educational foundation.

The district studied what is required to establish equity in technology among our school sites and this is being discussed with the public at a series of meetings convened by the superintendent and his staff. The need for technology, additional facilities, and remodeling of existing buildings may end in a bond issue.

* Wouldn't it be better to use the technology money on lowering class size? Won't that improve student learning more?

Learning in smaller groups is one advantage of many computer-based activities. In fact, the teacher may be able to interact personally with more students in a day with the same or larger class by having some students work with computers. Balance is the key to emphasize, not smaller classes or more technology.

* Will what they learn in school about technology be used in the real world?

A large part of the new jobs are related to information processing or doing something with a computer. Technology brings us closer to real-world applications.

* Won't this technology stuff just widen the gap between the wealthy and the poor (suburban vs. urban vs. rural)?

Technology is the great equalizer. It plays no favorites among race, creed, color, or socioeconomic level. Admittedly, access can be a problem. Putting more computers in the public libraries or having the schools open at night can help.

A Wider Argument

My replies to many of these questions may give the impression I simply am arguing for the use of technology in schools. Such an assumption would fall short of the mark.

While I believe technology today must be an integral part of any educational endeavor, the real question must be how to integrate technology into the learning process. This is a much broader objective than simply having students become familiar with a computer or a piece of software.

Our students know they live in a world dominated by technology where access to information is the key to success. As educators, we must find the means and construct the learning environment so these students will be successful in such a world.

Overcoming Skeptics

While computers and other technology tools have developed at what seems the speed of light over recent years, what remains the same is the magical interaction between students and technology. As educators, we sometimes are dubious about the benefit of technology and apprehensive about being able to harness the technology enough to use it in ways that improve student learning.

Much of this skepticism can be tempered with the right attitude.

Ask yourself these questions:

* Are the schools in my district technology friendly?

* Are teachers encouraged to try technological innovations in their classrooms?

* Do teachers have the tools, time, and training for technology to make a difference?

* Do clear goals relating to technology exist for teachers?

* Are parents involved, interested, and supportive of technology in the schools?

If these answer to these is no, then I say, "Technology—so what?"

Stephen Kleinsmith, Director of Secondary Education, Millard Public Schools, Omaha, Nebraska.

The author acknowledges the assistance of Millard colleagues Curt Anderson, coordinator of instructional technology, and Denny Hanley, technology leader at secondary level, in preparing this article.