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The Limited Use of  

Technology in Teachers'




“I don’t know what else I can do to have my teachers integrate technology into classroom instruction,” a frustrated principal shared publicly at a recent conference of education leaders.

His exasperation was echoed by other participants. They shared how their efforts to provide technology training, hire a technology integration specialist and incorporate technology standards into teacher evaluation had not led to greater technology use in their school districts. In the end, no one had an answer.

Unfortunately, we tend to believe there is not much else we can do to encourage more technology use by classroom teachers. For three decades now, teachers have been at the center of technology integration in education.

Unclear Benefits
We have reached a point where continuing to focus on teachers to integrate technology into the classroom is no longer productive. To advance technology use in schools, we ought to shift from changing teacher behavior to changing how we use technology.

One often overlooked point of significance is that teachers are rational decision makers who weigh the costs and benefits of any major changes in their practice. If they choose to adopt an innovation, it is because doing so has a clear advantage over the existing practice, not because we want them to.

For teachers who are not technology-savvy, integrating technology into classroom instruction simply does not have a clear advantage. Using technology doesn’t necessarily allow them to teach the content faster or cover more ground. It still takes time and person-to-person interaction for teachers to learn about the strengths, weaknesses and interests of individual students.

Rather than making things easier, using technology in the classroom often makes a teacher’s job more complex. Beyond the effort to learn how to use something new, the technology use in instruction also means spending more time preparing lessons and dealing with disruptions brought about by breakdowns or glitches, challenges in classroom management and inappropriate student use, and the reality of some students’ lacking web access at home.

Most discouraging is the fact that classroom use of technology so far has not made things better by improving student achievement. After spending billions of dollars on technology, we have not seen widespread standardized test-score gains. While some studies point to better student performance, the body of research overall has not yielded convincing evidence about the positive effects of technology on student achievement.

Harnessing Power
If we can discover new uses of technology that enable teachers to do their jobs faster, easier and better, it is hard to imagine why teachers would not embrace those uses. One new use, which we believe has great potential, involves building smarter schools where technology helps teachers make better instructional decisions and personalize student learning.

Over the past two decades, one exciting development in technology is the drastically improved capacity to solve complex problems through mining vast amounts of data, which in other fields is called business intelligence. We can and should harness this massive computing power to develop education intelligence to solve problems in teaching and learning.

When technology is used to analyze performance data, it can reveal hidden relationships and produce insights to help teachers better understand individual students’ needs. Moreover, education intelligence powered by technology can lead teachers to personalized instructional strategies, delivering customized learning materials and monitoring student progress.

Smarter Schools
Some innovative pioneers are taking technology in this direction, and they have seen some promising results. In New York City, the School of One, a pilot program launched in 2009, uses technology to develop a learning algorithm that generates a daily plan for each student, matching student learning style and progress with instructional materials drawn from thousands of lessons from more than 50 providers. These daily plans then are projected on large monitors distributed around the school, showing students what classes to attend and advising teachers whom to expect in which areas at all times.

School of One was named one of the top 50 inventions in 2009 by Time magazine. More importantly, the students’ math skills were found to grow seven times faster than peers with similar demographics and pretest scores, according to the New York City Department of Education.

In our large metropolitan school district in Overland Park, Kan., we are developing a smart data system for the gifted program. Teachers now spend significantly less time collecting data for identifying gifted and talented students and preparing for meetings about individualized education programs.

More importantly, our district makes better eligibility decisions by analyzing the identification data. The system also ensures consistency in identification with real-time monitoring. As more data are accumulated and analyzed, we expect the system to become smarter and produce more insights to improve practice.

A decade ago, businesses started using technology to build a smarter planet. Now it is time for us to harness technology to build smarter schools.

Bo Yan is program evaluator in the Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kan. E-mail: byan@bluevalleyk12.org.
Mike Slagle is assistant superintendent in the Blue Valley School District.


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