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Upgrading School Technology

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By Lin Foa, Richard L. Schwab, and Michael Johnson

Many school districts are beginning or are in the midst of major upgrades of their technological infrastructure. President Clinton has called for computers in every classroom, yet most classrooms today look remarkably like they did 25 years ago.

Statistics are thrown about wildly, with recent reports indicating that close to 50 percent of schools have or are currently installing Internet connections. Yet other reports suggest that only 3 percent of the nation's teachers use the much-vaunted information highway in their classrooms. What is the reality here?

More importantly, what is needed before the constant hype can become reality? How can the millions of dollars being allocated for technology and training be spent most effectively? What are the strategies that work? What ones court disaster?

Some students have the opportunity to interview foreign "key pals" electronically; others are able to study about archeology or weather with working experts who are "live" at a distant site. How can the excitement, involvement, and breadth of knowledge that these students are getting be made part of the school day for all?

In the last year, our team of three educator/consultants has had the opportunity to visit public K-12 schools in 14 states, as well as colleges of education, to try to find some answers to these questions. The schools we have observed include those in big cities, small rural towns, reservations, and suburbia--in states ranging from Oregon to New Mexico to Minnesota. Some were already technologically sophisticated; others had never used computers at all. Some statewide projects were funded at more than $1 million; other individual school projects for as little as $8,000. What is startling is that the principles for effective integration of technologies seem to hold true regardless of the setting or the amount of funding.

Here, in the first gleanings from our research, are what we think some of those principles are:

  • Identify and support the zealots. Transformation will follow in their wake. Zealots come in many shapes and roles. Teachers are often most effective because they are trusted by their colleagues to understand the realities of the classroom. In other cases, it is the principal or superintendent who best understands the power of technology as an indispensable tool for improved student learning. The zealot's energy and commitment can open up new opportunities to gain resources from communities, corporations, and national funding sources. Yet tragically, in some schools or districts these innovators are ignored or penalized for their extra efforts.
  • Training is at least as important as technology. Budget for it accordingly. It is far easier to ask for funding for computers and wiring. And everyone in the education field has heard countless stories of wasted "in-service" classes. But the most advanced technology in the world is useless if teachers have not learned to feel comfortable with it to the point that they automatically and easily incorporate its use into their lesson plans. One-shot training sessions are fine to raise awareness and motivate excitement, but longer, more comprehensive training strategies that include coaching and modeling are critical to success. Good ones cost money and time. Moreover, we've observed that on-site training can be extremely efficient, since teachers learn on the equipment they will be using and are then more confident about sharing their new expertise with their colleagues.
  • Never underestimate how long it will take to get connected. Drawing up the plans to buy computers and wire up classrooms is the easy part. Time and again, we have seen projects where equipment has been ordered or training has begun with the idea that teachers will readily be able to use what they have learned. Three months later, a missing cable, or a bureaucratically slow district wiring schedule, or unexpected shipping delays, or unknown building oddities will have stymied all those good intentions. Nothing has happened and teachers' frustrations will have sapped their motivation. Training should be fully designed and tested while the infrastructure is being put in place, but not begin until teachers have direct access to the technology to practice what they have learned.
  • Technical support needs to be on-site, individualized, and teacher-oriented. In the interests of efficiency and economy, many projects funded by government and private funders throughout the country have attempted to provide "virtual" technical support. The usual plan is for teachers to travel to a site for initial training and later have access to "hot lines" or electronic-mail technical support for troubleshooting. These are often less than successful.

Rather, we have observed that the most successful projects in terms of start-up speed and later continuity are those that provide on-site, individualized technical set-up and support. There is still so much jury-rigging that goes on, with disparate equipment and wiring environments, that one-size-fits-all solutions simply aren't yet possible. Teachers who are having trouble and are frustrated about wasted time are very unlikely to turn to further technology use for help. Moreover, a great deal of emotional support comes from a visit by a live body who uses clear, nontechnical language, and who has the social skills to make teachers feel good about their forays into this strange new land.

  • Move forward with those who are ready. Don't waste time, dollars, or energy on those who are not yet interested. Whole-school or whole-district endeavors--often based on superficial notions of equity--may waste a lot of equipment and effort. It is indeed the case that technologies are proving to be valuable catalysts for underachieving students, but true equity for students only occurs if the equipment is effectively used. The money and time to connect classrooms and train teachers is limited. This fact, plus the rapid obsolescence of technology, means that it makes sense to use available resources as incentives only for those teachers who are eager. Gradually the ripple effect of their accomplishments and excitement will inspire those who had been uninterested or unwilling, and will spread throughout the school.
  • The introduction of technologies into the classroom changes power structures throughout the schools. One of the most interesting and unexpected observations has been how far-reaching and often subtle are the changes caused by the new technologies. Many principals and superintendents openly acknowledge how little they know about integrating technologies but offer their vague support to anyone who wants to proceed. Others seem to feel threatened and try to hide their discomfort and lack of knowledge by throwing indifference or bureaucratic roadblocks in the path of innovation. Either way, administrators' training needs must be attended to sooner rather than later in order for them to regain their roles as leaders in this arena as in others.

School or district technology specialists also can be extraordinarily helpful or they can provide a significant obstacle to the teachers' progress, as they feel their own roles and expertise challenged. Those who are "tekkies" often want to retain control of the use of the equipment, and disagreements about the placement of computers in labs or classrooms are rampant. A few still insist teachers and students understand fully the operation and guts of the machines before they are allowed to touch them, even though it appears that the most rapid learning occurs when a "just do it" philosophy prevails, and informal coaching accompanies individual exploration.

Media specialists who are used to teaching about and controlling access to the information resources in their libraries may suddenly feel disenfranchised when computers in classrooms--equipped with CD-ROM encyclopedias and access to the Internet--provide students and teachers with all the information they could ever want. That there are still enormously important roles for both types of specialists is clear; that they must be reconfigured is equally clear. Valuing the process of change needs to be conveyed as a positive and necessary goal by school boards and superintendents.

  • For teachers to integrate technologies into their curricula requires changes of huge magnitude in educational philosophy, classroom management, and curricular goals. The common belief is that if one simply teaches teachers how to use computers and telecommunications and provides the necessary equipment, classroom teaching and learning will improve automatically. Nothing could be farther from the truth. For the technologies to be used optimally, teachers must be comfortable with a constructivist or project-based, problem-solving approach to learning; they must be willing to tolerate students' progressing independently and at widely varying paces; they must trust students to know more than they do about certain subjects and techniques, and in fact to take on the role of expert teacher at various times; they must be comfortable about not having complete control over what resources the student accesses or what the student learns, and they must be flexible enough to change directions when technical glitches occur.

For some teachers, these practices are all second nature. Giving them access to technologies and telecommunications is akin to turning them loose in a bookstore. More often, however, we are asking teachers to integrate dramatically new philosophies of education, curricular goals, classroom-management techniques, and new ideas about interdisciplinary and individualized education into their daily practice. No wonder the introduction of technologies is often perceived as threatening.

  • Learning occurs--for students and teachers--when we build on what's known. Significant new findings in learning theory over the last decade are changing the way we expect students to learn, and we must ensure that teachers' learning is regarded accordingly. The effective use of technologies in the classroom will occur much more rapidly if those responsible for training teachers are careful to convey that the purpose of multimedia technology is not the use of the technology as an end in itself. Rather, the teacher's goal, just as it always was with older technologies like slides or books or even chalk, is to use the technology as a tool to teach the content. Using familiar terms like "electronic field trips" can make the sophisticated power of telecommunications much less daunting. Nor is the objective simply to come up with glitzy fixed products, however seductive that might be. The multimedia product is simply a documentation of the learning that has occurred thus far, and as such, is a snapshot of a process.
  • The social and emotional aspects of learning to use technologies cannot be ignored. When training time is limited, it is tempting to get right to business and to ignore opportunities for socialization and bonding, sharing meals, and individualized hand-holding. Yet teachers often become teachers because they are very people-oriented, warm, nontechnical human beings. And like many other time-deprived professionals, they are interested in practical applications, not abstractions; they prefer to control their environments, and they have little patience for things that don't work. As a consequence, learning to use new technologies--with all their idiosyncrasies and threats to the traditional order of things--is extremely intimidating. Those teachers who have formed supportive bonds with others--both trainers and trainees--seem to progress much faster and with fewer frustrations. The more casually and frequently those bonds can be reinforced, the better.
  • "Bathroom time comes before Internet time." This phrase was emphatically delivered by a teacher noting her biggest problem in learning how to integrate the use of telecommunications in her classroom: time. Those of us who are not solely responsible for multitudes of children and all their activities each day tend to forget just how all-encompassing K-12 teaching can be. The best intentions to practice computer use, to spend evenings signing on to list servers, or to develop new curricular materials using telecommunications are often swept away by the enormous daily time demands we put on our teachers. It may not be just the teachers who need to make dramatic changes to update our kids' education. Administrators, parents, and communities may need to analyze the school day, week, and year to find opportunities for teachers' professional development and to rethink how we ask our teachers to spend their time.
  • Kids can teach kids about technology use better than adults. We are not accustomed in most classrooms to ask students to be responsible for any serious teaching. Yet kids seem to understand the use of new technologies and how to explain them to other kids far more naturally than anyone over 30. We have observed 4th graders--totally new to computers--soon able to teach other students the intricacies of creating home pages and Powerpoint presentations. The teacher who learns to use these classroom assistants appropriately can dramatically multiply the learning opportunities available to all the students.

In one middle school, good students who are responsible and articulate, but not necessarily technically oriented, are given the opportunity to learn to become "beta tekkies." Teachers throughout the school submit requests for their assistance with troublesome machines or unfamiliar technology teaching tasks. The students use study hall or after-school time to respond.

  • Not everyone deals with change at the same pace. Earlier we talked about the incredible scope of changes teachers must make if they are to succeed at integrating new technologies into the classroom. On any scale, we are asking already overworked individuals to undergo profound belief and habit transformation. As anyone who has simply tried to change one set of habits at a time knows, the progress is never smooth.

Thus, any strategy for introduction of technologies into schools must explicitly acknowledge that change will occur in bits and spurts; that different teachers will be moving along different paths at different speeds, and that the variations are perfectly normal. Built-in incentives and rewards--however little or funny--for taking any step forward are critical to ongoing success.

  • Technology can rally communities and parents as never before if presented wisely. Even as they struggle with strategies and budget revisions, most schools report that the parents and the local community recognize that the ability to use new technologies will be critical for their kids' success in the 21st century. Parent technology-training sessions, senior citizen and nursing home projects, and technology "open houses" are all ways to involve parents and voters with technology innovation. Several schools have discovered that fathers are newly active in helping out when new technologies are introduced. Fears about unrestrained access to the Internet occur, but these seem easily dealt with by the incorporation of appropriate policies and "watchdog" software.

In addition, there are new opportunities for community groups to be involved. Corporations are glad to have a place to donate used equipment that may still be far superior to what the schools possess, and funding requests to local philanthropies can be concrete and represent an opportunity for very tangible change. The presentations that students can make at school board meetings, legislative meetings, and at community events are often simply dazzling, and provide new opportunities for kids and adults to interact.

We are witnessing the most profound change to affect our society and our corporate and professional lives since the Industrial Revolution and the advent of the nationwide rail system. At that time, our entire concepts of work and the products of that work changed. When the tracks were built, those towns that were missed often died; those on the railroads flourished. Our country was knit together in new ways and our culture was transformed.

Slowly, tentatively, and with much agonizing, the same kind of transformation, brought about by the information-technology revolution, is starting to affect our schools in dramatic ways. Those schools that get on the information highway will not get passed by, like the ghost towns of the Old West, but will become part of a worldwide web of information and interchange. Those that don't will produce kids who have limited opportunities for employment and success. It is up to the parents, the teachers, the administrators, and their communities to choose strategies that will triumph over any obstacles.

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