Special Report

Preparing Teachers for the Digital Age

By Andrew Trotter — September 23, 1999 22 min read

A school can have the best software ever made and access to the Web on every computer. But it won’t see much difference in student learning, experts say, unless its teachers know how to use the digital content in their classrooms.

“I could put the same software into two classrooms, and in one classroom, it’s used horribly, and in the other classroom, it’s fantastic. It’s all got to do with the teacher,” says Gregg Martin, the technology director at Addison Central Supervisory Union, a school district in Vermont’s Champlain Valley.

A stack of government and academic reports over the past decade backs up Martin’s view, quieting an old debate among educator and technology seer. about whether computer can replace teachers or even compensate for poor teaching.

“As schools continue to acquire more and better hardware and software, the benefit to students increasingly will depend on the skill with which some 3 million teachers are able to use these new tools,” a presidential advisory panel on education technology concluded in 1997 after reviewing a wide array of research.

Now, even software publishers say that competent teachers are needed to invoke academic gains from digital content.

“Technology is about giving tools to teacher~' to teach better, “says Yoel Givol, who in 1991 founded Logal Software, a Cambridge, Mass.-based company that deliver’ science and math simulations online to 4,000 schools. “I don’t think there is a way that content can get to the kid without somebody in the middle helping them.”

State and federal legislators, increasingly aware that their investments in school technology may hinge on the skills of teachers, also are moving professional development up their priority lists.

“We’re seeing the states take much more interest in teacher preparation generally, in the quality of it—and, within that, the recognition that prospective teachers have to have the skills to use technology,” says Gordon B. “Spud” Van Der Water, a project manager at the Education Commission of the States in Denver. Otherwise, he adds, “the available tools will not serve students well.”

Van Der Water notes that his boss, Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer, a Republican, has made teacher preparation the theme for his one-year term as ECS chairman. “More and more, it’ being backed up with money, [but] clearly the money lags behind the rhetoric,” he adds.

Linda G. Roberts, the director of technology at the U.S. Department of Education, believes there doesn’t have to be a lag. “Any investment in technology really needs to have an investment in the teachers at the same time,” she says.

Federal lawmakers from both parties seem to agree. Last year, Congress supported the Clinton administration’s expansion of the federal Technology Innovation Challenge Grants program, which will direct $30 million to 20 model projects designed to develop teachers’ skills in using technology.

And beginning this month, a new federal grant—titled Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to use Technology—will help universities and college upgrade their teacher-preparation programs.

The National Picture

Still, surveys show that teachers have a long way to go.

A fall 1998 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics found that only one teacher in five felt “very well prepared” to integrate education technology in the grade or subject they taught, compared with 37 percent who were “moderately well prepared,” 34 percent who were “somewhat prepared,” and 9 percent who were “not at all prepared.”

And a new Education Week survey has found that the typical teacher still mostly dabbles in digital content, using it as an optional ingredient to the meat and potatoes of instruction.

Slightly more than half of the 1,407 teachers who responded say they use software for classroom instruction, and 61 percent use Web sites.

But nearly four in 10 teachers say their students don’t use computers at all during a typical week; nearly three in 10 teachers estimate their students’ average usage at just one hour per week. And almost two-thirds of teachers say they rely on software or Web sites for instruction “to a minimal extent” or “not at all.”

Their fairly limited use of digital content does not appear to be based directly on concerns about its quality.

Most teachers who use digital content say they are satisfied with the quality of software and CD-ROMs that are available for instruction in their own classrooms, although a significant minority-36 percent say that overall quality is a “big” or “moderate” problem when considering software in general.

Teachers seem more concerned about other elements of effective technology use, starting with hardware. Although nearly all the teachers-97 percent-say they have computers at work or home to use for professional activities, many don’t think they have enough in the classroom.

Of the 47 percent of teachers who don’t use software at all for instruction, the most common reason by far-given by 75 percent of that group—is that they don’t have enough classroom computers. (More than one-third of all teachers who responded to the survey have no computers in their classrooms that are used for instruction, and another 40 percent have just one or two.)

No Replacement for Teachers

In addition, nearly four out of every 10 teachers who don’t use software for instruction say they don’t have enough time to try out software, and almost as many say they don’t have enough training on instructional software.

Then there are some teachers who simply don’t want to use digital content.

One factor seems to be whether they participate in choosing their own instructional software or have to use titles chosen by someone else. In the Education Week survey, teachers who have very little or no influence in selecting software titles have a much lower opinion of their quality and are less likely to rely on software or the Internet in their classrooms.

In addition, some experts note that most software or computer-based activities are designed to fit specific teaching methods or pedagogies. Repetitive drills lend themselves to one style of teaching, while technology-based projects that are open-ended lend themselves to another.

If teachers aren’t comfortable with the approach inherent in a piece of software or online activity, they might get frustrated or simply goof it up, says Gail Marshall, a school technology consultant based in St. Louis.

Marshall says he has observed teachers standing before students who are embarking on a computer-based inquiry and directing their every move-mouse-click by mouse-click-through the supposed adventure. Or, when students are momentarily stymied in a “constructivist” activity, some teachers talk them through it immediately, without giving them a chance to do the thinking, she says.

Teacher need to understand and be committed to the pedagogy, and not just be trained in operating the software or maneuvering around the Web, Marshall says.

The same conclusion was reached by researchers who studied the first 10 years of one of the most ambitious experiments in saturating schools with computers-the Apple Classroom of Tomorrow project.

“Computers did not replace teachers, nor did they decrease interaction among students,” Jane L. David, the director of the Bay Area Research Group in Palo Alto, Calif., wrote in 1995. “In fact, the opposite has occurred. Teachers are the key to whether technology is used appropriately and effectively, and technology increases conversation, sharing, and learning among students and between students and teachers.”

To get the most out of technology, teachers need staff development focused on changing their pedagogical beliefs and practices, researchers studying the ACOT project concluded.

Adopt, Adapt, Create

Louis M. Gomez, the director of the Center for Learning Technologies in Urban Schools at Northwestern University, explains that teachers bring digital content into the classroom in three possible ways: adopting, adapting, or creating it.

Adoption-booting up the software and following the instructions-is how many publishers expect their products to be used, especially in the cases of integrated-learning systems or learning games. This method has the advantages of saving teachers preparation time and allowing them to give extra attention to students who are having difficulties.

But many teachers, especially those who are very capable or creative, don’t want to hand over so much responsibility to computers, even if they like the content, Gomez says. Teachers are most comfortable taking materials and adapting them to their specific needs and goals, he adds.

“All curricular enactment in the classroom in reality involves some degree of customization of the curriculum,” Gomez says. “I firmly believe that’s what good teachers do.”

But here again, there are potential pitfalls for teachers. When the materials are digital, teachers may not understand what the original design was intended to accomplish, says Christopher J. Dede, an education professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

“There are mutations you can make with a piece of curriculum that are okay-you’re tinkering around the edges, with choices designers have made,” Dede says. “Other changes are lethal, because they destroy the powerful things about it.”

More teachers than ever seem to be creating their own digital materials-such as PowerPoint presentations with text and graphics-as presentation and authoring tools have become easier to use and more affordable.

But not every teacher is comfortable with the role of creating curriculum-<>r even competent at it-a fact that Gail Marshall calls “teaching’s dirty little secret.”

“Some teachers who are introduced to technology and asked to create curriculum tend to focus on peripheral issues, related to a single aspect of a single aspect,” Marshall says. “Or they might not embed the software into a whole range of experiences, hands-on activities, and especially in assessment.”

Even teachers who are enthusiastic about using technology can run into problems when it comes to balancing the time they spend teaching academic content with the time they and their students need to learn the necessary technical skills.

Researchers at the Institute for Research on Learning in Menlo Park, Calif., who studied two large technology projects in several California schools, found that academic content can suffer initially.

“In case after case, we see that when computer technologies are adopted, the learning about the technology often takes over, and it is only after several rounds of integrating technology with content that content emerges in strong ways,” Shelley Goldman, Karen Cole, and Christina S. Syer wrote in a recent paper for the U.S. Department of Education.

When teachers felt a conflict between the technical issues and the content, they reacted in one of three ways.

Some backed off and pushed the technology to the sidelines, temporarily, to concentrate on the content. Others simplified, paring away all the technology but a few capabilities they were comfortable with.

A third group of teachers plunged even further into technology, in the hope that they and their students would learn the technology while mastering the content at the same time. Of this method, the researchers wrote, “Sometimes this works, but often students and/or Gontent falls through the cracks.”

Professional Development Is Key

Syer, the multimedia production manager for the Institute for Research on Learning, says teachers in both projects benefited greatly from workshops where they discussed how to use and develop digital content in their classes.

Seeing was believing, the researchers found. “It’s really important that the teachers in those workshops get to see what it looks like in action, so they’re not just seeing the lecture,” Syer says.

The Education Week survey repeatedly demonstrates the importance of professional development, but it also offers some discouraging statistics about how much teachers are receiving.

Asked how many hours of basic technology skills training they had received within the past 12 months, the largest group ofrespondents-31 percent-said one to five hours. Next came the 27 percent of teachers with no training.

The figures are worse regarding training on integrating technology into the curriculum: 36 percent of teachers received one to five hours, and another 36 percent received none.

Still, the training seems to make a positive difference to those who got it, particularly when it came to their confidence levels, use of digital content, and willingness to experiment:

  • Teachers who received 11 or more hours of curriculum-integration training are five times as likely to say they feel “much better prepared today” to integrate technology into their classroom lessons than teachers who received no such training. And teachers who received both basic-skills and integration training tend to feel better prepared than those who received just one type.
  • Teachers who received more training of either type, but especially of integration training, are more likely to use software to enhance instruction in their classrooms. They are also more likely to rely on software and the Internet in classroom instruction to a “very great” or “moderate” extent.
  • Finally, teachers with more training of either type are more likely to spend time trying out or teaching themselves about software, and also searching the Internet for information and resources to use in the classroom.

Strategies for Growth

Districts and schools seeking help in providing technology training for their teachers can look to a booming industry that has followed the influx of digital content in schools-a field that is crowded with small startups and consultancies, but also big players such as computer, telecommunications, and cable TV companies, colleges, television stations, and publishers in traditional and new media.

Some publishers offer training in how to use their software as a customer service to major purchasers. In one unusual twist on this arrangement, Logal Software provides a substantial rebate to schools that use its digital content for a minimum number of hours-but the money must be invested in teachers’ professional development.

Software manufacturers are also distributing CDROM collections of templates and tutorials designed for the classroom, as a goodwill or market-building gesture. And for 10 years, public broadcasting stations in various cities have held workshops to show teachers how they can use video programming and the Internet in the classroom.

Some developers of training packages are recording video clips of exemplary teachers in classrooms, so teachers can see demonstrations under conditions closer to the real world.

Luis Gomez’s center is developing video clips that relate directly to the science curriculum of the Chicago and Detroit public schools, which are partners in the effort. Gomez says the project eventually will give teachers visual images on a Web site of different instructional approaches to teaching their curriculum.

The video “cases” will show teachers using inquiry-based methods to teach specific curricula. Cases will be indexed and stored on a Web site as a coaching tool.

“Rather than say, ‘Let me try to teach about inquiry-based learning in a relatively decontextualized way, it’s saying, ‘Here’s a particular curriculum you know you’re trying to do, and let us show you what other people have tried to do,’'' Gomez says.

Syer of the Institute for Research on Learning believes the content area chosen for demonstration matters less than how well the model teachers are using technology. “If you’re a math teacher, you can learn just as much from a teacher doing assessments in a social studies class—everyone needs to know how to have assessment in a classroom,” she says.

But other maintain that staff development can be improved by draping it in teachers’ specific content areas, and by making sure teachers learn the pedagogies on which the method of using digital content is based.

“Teachers want to learn to use a database in their content area, not to do a recipe file and then not have a use for it,” says Betty A. Schwartz, a former school administrator who now heads up the Evergreen Project, a St. Louis company that provides professional development for teachers. “Then people all of a sudden start saying, ‘This does this for me, and I can go along and use it with my kids.’ ”

The District’s Role

While training by outside groups can be helpful, there are many elements of effective professional development that it cannot provide, such as time for teachers to make the new skills their own and to adapt or create digital products for their unique conditions.

Nor can it provide a consistent focus on a district’s preferred pedagogical approaches and curriculum goals, experts say.

“When you get down to the nitty gritty, those [new] skills need to be translated in some way to the local school level,” Gail Marshall, the technology consultant in St. Louis, says.

It can also be confusing when a number of teachers return from different conferences laden with competing ideas and conflicting curriculum goals. “Each teacher is doing her thing, which may be wonderful, but how in any way do they connect with specific goals shared by the people within that community?” Marshall asks.

To provide consistency and continuity, schools and districts need to take responsibility for training teachers for technology, and blend technology preparation into a complete program of staff development, experts say.

One district that has taken that counsel to heart is Ladue, Mo., an affluent suburb of St. Louis. The district’s use of technology is directed by the overall instructional goal that “you look at the individual child, look at his or her learning style, and teach to it,” says Harriet Arkin, the district’s technology coordinator.

Ladue also emphasizes “inquiry based” learning, adds Marian Rosen, the technology coordinator at Conway Elementary School.

“From the very beginning, we said the computer was to be used as a tool for thinking,” Rosen says.

“From the very beginning, we said the computer was to be used as a tool for thinking,” Rosen says. “The software has changed, but that concept hasn’t.”

From the early 1990s, when Ladue set its course, it has been aggressive about staff development and creative in finding ways to give teachers opportunities to learn digital content.

The district was one of the first to give teachers a computer in lieu of salary for attending summer technology workshop.

Another early decision was to hire a technology coordinator for every school in the district-a high school, a middle school, and four elementary schools. That cadre, made up entirely of teachers, has been the brain trust and support center for the district’s teachers.

As teachers, the coordinators are comfortable with modeling the use of software in a colleague’s classroom, then doing a lesson cooperatively with the teacher before he or she does it solo.

Cathy Minaudo, the coordinator at the high school, notes that she shapes her approach to the teacher’s personality type. “Some teachers won’t try anything,” she says. “Others will practice it six or seven times. Others need a technology coordinator hovering nearby for a while.”

The coordinator at Old Bonhomme Elementary School, Howard Nathanson, says he and his colleagues buffer teachers from having to master the software they use.

“They don’t need to know every last detail of the software-they have us,” he says.

At Conway Elementary, Marian Rosen is the mother hen of the computer lab, where all teachers bring their students once or twice a week. But they don’t drop them off there; the regular classroom teacher is always in charge. This practice gives Rosen a chance to observe the teachers and offer ideas on how they could improve their use of technology.

She might nudge a teacher who seems unsteady directing a computer-intensive class into teaching one of the school’s popular after-school computer clubs, which run continuously for eight-week sessions.

Teachers get paid $25 an hour-which is covered by tuition that parents pay for the sessions-to work with children and new software without the pressure of having to cover the regular curriculum. The clubs also are a good way for the school to road-test new stand-alone curriculum software.

Finding ways to give teachers time with digital content is an important part of staff development, many say.

“Integration is easy, if you’ve got the time,” Minaudo says.

Ladue annually invites teachers to apply for funds to create curriculum modules over a few days or weeks during the summer. For example, last year, three 1st grade teachers spent several days collecting Web sites and developing a module on Native American tribes in different regions. After a review process, modules are distributed to every Ladue school.

Little Help From Colleges

Another reason districts often bear the brunt of teacher training in technology is that they aren’t getting much help from colleges of education.

The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education scolded colleges in a 1997 report: “Bluntly, a majority of teacher preparation programs are falling far short of what needs to be done. Not using technology much in their own research and teaching, teacher education faculty have insufficient understanding of the demand on classroom teachers to incorporate technology into their teaching.”

And a 1998 survey of 416 colleges of education by the International Society for Technology in Education concluded that college teacher preparation programs, in general, are not giving future teachers the kinds of experiences they need to be prepared to use technology effectively in the classroom.

The study, funded by the Milken Exchange on Education Technology, which also underwrites Technology Counts ‘99, reported that schools of education have “adequate” technology infrastructure. But it also found them less than committed to the task, with faculty who do not model technology use, and classes not set up to allow Internet sessions and computer presentations.

One of Ladue’s newest teachers, Alyssa Donaldson, an art and Spanish teacher finishing up her second year at Horton Walker High School, says she can’t give much credit for technology preparation to her alma mater, Southwest Missouri State University.

“The [technology] stuff I got at university wasn’t as wonderful as it could be,” she says. The two courses she took on instructional technology went little beyond using a word process or operating a filmstrip projector, she says.

What saved her were her home-grown skills. “I happen to be really computer literate,” she says.

Colleges of education say they’re starting to catch up, but officials add that they’re being asked to add technology to curricula that are already packed with other demands, such as teaching to new academic standards.

Robert F. McNergney, the president of the American Association of Colleges of Education, told a U.S. House subcommittee last spring that teacher preparation institutions are still failing to blend training on technology integration into their courses.

“It’s not happening,” said McNergney, a professor of education at the University of Virginia, an institution that is highly regarded among technology experts for its teacher-prep program. “It’s extremely difficult to wedge technology training into programs that are already packed.”

He looked outward for solutions: First, school districts should give teachers more opportunities to use technology, he said.

The second solution was “actuarial,” he said. “These problems are going to solve themselves as [older educators] fade from the scene.”

Some observers believe the changes might be hurried along if states and accrediting bodies would begin to require teachers to demonstrate proficiency in technology for certification or recertification.

Advancing the Profession

While only four states require current teachers to obtain technology training for recertification, 42 states require teacher preparation programs to include technology, according to an Education Week survey of state technology officials this past spring.

However, the preparation requirements vary widely. For instance, only two states-North Carolina and Vermont-require teaching candidates to demonstrate technology proficiency using portfolios.

Kathryn M. Sullivan, the director of human resource management at North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction, says that to earn teacher licenses, students at the state’s colleges and universities must prepare a technology portfolio that demonstrates a mastery of basic and advanced computer skills that the state has identified. The first class of students to be held to the requirement graduated last spring.

So far, each North Carolina college and university creates its own standard for evaluating portfolios. But the education department, under a directive by the state board of education, is working with the institutions to create a consistent standard for evaluating them. “By next summer, we’ll have in place some pretty consistent rubrics across the state to evaluate them,” Sullivan says.

Subsequent license renewals, which must happen every five years, require three to five credit hours in technology. The major loophole in the system is that there is no technology requirement for teachers recruited from out of state until their five-year renewal.

To help close that loophole, and improve the technology competencies of new teachers in general, North Carolina is anticipating the final version of new accreditation standards being developed by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. Draft standards released last March had technology competencies woven throughout that will be measured by performance outcomes, rather than by hours students spend in technology courses.

NCATE certification carries a lot of weight: North Carolina and other states require it of their public institutions that train teachers. And teacher-education programs, both public and private, often use the prospect of accreditation visits as a way to set priorities.

State teacher programs are about to feel another spur to upgrading their technology coverage. Beginning this fall, North Carolina will start surveying beginning teachers on the preparation they received.

Those results and a similar survey of districts will be combined to create satisfaction ratings on teacher training programs. “The universities most certainly don’t want a report each fall that ‘We have graduates who were prepared lousy in the use of technology in the classroom,’'' Sullivan says.

Even with these and other efforts to bolster professional development in technology, experts believe that changes may come slowly, so daunting are the requirements for achieving continuous, sustained learning, building trust between administrators and teachers, collaborative planning, and new levels of material resources.

Above all, Gomez urges patience and support that makes allowances for setbacks. “Change doesn’t happen overnight,” he says. “That’s the mistake we all make in various reform efforts. A little bit of change is a good thing-if it’s on a positive trajectory.”

He suggests that teachers take on one new technology-related project a year, as long as they do it with understanding.

“That’s a tremendous advance as a profession,” he says.

A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 1999 edition of Education Week