The Technology Puzzle

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Here's a puzzle for both cheerleaders and skeptics of using new technologies in the classroom. Out of every 10 teachers in this country, fewer than two are serious users of computers and other information technologies in their classrooms (several times a week); three to four are occasional users (about once a month); and the rest—four to five teachers out of every 10—never use the machines at all. When the type of classroom use is examined, we find that these powerful technologies end up being used most often for word processing and low-end applications. And this is after a decade of increases in access to computers, Internet capability, and purchases of software. In other organizations (think hospitals, major corporations, supermarkets), computer use is ubiquitous. Not so in schools.

How can this phenomenon of infrequent, low-end use of technology be occurring in our schools? For experts, there is no puzzle to be solved. The answers are straightforward and all point to teachers: their insufficient preparation in universities, their lack of specific training, too little time to learn, too many older teachers, "technophobia," and so on, ad infinitum. Surely, some of these scattershot explanations have merit in attempting to understand the paradox of increasing access and infrequent use.

What is missing from these neatly packaged reasons, however, is one overlooked fact: Of those same 10 American teachers, about seven have computers at home and use them to prepare lessons, communicate with colleagues and friends, search the Internet, and conduct personal business. In short, most teachers use computers at home more than at school. No technophobes here.

It is this fact that creates the puzzle of limited classroom use of new machines amid a river of technology money. It is this fact, too, that drives me to examine other reasons for the disparity, reasons seldom voiced in the media by either promoters or skeptics. The five areas that follow may offer explanations of the puzzle and broaden the debate over teachers' use of new technologies:

This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

  • Contradictory advice from experts. For almost two decades, experts hired by corporate vendors and entrepreneurial academics have exhorted teachers, particularly those in high schools, to use new technologies in their classrooms. Teachers must use the new, information-rich machines, they say, so that students will learn more, faster, and better to be prepared for the 21st century's knowledge-based workplace. But exactly what have these self-appointed experts told teachers about how computers should be used in schools?

When desktop computers began to appear in schools in the early 1980s, corporate leaders urged high school teachers to get their students "computer literate." The phrase then meant learning how to write BASIC programs. Experts said that learning to program would prepare students to think clearly and get jobs. Computer-savvy teachers who had learned BASIC on their own plunged into the task of teaching the language in newly established computer labs.

By the late 1980s, however, BASIC had disappeared. Now, freshly minted experts prodded high school teachers to teach computer applications (for example, word processing, spreadsheets, use of databases) because computers were analytic tools and, in the work world, knowing these applications paid off. Districts invested in more labs, more teachers were trained, and students began taking required courses in keyboarding and learning software applications that were used in the workplace.

By the mid-1990s, the prevailing wisdom among experts had shifted, and computer literacy took on new meanings. Teachers were now asked to integrate the new technologies into their daily classroom routines by placing four to six new machines in each teacher's classroom, rather than sending students to computer labs. Teachers were urged to learn and teach hypertext programming, or HTML, to help their students create multimedia products for an audience. Experts and their allies now said that students who were computer literate knew how to do research on the Internet, communicate via e-mail, and create their own World Wide Web pages. A series of so-called 'Net Days advertised the importance of wiring schools for the Internet, so that students could become part of the real world each and every day.

Bashing teachers for not doing more with technology in their classrooms may give us cute media one-liners. What the one-liners miss, however, are the deeper, more consequential reasons for what teachers do every day.

So, for the last two decades, experts have urged upon teachers an ever-shifting menu of advice: Teach BASIC. Teach HTML. Teach skills of using the Internet, e-mail, and producing multimedia projects. Teach applications relevant to the constantly changing workplace.

Now, let's imagine a couple of average high school teachers in the heart of Silicon Valley who have been around for these years of shifting advice and are eager to help their students learn. They have taken courses on using software applications that their district offers. They bought computers and use them at home extensively to prepare lessons, record grades, and search the Internet for lessons they could use in their classes. They are enthusiastic about using computers with their students. They have listened to the experts; but, since the advice keeps changing, they have largely ignored the wisdom of the moment. What gives them pause is not the experts' contradictions but other factors.

  • Intractable working conditions. Although information technologies have transformed most corporate workplaces, our teachers' schedules and working conditions have changed very little. They teach five classes a day, each 50 to 55 minutes long. Their five classes contain at least three different preparations; that is, for the math teacher among our five, there are two classes of introductory algebra, two of geometry, and one calculus class. In those five classes, she sees 140 students a day. Colleagues in other districts, depending on how affluent the district is and how determined the school board and superintendent are to keep class size down, may see 125 to 175 students a day.

Or take the English teacher in our group, who assigns an essay in three of his 9th grade composition classes and for his two senior classes asks the students to answer five questions on "Hamlet." He will face the prospect of reading and correcting 130 papers for students who expect their homework to be returned earlier rather than later. Like all high school teachers, he has at least one period a day set aside for planning lessons, seeing students, marking papers, making phone calls to parents or vendors, previewing videos, securing a VCR or other equipment, and using the school's copy machines for producing student materials. So he and the math teacher, like most of their colleagues elsewhere, remain people for whom rollerblades would be in order to meet the day's obligations.

  • Demands from others. High school teachers are expected to know their subjects inside and out; they are expected to maintain order in their classrooms; they are expected to report instances of abuse and spot signs of behavioral problems; they are expected to be both friendly and demanding of each and every student; and, with district and state mandates for students to meet higher academic standards and take tests that can spell the difference between graduating or staying in school longer, teachers are expected to prod students on homework and other assignments and to be personally accountable for how well the students do on tests.

So teaching high school, in addition to knowing one's subject matter thoroughly and being able to convey it to others, requires the grit of a long-distance runner, the stamina of a boxer going 15 rounds, the temperament of a juggler, and the street smarts of a three-card monte dealer.

  • The inherent unreliability of the technology. Add serious technology use to the mix, and a teacher needs infinite patience. Ask even the most dedicated teacher-users about the reliability of these machines and their software. Most schools can't afford on-site technical support. When they do have coordinators and eager students who troubleshoot problems and do the repairs, there are still software glitches and servers that crash, torpedoing lessons again and again. Then new software packages and upgraded ones require more memory and speed from machines that are sorely limited in their capacity. More breakdowns; more pulled hair. These caring and techno-enthusiastic teachers ask, "What did I do to deserve this?"

  • Policymakers' disrespect for teachers' opinions. Teachers seldom are consulted on which technologies make the most sense for them to use with their students, what machines and software are both sensible and reliable for their classrooms. Instead, their classrooms disappear in the equation. Fully stocked labs with donated or purchased equipment appear. Machines pop up on teachers' desks. Administrators exhort teachers to take brand-new courses on technology that the district just made available.

The obvious question that seldom gets asked is this: Why should very busy teachers who are genuinely committed to doing a good job with their students listen to experts' changing advice on technologies when they have to face daily, unyielding working conditions; internal and external demands on their time and stamina; unreliable machines and software; and disrespect for their opinions?

Bashing teachers for not doing more with technology in their classrooms may give us cute media one-liners. What the one-liners miss, however, are the deeper, more consequential reasons for what teachers do every day. What corporate cheerleaders, policymakers, and vendors who have far more access to the media ignore are teachers' voices, the enduring workplace conditions within which teachers teach, inherent flaws in the technologies, and ever-changing advice of their own experts.

Such reasons are ignored because they go to the heart of what happens in schools, are very expensive to remedy, and reflect poorly on corporate know-how in producing machines. Nonetheless, these reasons may have more explanatory power for solving the puzzle of extensive home use of computers and limited, low-end classroom use than do the currently fashionable ones.

Vol. 18, Issue 43, Pages 47, 68

Published in Print: August 4, 1999, as The Technology Puzzle
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