Ed-Tech Policy Commentary

Can Computers Change the System?

By Ronald Thorpe — October 20, 1999 11 min read
Many promises are being made: Distance learning, a computer in front of every child, a virtual chicken in every pot.

Like any phrase used too often and too glibly, “systemic change” has begun to lose its meaning. Yet the need for a better understanding of how systems change and what that process requires is greater now than ever, especially when it comes to schools. Computer technologies have been touted as the next Grail for those who would improve the schools. A lot of money is being invested and many promises are being made about the systemic changes that will come about as a result of these investments: distance learning; a computer in front of every child; a virtual chicken in every pot.

Though I am skeptical of overpromising, I do see indications that widespread use of computers by teachers is, in fact, changing the cultures of classrooms and schools--and for the better. But the changes I see are not coming for the reasons most cited by technology proponents. They are coming in the form of shifting classroom balances that realign the three essential ingredients of learning: teacher, student, and content.

Much of this realignment mirrors what the most thoughtful school reformers--those who have focused on the nexus of teacher and student--have been urging for some time. Furthermore, these changes are occurring among all kinds of teachers. It doesn’t seem to matter whether a teacher is a veteran of 30 years or a novice of three, whether she teaches Advanced Placement physics or kindergarten, English as a second language, or culinary arts. But what is most startling about these changes in classroom practice is that the teachers are initiating them, even fighting for them, as a natural result of what they need to do when they integrate computer technologies into their work. No one is imposing the changes on them. Such a combination of forces and incentives makes lasting change a strong possibility.

The true “systems” level of our public schools is not in the federal, state, and local governments. It is not in central offices or union headquarters. And it is only tangentially related to funding formulas, length of workday and school year, and debates about looping and whole language, heterogeneous vs. homogeneous grouping, and whether or not there is a canon and who gets to determine such things. The systems level of schools is in the classroom at the intersection of teacher and student. Until massive numbers of teachers decide that the classroom environment must be different in order to do what they most want to do, all other efforts at school reform will amount to no more than what David Tyack and Larry Cuban sardonically have called “tinkering toward Utopia.”

A statewide technology initiative in Rhode Island with which I have worked suggests that teachers, voluntarily and in large numbers, are changing themselves and their classrooms as a result of integrating computer-related technology into their work. When an independent evaluation shows that 66 percent of teachers report becoming more reflective about their teaching, 59 percent report finding themselves more in the role of coach and being willing to be taught by their students, and 52 percent report that they now spend more time working with other teachers on instructional planning, something systemic is afoot. Similarly, when more than half the teachers report that they need classroom time configured in new ways to meet their teaching and learning goals, that they are involved in more interdisciplinary teaching, and that their students are taking greater initiative outside of class, the changes go beyond “tinkering.”

Launched two years ago, the Rhode Island Teachers and Technology Initiative has provided laptop computers and 60 hours of training to more than 2,400 teachers--approximately 25 percent of the state’s entire teaching force. Besides the long-term goal of improving student performance, the program has three immediate goals, all of which are tied to professional development: to expand the teachers’ role in creating their own curriculum; to increase their connection to other teachers and professionals who can be valuable resources; and to improve their personal productivity. There is also the hope that teachers, whose voice is seldom heard on budget issues, will become advocates for the kind of investment schools should be making in computer technology.

W hile the program is still too young to make any large claims about its impact on student performance, a formal evaluation by the Center for Children and Technology and mountains of anecdotal information point to major changes in the way teachers are going about their work. Also within the data is the unmistakable sign that teachers are excited by the potency of the technology and that the initiative, known as RITTI, is fanning the flame--and in some cases relighting the fire--that is the sine qua non of all learning for teachers and students.

An examination of hundreds of RITTI teachers reveals that in classrooms where teachers are actively engaged in integrating computer technology into daily teaching and learning, the following six shifts are occurring:

  • From the narrow, restrictive notion of a finite knowledge universe to an expanding knowledge universe rich in context and connections. While no teacher ever believed that knowledge was finite, much of the structure of classrooms, the packaging of curriculum content, and the general approach to teaching and testing has created such an illusion. The Internet links all classrooms to a basically inexhaustible supply of information and offers access to this information in a way that reflects connections rather than isolated bits of information. Such an environment becomes a robust place for learning because the learners know that the map is wide and that there are many unexplored places.
  • From the teacher as holder of all information to the teacher as coach and guide for younger, less experienced learners. In an infinite and expanding knowledge environment, it is not possible for one person or even a group of people to hold all necessary learning. Stripped of that burden, a teacher can assume the role of a more experienced learner whose responsibility is to guide and join others along the path to discovery. Such an environment allows teachers to model learning rather than dispense it.
  • From repeating the old to creating the new. The stuff of knowledge can be combined and recombined in infinite ways, thus giving rise to new and different opportunities for understanding. The level of engagement and ownership people have in an enterprise they can put their own personal stamp on is much higher than in an environment where everyone--teacher and students--is enslaved to someone else’s ideas about both content and process. Computer-related technologies put the power to create in each person’s hands. The Internet also provides a critical audience for student (and teacher) work that goes beyond a classroom and a single school. Such opportunities for impact and feedback are a dynamic force in the learning process.
  • From merely gathering information to focusing on essential questions about the information and spending more time on analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. While knowing how to locate information will always be a valuable skill, far too much teaching and learning time has had to go into this kind of activity, with the end result typically leading nowhere. With the Internet and the World Wide Web, time previously spent getting information can now be used for the much more important business of assessing the information and examining its usefulness. Given that students are now confronted with the challenge of sifting through much more material than they can ever use, teachers are able to help students ask the right questions about what information is useful and what isn’t. When teachers and students are integrating computer-related technologies into their teaching and learning, there is not only more time to develop these other thinking skills, but the situation demands it.
  • From valuing only one or two learning modes to drawing on a much fuller spectrum of learning modes. As Howard Gardner and others have pointed out, the entire structure of formal schooling seems to emphasize and favor those with logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligences. These strengths work well in classrooms that are teacher-directed, textbook- dependent, and dominated by assessment strategies linked to paper-and-pencil tests. In a classroom where creativity is valued, where learning is a shared and connected enterprise; and where the learners take ownership for the learning, there is a natural valuing of the many strengths each person brings to the situation. Under such conditions, school can become a successful experience for more students.
  • From learning that takes place primarily through each person’s working alone to learning in collaboration with others. Computers, for a variety of reasons, always have welcomed and seemed to require several minds working together. In classrooms where projects and problem-solving dominate the learning process, students get to work together to accomplish goals. Beyond being good preparation for the kind of work environment students are likely to encounter when they leave school, this opportunity is especially important to girls, who tend to prefer such a model over a one-on-one competitive model.

othing is really new here. The need for these shifts has been highlighted for years. What is new is that, in the case of these Rhode Island teachers, the shifts are being initiated by teachers themselves: No one is telling the teachers to change themselves or their classrooms in any of these ways. Computer-related technologies appear to have unlocked some important doors and to have put the keys to those doors in the hands of teachers. Once the teachers experience what’s on the other side, it seems, they embrace and insist upon certain changes in the basic nature of their work.

Granted, there are teachers in schools everywhere who have made many of these changes without any exposure to computer technology. But their numbers are small. Such teachers might be a special minority within the ranks of those who are so predisposed to their own growth and development that they always will be ahead of the professional curve. While they are leaders, the large majority of teachers have been reluctant to follow them. But with access to computer technology and an understanding of how to integrate it, such growth seems to happen to teachers across the board.

The predictable end, then, especially as more and more teachers gain access to these tools, is that the basic culture of schools also will shift. In schools where large numbers of teachers are integrating computer technology into their work, a culture that was once defined by stasis is becoming a culture where change is the dominant force. And given the connection between change and learning, change and growth, such an environment should contribute to improved performance among students.

Although 25 percent is a large segment of the teaching force in Rhode Island, it still might not be enough to shift the balance permanently. Can the practice and preferences of one teacher really alter the practice and preferences of three? The “system” is not friendly--on several levels--to the kinds of changes these teachers are demonstrating and advocating. Their model and their leadership are not always embraced by colleagues and administrators. There is probably even some consternation within union circles regarding what to do about the notion of the “contract” when teachers routinely e-mail each other, their students, and parents, and work on school-related matters at all hours and days of the week.

Without increasing the percentage of teachers who have this technology and the ability to use it, and without regular infusions of new energy for those who are working in such ways, even these teachers will be worn down and absorbed back into the status quo.

What will the next chapter in schooling look like when more and more teachers are integrating computer-related technologies into their work? Perhaps the right tools or the know-how for measuring such things don’t even exist yet. But there is every reason to have faith in any learning institution that is redefining itself at its core as a place of transformations, a place where “change” is the central characteristic. These six shifts measure high on the Richter scale; they are tectonic in their scope. And they are deeply systemic because they reach to the very root of the enterprise: the relationship between teachers and students around the process of learning.

As people in schools advocate for increased investment in computer technology and prepare to measure the impact of these technologies on student learning, their work should begin with the understanding that it is the shift in teacher practice and the attendant shift in the basic culture of schools--and not the technology itself-- that will bring about the gains in student performance. Computer-related technologies appear to be a valuable catalyst for helping teachers refashion schools at the most systemic level to become what teachers and society have always wanted them to be, what Theodore Sizer once described as “places for learning, places for joy.”

The Rhode Island Teachers and Technology Initiative was launched in the summer of 1997 with a $5.7 million grant from the Rhode Island Foundation and is managed in partnership with the University of Rhode Island and the state education department.

Ronald Thorpe is the vice president for programs at the Rhode Island Foundation in Providence, R.I. A former teacher and administrator, he also is the editor of The First Year as Principal (Heinemann).


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