Ed-Tech Policy

Teachers’ Computer Skills Self-Taught, Not a Result of Training, Survey Finds

By Peter West — May 09, 1990 7 min read
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Preliminary findings from a nationwide survey of teachers skilled in the use of computers and other electronic teaching tools show that most such teachers have picked up their technological finesse not from teacher training, but on their own.

The findings, part of a forthcoming study by the National Center for Technology in Education at the Bank Street College, were released here last week at the Council of Chief State School Officers’ fourth state technology leadership conference.

And they served to underscore an argument made by many of the educators and researchers gathered here: that staff-development programs remain a weak link in efforts to create a “technologically literate” teaching corps.

Almost a decade after the first microcomputers appeared in classrooms, said Karen Sheingold, director of the Bank Street center, “it’s clear that there are some teachers who have changed the way they are thinking about teaching” because of their knowledge of what technology can do.

But among the more than 600 teachers from 540 schools questioned for the survey, she said, “virtually all of them [said] they were self-taught.”

She said the survey, conducted last spring and scheduled to be published this summer, probably does not reflect the attitudes and experiences of the average teacher, because it specifically targeted teachers regarded as proficient in the use of technology.

But its findings tended to corroborate for many here their sense that training programs are not keeping pace with teachers’ growing desire to more fully incorporate technology into their work.

The issue of training and staff development was one of five focus areas during the three-day meeting. Others included the benefits of technology in teaching at-risk students, telecommunications, technology planning policies, and school restructuring.

But many here, including those representing states that have made multimillion-dollar investments in educational technology, said that the tremendous potential technology holds for transforming schools could be wasted if teachers are not made to feel an integral part of the change.

“We still have people coming out of our colleges and universities that aren’t up to speed and aren’t comfortable in the use of technology and what it can actually do in our classrooms,” said Tom Nelson, Minnesota’s commissioner of education.

The vast majority of teachers still regard technology as alien to their teaching styles, most speakers agreed. And this is in part, they said, because traditional inservice programs tend to ignore their needs.

The Minnesota Department of Education, for example, has completely revamped its approach to inservice training after finding, in a statewide survey of teachers, that few had acquired anything more than the most rudimentary computer skills in existing programs.

The state-funded survey found that, despite their lack of skills, teachers were curious about how to use technology more effectively, said Joan Wallin, supervisor of the state’s media and technology unit.

Officials attributed the findings to the fact that traditional, “trickle-down” approaches to training in this area often put knowledge only into the hands of a select few.

As teachers themselves put it, at a department-sponsored retreat, the system “created an ‘old-boy network’ of former math teachers.”

Yet despite the generally lackluster performance of many inservice programs, Ms. Sheingold said, the Bank Street results show that, for those teachers who have made personal investments of time and energy to learn about technology, the payoff is often a more sophisticated approach to teaching.

The findings also indicate, she said, that the short-term training programs that are typical may be ineffective in changing attitudes toward educational technology.

The survey respondents, Ms. Sheingold said, represented “experienced teachers” between the ages of 40 and 49 with an average of more than 17 years in the classroom.

Though the teachers’ experience with technology ranged from 2 to 10 years, she added, their survey responses indicated that, on average, they did not begin to move away from basic, drill-and-practice uses of computers to more sophisticated instructional uses until they had been using the machines for five years or more.

While some here found aspects of the Bank Street findings encouraging, others said teachers in the main still regard technology use as an adjunct to classroom teaching, or as a special area of instruction.

“A lot of teachers have the attitude that ‘I don’t do this,”’ said Beau Fly Jones, a researcher at the North Central Regional Education Laboratory in Illinois.

Even in states such as Minnesota, which has achieved a ratio of 1 computer to every 19 students--a ratio far lower than the national average--teachers must be made to see how the machines can effectively assist instruction in all subject areas, Mr. Nelson said, or “we’re not going to see the potential realized.”

“The teacher is still the key. It’s the human link and the human touch that I don’t believe we should lose,” he said. “Our staff cannot be threatened by the computer.”

To that end, Minnesota last year launched an extensive staff-development program designed to reach out to classroom teachers directly with the establishment of statewide networks of teacher-mentors.

The “Beyond the Electronic Workbook” program is designed to show teachers that computers and other electronic tools are suitable for teaching a host of subjects, from music to history, in a variety of new and interesting ways, said Ms. Wallin.

The education department uses a $210,000 fund to support teacher-developed workshops for technologically literate educators who wish to sharpen their skills.

Potential instructors are encouraged to apply for $500 grants, which they can use to organize workshops, arrange for substitutes to teach their regular classes, and to buy materials.

The “teachers teaching teachers” approach is designed, Ms. Wallin said, “to overcome the lack of ownership of technology that these teachers see.”

The state has developed separate programs along similar lines for technological neophytes, and a program employing mobile teaching labs to reach teachers in remote schools.

The approach has enjoyed initial success, according to Ms. Wallin, because teachers are more willing to learn from their peers.

Yet despite such innovative programs, said Ms. Jones of the North Central laboratory, “technophobia” remains a virulent malady among teachers.

She collaborated with Judson Hixson, also of the North Central laboratory, to produce a keynote paper for the conference on staff development.

In it, the researchers suggest that the restructuring movement has taken hold without changing educators’ attitudes about technology.

They also argue that traditional inservice programs take a narrow approach to technology, focusing only on instructional uses. Such an emphasis ignores other ways new and developing technologies could be applied to making teachers more effective and more productive, they say.

The researchers suggest, for example, that videotape, a technology available to almost every school district, could be used to allow teachers to assess and improve their own classroom performance by viewing tapes of themselves in action.

Interactive-videodisk presentations also could be developed to help teachers improve the quality of their work, they say, and taped presentations could be supplied to those seeking alternative certification, allowing them to study at their leisure the skills needed to obtain a credential.

“People seeking alternative certification often are already working full-time jobs and don’t have time” for face-to-face instruction, Mr. Hixson said. “We’re shooting ourselves in the foot” by discouraging applicants with the current methods, he said.

The paper lays out several recommendations for states to enhance technology training. They include:

Developing “electronic highways” to overcome incompatibilities, such as differences in long-distance phone wires, between districts seeking to communicate electronically.

Developing capital-investment funds to provide pools of money that would allow poor districts to improve their access to new technologies.

Establishing new school-construction and renovation standards to facilitate the installation of developing technologies.

Reviewing existing standards for technologically delivered professional-development courses.

Encouraging the development of partnerships and consortia to underwrite the high costs of developing computer applications and software.

Those attending the conference were scheduled last week to debate papers developed for each of the focus areas. They will be used to frame policy recommendations for the CCSSO.

According to Ms. Jones, however, a failure to change existing staff-development practices could forestall the successful adoption of more wide-ranging technological innovations.

“If you have masses of teachers who are not trained well, they’re not just going to go away,” she said. “They’re going to be there until they retire.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 1990 edition of Education Week as Teachers’ Computer Skills Self-Taught, Not a Result of Training, Survey Finds


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