Profiles in Technology

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Today's students can learn Russian via satellite from an instructor in another state, plumb the depths of the Mediterranean Sea while sitting in a classroom in rural Maine, tap into a university's library system without leaving their school, or engage in a sophisticated laboratory experiment simulated on a computer screen.

Their teachers can “talk” to colleagues across town or across the state by plugging into a computer network. Administrators can call up financial data or student information at the flick of a switch. And parents can pick up the telephone to receive recorded messages about their children's homework.

More than ever, technology has the potential to reshape instruction and support active learning. Rich examples of such uses abound in hundreds of schools nationwide. In some respects, the vistas appear limitless.

But the high-technology transformation of the schools that many predicted in the early 1980s has not materialized. For most students—and most teachers—the use of technology in education remains elusive.

As John Gibbons, director of the federal Office of Technology Assessment, noted toward the end of the decade: “Schools have acquired computers rapidly ..., but most elements of the instructional process remain the same.”

“This contrasts sharply,” he added, “with other sectors of society, where technology has changed the way business is transacted, medical problems are analyzed, and products are produced.”

Technology, notes Stanley Pogrow, associate professor of education at the University of Arizona, more sarcastically, “is going into schools like driver education; it's another nice piece that we need to be doing to show the community that we're sort of with it.” But the rush to buy equipment has, in many respects, outpaced any careful thinking about its use.

The question now is not whether technology will end up in schools, but how to integrate it with teaching and learning in ways that make sense.

Over 91 percent of all school districts already have at least some computers. The current ratio of students to computers is approximately 20:1.

Videocassette recorders have become commonplace, available in about 94 percent of schools nationwide. Distance-learning projects are underway or being planned in virtually every state. More than 18 percent of school districts have satellite dishes. And tens of thousands of schools are connected to cable.

But if the total number of telephones, faxes, televisions, computers, and other forms of communications technology now available in schools were computed nationwide, claims Shelly Weinstein, president of the EdSat Institute, “for the most part, the school sector would compare to that of a developing nation.”

What equipment exists is distributed unevenly: with technology less available to minority students, those who speak limited English, and children from poor communities.

In the vast majority of schools, there are still not enough computers to make them a central element of instruction. Not all students use computers, notes the 1988 OTA report, Power On: New Tools for Teaching and Learning. And those who do spend an average of little more than one hour per week on the machines, or only 4 percent of their instructional time.

In the absence of solid research, widely disseminated models, and clear guidance, individual states, districts, schools, and teachers are being forced to explore the uses of technology on their own: resulting in a mishmash of largely unrelated activities, often with no clear direction or purpose.

Funds continue to flow without any agreement on whether technology should be used for enrichment or as a core component of instruction; whether it should serve as a tutor or as a tool; whether students need to know about technology for its own sake or as a vehicle for conducting research, computing, and communicating with others.

According to observers, obstacles to the widespread use of technology in schools remain much the same as at the beginning of the 1980s. These include the high costs of purchasing, maintaining, and upgrading equipment; the lack of adequate software that dovetails with teachers' curricular needs; the absence of assessments that reflect the complex thinking skills encouraged in technology-rich environments; and the dearth of teacher training.

The OTA study reported that only one-third of K-12 teachers have had even 10 hours of computer training, and much of this has focused on learning about computers, rather than learning how to teach with them. A recent survey of education majors indicated that less than one-third perceived themselves to be prepared to teach with computers. Yet half the states do not require or recommend preparation in technology for their new teacher-education graduates.

“If you go to teacher-education programs around this country,” says Linda Roberts, project director for the OTA's technology studies, “what you find is a faculty and a curriculum that has, at best, given lip service to thinking about technology as a resource.”

But according to James Mecklenburger, president of the Mecklenburger Group, a private consulting firm, the problems with the educational use of technology “are far more political than technological; far more human than electronic.”

In essence, educators have yet to rethink a vision of learning in which technology plays a vital role.

“We haven't built a powerful pedagogy around the use of the technology,” says Pogrow of Arizona. “We haven't done the hard work of designing whole new types of learning environments in a systematic way.”

Contrary to early predictions that technology would somehow replace teachers, research has found that only the most skilled and sophisticated practitioners are able to integrate technology successfully in their classrooms. Indeed, the initial introduction of technology in schools can make the work of teachers harder and more time-consuming.

But it can also be tremendously rewarding. According to Karen Sheingold, research director in the division of applied-measurement research at the Educational Testing Service, technology can change what teachers do in powerful ways. Experienced teachers whom she has studied say they are capable of presenting more complex material to their students, that they are acting more as coaches and less as information providers, and that student work can proceed more independently and in ways that are better tailored to meet individual needs.

Other studies have found a dramatic decrease in teacher-dominated activities and a shift to more engaged students in technology-rich environments.

But such changes will not happen automatically or overnight.

Indeed, Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford University, predicts that unless existing classrooms and schools are “altered substantially . . .most teachers will use computers as an aid, not unlike radio, film, and television.”

“I predict no great breakthrough in teacher use patterns at either level of schooling,” he writes in Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920. “The new technology, like its predecessors, will be tailored to fit the teacher's perspective and the tight contours of school and classroom settings.” To the degree that technology is flexible, it will be bent to fit existing practice, he predicts. To the degree that it is not, it will be jettisoned.

Such predictions have led observers to plead for a closer relationship between current efforts to “restructure” the schools and the use of technology.

Indeed, Sheingold maintains that many of the ambitious national goals the country has now set for itself cannot be attained without “widespread, creative, and well-integrated uses of technologies of many kinds.”

Still others suggest scaling back from the grandiose visions of technological applications in schools that ran rampant during the early 1980s to more practical and constrained uses. “Without much evidence to support unrestrained entry of machines into classrooms, reopening policy discussions on both the how and the why seem to be in order,” Cuban argues.

Rather than buying machines and then deciding how to use them, experts suggest, schools should identify their most pressing needs or problems and ask how technology could make a difference.

“The most effective uses of technology are going to be very constrained uses” limited to a particular grade or subject area, Pogrow asserts, but married to sophisticated forms of human interaction. “Everybody wants to put a computer in every classroom; everybody wants to use computers across the board,” he argues. “The minute you say that, you're not going to be effective.”

Ultimately, argues Allan Collins, principal scientist at Bolt Beranek and Newman Inc., it is society's use of computers as tools that will sustain their penetration of schools. “Schools are in the business of teaching students how to read and write and calculate and think,” he writes in the September 1991 issue of Phi Delta Kappan. “As the computer becomes an essential tool for doing these things in society at large, its use by students is inevitable.”

To speed up that use, advocates are calling for much stronger national leadership in the area of technology in schools. “National leadership is absolutely essential, because it sends a signal,” says Roberts of the OTA. In addition, observers argue, the federal government should invest more money in research-and-development efforts; provide seed money for innovative ideas; and bring together state and local educators at the regional level to share information, pool resources, and think about next steps.

The Council of Chief State School Officers and other groups have also argued that the federal government could help establish a national infrastructure that would enable educational information to move freely and swiftly throughout the nation—via a combination of fiber optics, satellite, telephone lines, cable, and other transmission signals.

For now, notes Mecklenburger, “the real truth is that the power of technology in this society is mostly outside of school buildings, because, for the most part, educators haven't wanted it inside. It's far more developed in living rooms and kids' rooms and libraries and museums.”

Whether that capacity will be harnessed to change the schools themselves—as some have predicted—or whether the schools will become increasingly superfluous in an information-rich society remains to be seen.

“The conventional school curriculum—the stuff that schools pride themselves on teaching or striving to teach—is going to be available in electronic form,” warns Mecklenburger. “And the only issue is where people get it.”

This Teacher Magazine special report looks at a range of educational players who are trying to harness technology to transform teaching and learning, even as the debate rages on around them. Some are blazing new trails, without anyone to offer guidance. Others are struggling in isolation with problems that confront schoolpeople everywhere. Many express a desire for greater communication with like-minded colleagues, pride in their accomplishments, and chagrin over the inevitable mistakes that they have made along the way.

Although no single teacher is profiled heret, their voices echo throughout this report, as they struggle—sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly—to understand and use technology.

It all begins and ends with Tana Holloway. She represents the students at whom everyone's efforts are aimed, and whose experiences speak volumes about the place of technology in schools. Although Tana attends a computer-magnet program at Denver's George Washington High School, most of her classes look little different than their predecessors of 50 years ago.

As technology coordinator for the Belridge School in McKittrick, Calif., Matt Revenaugh helped plot a course that would lead his school into the new age. But unexpected barriers have led to a painful detour.

Teachers are the key to the successful use of technology—along with programming that the sophisticated equipment makes available to them. But few teachers receive the training they need, and much of the software available consists of little more than an electronic workbook.

When Dolores Escobar became dean of the school of education at San Jose State University in the heart of Silicon Valley, she confronted both her resistance to technology and the need to prepare prospective teachers for the classrooms of tomorrow.

As a classroom teacher, Tom Snyder found most educational software to be little more than electronic workbooks, so he formed his own company to produce award-winning, best-selling software programs designed to strengthen the interaction between teachers and students.

Those at the local level often feel isolated and uncertain about technology and how to use it. They find little help or guidance from the national or state level.

Joe Kirkman represent dramatic exceptions.

Kirkman is a state policymaker in Kentucky who is overseeing one of the nation's most ambitious planning efforts to coordinate the use of technology in all of the state's schools.

For Tana Holloway and her fellow students in America's schools, technology's potential remains tantalizingly out of reach. “It has the potential to be something enormous,” says consultant Mecklenburger, “but it also has the potential to dry up and blow away.”

Vol. 03, Issue 04, Pages 17-18

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