Rick Cave
            Rick Cave

Technology in the Classroom: Necessary Not Revolutionary

Rick Cave
Director of Technology
West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District

Since the publication of A Nation at Risk , America has been concerned about the state of public education. Many believe that the public school system has been in a steady state of decline and is in desperate need of repair. At the same time, there has been amazing growth in technology, everything from the creation of small portable personal computers to ubiquitous access to the internet. Since technological changes have impacted so much of our daily lives, educators have looked to technology as the change agent that will revolutionize. Unfortunately, technology’s track record of revolutionizing education has not been a strong one. Milton Eisenhower, who served as president of Kansas State, Penn State and Johns Hopkins once wrote, “I think it is one of the most magnificent instruments for raising the quality of teaching, whether it be college teaching or elementary teaching.” (Milton S. Eisenhower, in Newsom, 1952, p. 50). While his statement sounds like something educators would say about today’s technology, he was actually talking about television. In the late 1950’s, it was believed that television would revolutionize education. Some educators believed that educational television programs would allow students to learn at home which would be the end of schools as we knew them. Of course, that did not happen and now the internet and devices such as tablets and smartphones have many looking to this new generation of technology to revolutionize school systems once again.

Given the impact that technology has had in the business, medicine and entertainment industries, it is understandable why many educators look at technology as a magic bullet that will solve all of the problems of public education. Schools have certainly invested heavily in technology. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1995 and 2008 the number of computers used for instructional purposes has tripled and the percentage of these computers connected to the internet has grown from 8 percent to 98 percent. Yet despite the billions of dollars invested in technology many schools are still struggling with the best way to use all of this technology. In Good to Great, Jim Collins reviewed technology’s role in business and determined that technology did not hold the key to success, but, “. . . when used right, technology is an essential driver to accelerating forward momentum”. Unfortunately too many educators have looked at technology as holding the key to success. So when a technology initiative is implemented and an educational revolution does not occur the technology is deemed a failure. Simply put; technology has not failed in schools, schools have failed in technology. Instead of looking at technology as a tool to support educational reform, educators are looking at technology to drive the reform.

While schools have been able to significantly increase the amount of technology available to students and teachers, overall student performance has not improved. As noted by Bebell and O’Dwyer in Educational Outcomes and Research from 1:1 Computing Settings, “. . . for educators and policy makers that wish to invest in these initiatives as a means for improving educational outcomes, there is little empirical evidence upon which to base decisions. So what exactly should be technology’s role in education? Instead of looking at technology as a magic bullet, look at it as a tool to support and enhance teaching and learning. Specifically, here are three areas where technology can be effectively used: supporting teaching, student digital readiness, and supporting instructional initiatives. It is the intent of this article to assist superintendents to focus on these essential elements of technology in schools and prepare them to make critical decisions about the use of technology in their schools.

Supporting Teaching
Supporting teaching refers to helping teachers retain and maintain the skills necessary to use digital technology as well as providing digital resources to support instruction. Examples of how teachers use technology to support instruction include: using communication or social media tools to improve communication between teacher and students and parents, using digital resources to assist with lesson creation, using online student performance information to tailor lessons to individual student needs, and using technology to improve lesson delivery. Of the three areas identified above this is the one where schools have been most successful. The addition of SMART Boards, projectors, document cameras and internet connected computers to the classroom have become a common occurrence along with numerous professional development opportunities for teachers. Because of this, teachers have become proficient at using digital communications tools, creating digital documents and using online resources to support their teaching.

Student Digital Readiness
Student digital readiness is defined by their ability to use digital tools to support learning. School has always been the place where students learned how to organize information, track assignments, take notes, research and synthesize information, but now they need to develop these skills using new digital tools. These skills form the habits that students will use to manage information for the rest of their lives. For many adults one of the most difficult things about working with technology is that digital tools do not operate the same way as the tools they grew up with and do not fit with the habits they have formed (e.g. having to print a document to read it because they are more comfortable reading it on paper, handwriting a document before typing it instead of typing it from the beginning). The major difference between digital natives and digital immigrants is that the natives have grown up in the digital world and are developing habits that allow them to use digital tools effectively. If schools do not create a digital learning environment for their students they will be training the next generation of digital immigrants.

Unfortunately, supporting student digital readiness is more difficult than supporting teaching. There are two primary reasons. First, there are a lot more students than there are teachers and providing digital resources for all students is a major fiscal challenge. Purchasing devices for all of the students, along with building a robust enough infrastructure to handle the devices would require a large increase in the yearly technology budget as well as an increase in support staff or services. The second reason is that many educators believe that students are already technologically savvy and assume they do not need to be taught how to use technology. Since adults have not had a lot of experience working or learning in the digital world, it is easy to misinterpret a student’s comfort with technology as competence with technology. Students seem to be able to figure how to use every new gadget that comes along and the amazing things that these gadgets can do make it seem like students know more about technology than they really do. Consider the initial reaction to search engines. Search engines worked so fast and returned so much information that educators started to believe that students didn’t need to be taught how to research, after all they could just “Google it”. Nothing could be further from the truth. In many ways search engines have made research harder. While it is true that you can find just about anything really fast using a search engine, the problem is how to determine which site to use from the millions that are listed. (Is there a need to mention the accuracy and reliability of the information on many search engines?)

Supporting Instructional Initiatives
Using technology to support instructional initiatives has proven to be a challenge for many schools. As stated earlier, it is easy to perceive a technology initiative as an instructional initiative. For example, one of the most talked about technology initiatives is a 1:1 initiative. The goal of many 1:1 initiatives is to provide each student with a digital device in order improve student learning. The implementation plan for the initiative includes training for staff along with workshops on how the device can be used to enhance a lesson. Unfortunately the emphasis of the initiative is still focused on getting a device into the hands of each student, not on improving their learning. Therefore it is possible to meet the goals of the program without improving learning. There is no question that technology is a powerful resource that can be used to support instructional initiatives, but the underlying goal of the initiative should always be about teacher/learning.

Just as important as having the financial and technical resources to support the initiative at full build out, the instructional practices of the school must align with the initiative. For example, before considering a 1:1 initiative, schools need to review the instructional practices of their teaching staff. If the majority of the classrooms are teacher centered then the potential for a successful implementation will be limited. In a teacher-centered classroom the teacher controls the content and determines how and when the students receive it. This often creates an environment where the teacher is doing most of the work and the students are passive participants in class. Giving these students technology is more likely to be a distraction than a helpful tool since there is little for them to do with the technology in class. When the student is actively involved in a lesson by gathering information, collaborating with others and sharing their findings, technology can be a learning tool for the student, instead of a distraction. The more a student “owns” their learning the greater the impact technology can have on student learning. The challenge for instructional leaders is to help teachers to cede control of some of the instruction, so that technology can be used by students to enhance their learning.

Practical Example
Last year our district decided to pilot a 1:1 learning initiative starting in grade 5. The decision was based on district goals and instructional expectations that were established three years ago when the district adopted the Danielson framework to define instruction and a set of 21st century competencies for all students. The competencies were based on ISTE’s NETS for students and included the areas of collaboration, communication, problem solving, self-directed learning, global citizenship and information literacy. The goal of the initiative was for teachers to create a learning environment where the content is based on the course curriculum, instruction is student directed and students have numerous in-class opportunities to grow in each of the competencies. We recognized that the best way to support a learning environment that shifts to a more student-directed approach and addresses the competencies was for every student to have a digital device that could provide ubiquitous access to digital resources. Fifth grade was selected as a starting point because we wanted the students to be old enough and responsible for managing their own device, and young enough that they had not developed too many non-digital learning habits. Students, teachers and parents responded so positively to last year’s pilot that we have expanded the program to include 5th and 6th grade students. We will continue to look at student performance on standardized tests and in the competencies, as well as a review of the classroom environment to determine whether the 1:1 learning initiative is providing the support our educational programs need.

Determining technology’s role in education has been a difficult task, but it is an important one. Technology is here to stay. Students and teachers alike need to learn how to use these powerful and ever changing digital tools. The instructional practices currently used in schools have been around for a very long time and adapting to new digital tools that challenge these practices will not be easy. The trick is to continue to teach students how to learn and manage new information while using a different set of tools. It is a challenge, but one schools can meet if they continue to provide resources for their staff, teach students how to use digital tools and determine their instructional goals first, before selecting the best tools to support them.



Bebell and O’Dwyer (N/D). Educational Outcomes and Research from 1:1 Computing Settings, (http://ejournals.bc.edu/ojs/index.php/jtla/article/view/1606/1463)

Newsom, C. (ed). (1952). A Television Policy For Education: Proceedings of the Television Programs Institute held under the auspices of the American Council on Education at Pennsylvania State College, Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education. (http://www.isoc.org/inet96/proceedings/c1/c1_1.htm)

(Good To Great, Collins p. 159). (http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/feb11/vol68/num05/One-to-One_Laptop_Programs_Are_No_Silver_Bullet.aspx)

National Center for Education Statistics http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d11/tables/dt11_109.asp