Unplugged classroom.com

“I’ve pulled the plug,” Juanita announces.

Juanita is an early adopter. Way back in the early 1980s, she grasped the potential of personal computers and did everything possible to blend their use into her classroom.

She began with Basic, teaching her students simple programming. Then she tried Logo and Lego Logo as computers became more user-friendly, and she managed to beg, borrow, and steal a half-dozen PCs for her classroom.

Juanita was a pioneer with word processing in the mid-’80s, as she showed her students how to put together their compositions from start to finish on the computer. By the end of that decade, she had bought her first classroom modem, moved to the high school, and experimented with electronic mail and online research.

By the time the internet caught on as a mass phenomenon in the mid-’90s, Juanita and her students were already veterans. They had been surfing the ‘net long before Netscape and AOL became household terms and high-flying internet stocks.

Juanita was a pioneer, an enthusiast, an experimenter, and a cheerleader for new technologies in schools. As each new wave of software and equipment arrived with golden promises of school reform and transformation, Juanita was quick to learn, to adapt, to integrate, and to embrace the new tools.

Until recently. …

“I just stopped in my tracks one day,” she explains to her long-term teaching buddy, Frank. “I pulled out the plug. I turned off the machines.”

Because Frank has marveled at Juanita’s technology heroics for more than two decades, he shakes his head skeptically.


Juanita is determined to explain.

“It’s nothing permanent,” she says. “I just decided it was time to stop and take stock, to ask what matters. Time to shed, prune, and discard. Time to put my program on track. I just started to wonder how all this connectivity was actually contributing to my students’ understanding of Shakespeare, Thoreau, and their own poetry.

“You know how artists suddenly issued unplugged performances? That’s what I’m doing. I’m pulling the plug. Going acoustic. Just for a week or two.”

The growth of skepticism

Even as many schools are struggling to enlist late-adopting, reluctant teachers who report insufficient training and little inclination to make use of networked technologies, they may also note a growth of healthy skepticism on the part of early adopters, like Juanita, who were quick to try out new technologies in the past. (See “Reaching the Reluctant Teacher,” eSchool News May ’99, http//fno.org/sum99/reluctant.html)

Once the equipment is installed and the network connects students and teachers to the rest of the world, well-meaning, conscientious teachers may rightfully ask tough questions:

• How will this network improve the power of my students’ writing?

• How will this network deepen my students’ understanding of the key concepts mandated by the curriculum I must cover?

• How will these new tools increase my students’ ability to read, write, and reason?

• If I allow students to spend hundreds of hours on this network, what do I remove from my program? How do I make time? What are the consequences?

• Which activities have been proven most effective?

• What are the biggest obstacles I must overcome to make these tools work effectively? Which strategies will succeed?

• When is a PowerPoint presentation worth doing?

• How will the network help me meet the state’s curriculum standards?

• Why won’t they let students have eMail or storage on the network?

• How do I manage with just two or three computers in my classroom?

These questions should precede the installation of a network throughout a school, but they are rarely addressed or publicly honored in the present climate before or after installation. Unfortunately, such questions may be greeted and then dismissed as heresy by those who have rushed forward to run cables to classrooms with little thought of student learning.

The primacy of program development

Previous columns have clarified the dangers of underfunding the professional development required to prepare teachers for meaningful use of networks. Unfortunately, professional development without program development is a bit like learning to play the violin without sheet music. Acquiring technique may lead to some use, but technique without clarity of educational purpose and philosophy may lead to bad practice and silly uses, as described in Jane Healy’s book, Failure to Connect (1999).

At a recent national conference, I watched several teachers proudly stand up to display PowerPoint presentations created by their students.

“This report was really long,” commented one teacher (as if length were a good thing), apologizing for cutting it back to a few sample slides. “And I must apologize for messing up the animation. He had the animal moving across the screen just wonderfully, but I messed it up.”

I watched members of the audience drift away as superficial, glitzy work was held up as an example of digital progress. There was plenty of flash, plenty of razzle-dazzle, but little evidence of careful thought and deep content. It was an old-fashioned encyclopedia report, slimmed down and dressed up with lots of clip art and special effects. Transitions, sound effects, and extreme fonts were used whenever possible.

By introducing lots of notebook computers, these teachers and schools had managed to integrate new technologies into the daily life of students, but to what good purpose? It was hard to see value. PowerPointing can be pointless if schools fail to emphasize the essential elements of deep research on essential questions, if they do not show students the traits of effective communication, and if they do not focus on value added.

The primacy of effective teaching

As was pointed out in the July 1999 column of eSchool News (“The Software Trap”), for the past two decades, schools have put most of their energy into training teachers to use software. They should have devoted far more time to strategic issues—those central to good teaching and effective learning with such tools. We fell into the trap of thinking that the software and tools would make better readers, writers, thinkers, and communicators without adding the yeast of good teaching to the technology loaf. We ended up with flat bread.

We have growing evidence from Hank Becker (1999) and Education Week (Trotter, 1999) that little use may occur unless teachers introduce new technologies with scaffolding (structure) and support to bring about intelligent and thoughtful use.

From the very start, scaffolded lessons provide examples of quality work done by others. Right from the beginning, students are shown rubrics and standards that define excellence (“Scaffolding for Success,” From Now On, December 1999, http://fno.org/dec99/scaffold.html).

In traditional school research, students often were kept in the dark until the product was completed. Without clearly stated criteria, it was difficult to know what constituted quality work. Is it a matter of length? The number of sources cited? Does originality count? Does the logic and coherence of the argument matter? What constitutes adequate evidence?

There are at least a dozen issues, all of which deserve attention and elaboration (McKenzie, 2000). As an example, consider the online rubrics for successful multimedia reports available at http://www2.ncsu.edu/ncsu/cep/midlink/rub.multi.htm. One example follows:

“Rubric for originality and inventiveness:

1: The work is a meager collection or rehash of other people’s ideas, products, images, and inventions. There is no evidence of new thought.

2: The work is an extensive collection and rehash of other people’s ideas, products, images, and inventions. There is no evidence of new thought or inventiveness.

3: The product shows evidence of originality and inventiveness. While based on an extensive collection of other people’s ideas, products, images, and inventions, the work extends beyond that collection to offer new insights.

4: The product shows impressive evidence of originality and inventiveness. The majority of the content is fresh, original, and inventive.”

Beyond skepticism to value

Unless schools emphasize all three key elements—program development, professional development, and effective teaching—with new technologies, they run the risk of fostering the skepticism of early adopters as well as late adopters. Technology bingeing proceeded far too long with inadequate attention to what we know about learning and teaching.

Smart schools will slow down the wiring and buying process to place greater priority on the invention of effective classroom lessons designed to address state standards and improve student performance.

It is arguably more effective to buy fewer computers and move them around strategically to concentrate on value. There is little profit for schools in rushing out to buy computers for every classroom. The mere act of purchase and installation does not transform classroom practice. We must put our program horses before our technology carts, making information literacy the focus of our efforts.


Becker, Hank. “Internet Use by Teachers” (1999). http://www.crito.uci.edu/ TLC/FINDINGS/internet-use/startpage.htm.

Healy, Jane. Failure to Connect (1999).

McKenzie, Jamie. Beyond Technology: Questioning, Research and the Information Literate School (2000). http://fno.org/beyondtech.html

Trotter, Andrew. “Preparing Teachers For the Digital Age.” Technology Counts ’99 (Education Week, Sept. 23, 1999). http://www.edweek.org/sreports/tc99/articles/teach.htm.

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