Discussions of the status of information and communications technology (ICT) in U.S. schools over the past couple of decades too often have had the character of attempts to convince others that ICT has been successful or to argue that it has failed. Just as opponents of the use of ICT often overstate the irrelevance, waste, or harm from the use of ICT in schools, proponents often overstate the positive consequences that have accrued from the use of computers and other technologies in education.
Many of the highly dedicated and capable people who work with ICT in schools know—often better than the critics—where we have fallen short in the effort to derive the full measure of benefit to students in the use of ICT. It is up to those who know what is possible in the use of ICT in our schools to be clear-eyed and frank in their assessment of the current situation and uncompromising in the expression of what needs to be done to make the possible a reality. The question is: How do we make what we see in schools where ICT is transforming schooling and bringing new life to classrooms and expanding learning opportunities for kids the rule, rather than the exception? What are the challenges we must face to make this happen?
If ICT is to play a role in the creation of a new generation of U.S. schools, structural challenges must be met. This requires action by school leaders, because these are matters of policy that transcend individual classrooms and teachers. Organizations do not typically morph in response to members whose functioning deviates from that which is structurally sanctioned. Organizations might be more or less permissive with deviants, but the consequence of the actions of deviants—whether they are good or bad—generally has minimal enduring impact on the organization after they leave the scene.
The seven challenges that follow pose quite significant obstacles of political, organizational, and structural nature. I present them in an “either-or” framework. The structural changes generated by decisions on these challenges form key elements of the organizational context for ICT in schools.
1. Curriculum integration—or curriculum disintegration?
The call for integration of ICT into the curriculum comes from those who seek to move ICT from being a side show to the mainstream of instructional practices. While the notion of curriculum integration seems to make good sense, the problem often being addressed is: How do we get teachers to use ICT? This is not the problem that needs to be solved.
There are serious deficiencies in the curricula of many of our schools. I use the term “curriculum disintegration” to indicate the need to break open the curriculum, to not accept it as a given, and to reconsider what kids in our schools need to learn as a prerequisite to the consideration of where and how we insert ICT into instruction. Integrating ICT into the curriculum will do little, if anything, to make irrelevant curricula relevant, antiquated information fresh, or useless skills valuable.
2. Achievement—or learning?
Distinguishing between “achievement” and “learning” might seem like a semantic quibble, but the distinction between them actually is quite significant. A good score on an achievement test might or might not be an indicator of learning, if we take learning to mean that the knowledge is “owned” by the student and is durable beyond the test-taking event.
If the goal of a school is to raise achievement test scores, better and more economical ways can be found to do this than installing ICT. Indeed, ICT could be counterproductive, because it might engage student interest and involvement in ways that are not productive in terms of state-mandated standardized achievement tests. Our most gifted teachers find ways to provide these experiences, despite pressure to produce good scores on state achievement tests. But the provision of good learning environments that take advantage of the capabilities provided by ICT should not occur despite school district, state, or federal policies.
3. Professional development—or organizational development?
The contrast between organizational development and professional development is not about whether or not teachers should end up with new capabilities and perspectives. Such is the intended consequence of organizational development as it is with professional development, but organizational development involves explicit attention to changing the organization as its members are changed. The premise is that organizational structures—the policies, customs, and rules—do not naturally adapt and transform in response to the way the organization’s members function. Rather, behavior that is in conflict with the organizational structures is something like a pathogen, and the organizational structure provides its own antibodies that generally overcome the deviant behavior.
There are well-developed techniques that have been produced by organizational development experts and are available to school leaders who wish to employ this approach. An organizational development approach is germane to ICT in schools, because so often teachers with motivation and skills to use ICT in their classrooms run into organizational barriers that hamper their ability to make best use of their capability.
4. Fiscal conservatism—or fiscal restructuring?
School leaders face the painful task of fiscal restructuring if ICT is to be an essential element in the operation of their schools. The tough side of fiscal restructuring for ICT is not the recognition and acceptance of what ICT adds to the budget, but what it subtracts.
Just as there is a mortal flaw in thinking about ICT in instruction as “business as usual with computers,” so also is there a mortal flaw in thinking about fiscal management pertaining to ICT as “spending as usual with add-on money to pay for ICT.” There has been no instance of serious use of ICT in corporations that has been accomplished without substantial fiscal restructuring. There is no reason to expect that this will happen in schools.
5. 19th-century education ideology—or 18th-century education ideology?
During the colonial and early post-colonial era, schools were an element in the mosaic of educational resources—but early Americans believed that the advancement of learning could occur in the household, the farm, the shop, and in the church as well as in the school. Where and how the learning occurred were less important than whether it occurred.
The American public school was an invention of a cadre of persons of exceptional intellect and dedication in the 19th century as the primary agency for the education of the young. The reforms came in the wake of the declining role of the family and church to provide education for the young, especially for those living in the cities. During much of the history of the public school, teachers and textbooks were the chief sources of information for most young children. With radio, then television, and then computers, teachers and textbooks again are now only two of many information sources for children.
School leaders need to recognize that the hegemony of schools as the educational force for our children has ended. Thus, we are actually in an era probably more like the 18th century than the 19th century. Recognition of the impact of media in our children’s lives does not mean that we fold our tent. Rather, this recognition should cause us to work to use ICT as effectively in schools as it is used outside of schools. And, we should understand that a critical skill for all of our young people is the ability to be discerning consumers of what they hear and see on the screens that are everywhere in their lives.
6. Research for advocacy—or research for improvement?
The call for more research is warranted. Yet much of the impetus for ICT research comes from those who want research that will convince the unconvinced that ICT is effective and benefits kids. Those who believe research can pull the teeth of the critics of ICT fail to recognize that the dominant aspect of opposition to ICT in schools is ideological and, as such, is unlikely to yield to empirical finding.
What is needed is research that enables us to move from the trial-and-error and anecdotal phase to the establishment of a knowledge base that can be used to build effective ICT applications in our schools. The improvisation that was perfectly legitimate in the early years of ICT in schools is no longer appropriate at this stage of the saga.
7. Education for workforce development—or education for the ‘pursuit of happiness’?
It has become standard practice to speak of the function of schools in terms of workforce development. Educational leaders should not be reluctant to oppose those who seek to define the work of schools simply in terms of the preparation of good workers. Certainly, teachers want their students to get good jobs and contribute to the U.S. economy, but they should oppose those whose myopia does not allow them to see students as much more than proactive workers.
Thomas Jefferson’s use of the term “pursuit of happiness” along with life and liberty as the “unalienable rights” he cited in the Declaration of Independence was not about hedonism. In essence, pursuit of happiness in the Jeffersonian sense means that one lives a life that is personally satisfying and socially beneficial. Educational leaders should vigorously make the case that we want our students not only to be able to read, but to want to read—that we want our students to appreciate the way in which the arts uplift our spirit, and we want them to make good use of the powerful ways ICT can contribute to a lifelong journey of learning.
James Bosco is a professor of educational studies at Western Michigan University and chairman of the Technology Standards for School Administrators (TSSA) Collaborative. He can be reached at email@example.com.