Why we’ve failed to integrate technology effectively in our schools

Much has been written, and many promises made, about the myriad ways in which technology will transform education. Visions of students exploring new worlds, of teachers marshaling rich archives of digital content, of decision making driven by vast arrays of data have justified the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars on technology for our schools.

Yet with each year comes another study reporting that, in most K-12 classrooms, technology has not been integrated into educational practice in meaningful ways. We have some compelling examples of technology’s affordances as showcased in magazines and at conference sessions, but to date we have failed to realize the future of rich, personalized learning environments as promised.

To understand why this is so, we must recognize that embedded in this transformative vision are not one but two challenges:

  • Making technology widely available in schools and ensuring that the conditions for its effective use exist, especially technical support and professional development for teachers; and
  • Leveraging these technological resources effectively in classrooms so they achieve the ultimate goal of improving teaching and learning.

Clearly these two challenges are related, but each has its own issues and outcomes—and we may succeed in meeting the first but not the second. It seems clear to me, however, that we will never achieve the transformation we seek without addressing both of these challenges together.

Making technology widely available and usable

Access to technology in classrooms is critically important: As long as classrooms are equipped with only one or two computers, technology will remain peripheral to educational practice. For technology to be incorporated routinely into educational practice, it must be relatively pervasive, with student-to-computer ratios approaching 1 to 1, but technology also must be affordable for it to proliferate in classrooms.

Moreover, hardware and software must be reliable, well supported technically, and easy to use, or else the frustrations of using technology will preclude its widespread adoption by teachers. Finally, teachers must be well trained so that they feel comfortable with technology and, more important, understand how to use it effectively in their classrooms.

What follows are some preconditions for meeting this first challenge:

  • Reduce the cost of acquiring and maintaining technology. Making computers relatively pervasive in classrooms means employing technologies that are reasonably inexpensive to acquire and maintain. The use of thin clients, inexpensive laptops, and handheld devices, for example, can lower student-to-computer ratios substantially, creating an educational environment where technology is widely available and thus can be incorporated routinely into educational practice.
  • Eliminate technical obstacles. Unreliable hardware, hard-to-use software, and especially the lack of competent technical support frustrate classroom teachers and inhibit technology integration.
  • Provide professional development. The private sector understands that you cannot simply drop technology into businesses. Rather, you must train and support workers to secure returns on technology investments. Teachers, too, need professional development so they feel comfortable with technology and understand how to use it properly.
  • Provide technological tools and content linked to state standards. Teachers must ensure that what they teach and what their students do conforms to state standards, so they must understand how technological tools and digital content are aligned with the standards to which they must teach.
  • Provide compelling reasons to use technology. Many teachers use computers for eMail or for writing reports, but not in their classrooms. Their reluctance to incorporate technology into educational practice owes in part to their comfort level teaching in certain ways, but equally problematic is that teachers see few compelling reasons to use technology, such as software that clearly adds educational value to their work or evidence that technology improves learning.
  • Involve all stakeholders in decision making. Technology has become a strategic resource in K-12 education, and thus decisions about its deployment cannot be left to technologists alone. Policy makers, school board members, administrators, teachers, parents, and students all must be involved in the debate about how technology should be used in their schools, for only then will it be possible to establish a national consensus about the proper roles for technology in K-12 education.
  • National organizations, corporations, and the federal government must lead. A wide range of national organizations and corporations concerned with the state of education in the United States have a significant role to play in educating their constituencies and shaping the debate about the role of technology in K-12 education. The federal government, by virtue of its control over substantial funding for education and its ability to shape national policy, must assume a leading role in this critically important debate.

Using technology to enhance teaching and learning

Our ultimate goal, however, is to improve teaching and learning—and merely introducing technology into schools has a limited impact on student learning, because technology is not inherently an agent of change. It is true that technology is a destabilizing agent—it certainly does change the way we do things—but throughout history, social systems of all kinds have demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of technological and other revolutions, and we have ample evidence in our day that educational practice is highly resistant to change.

In most classrooms, technology is merely grafted onto existing teaching practices, so what we get is educational practice that is technologically sophisticated but still fundamentally conventional: using PowerPoint instead of a blackboard or overhead projector for a classroom presentation, for example. Thus, in too many cases, technology reinforces rather than transforms educational practice.

Another problem has to do with expectations. All too often, the tendency is to view education through the lens of the private sector, where the benefits of technology are clearly visible in increased productivity and efficiency. In the private sector, introducing technology can increase productivity or reduce costs without necessarily transforming business practices. For a mail-order business, for example, allowing people to buy goods over the internet eliminates the cost of sales personnel on the phone. The sales process is essentially the same—customers buy goods from available stocks—but technology eliminates the cost of human order takers, and businesses become more productive.

Too many policy makers view the potential of technology to improve education in a similar light, believing that we can achieve similar returns on the investment of technology in education, but we must not confuse efficiency with effectiveness. Technology can make our system of education more efficient in some respects, improving our ability to assess student performance, marshal data in decision making, or communicate with stakeholders, but it is with the effectiveness of schools—that is, their ability to help students learn—that we are principally concerned, and we cannot merely assume that technology will make schools more effective.

I am not arguing, of course, that technology has no benefits for elementary and secondary education. Technology is transforming society—changing the way we work, communicate, and shop—and it is changing our schools as well:

  • The internet provides access to vast amounts of textual, multimedia, and other types of information.
  • eMail, threaded discussion groups, video conferencing, and other tools facilitate online collaborations among students and between classrooms, as well as the creation of communities of practice among teachers.
  • Multimedia authoring and presentation tools provide students with a wide range of means of expression, nurturing their creativity and respecting their individuality.
  • Virtual tours of museums or archaeological sites and simulations of ecosystems or the human body offer students increased opportunities for experiential learning.
  • Distance learning offers students access to educational opportunities they would not have otherwise, such as advanced-placement courses for students in remote rural areas.
  • Technology is a powerful motivator for kids who are now video- and computer-oriented.
  • Speech recognition, digital avatars, and other assistive technologies create educational opportunities for students with physical or visual impairments.
  • Wireless and other emerging technologies make possible anywhere, any time learning, and allow us to reconceptualize physical learning environments.

We know that technology can offer improved means of assessment: Diagnostic instruments on handheld devices, for example, make possible formative assessment in classes, the sort of thing that simply cannot be done without technology. In addition, technology makes possible the aggregation and analysis of assessment data, and hence evaluations of student performance at the school, district, state, and national levels, as well as the ability to disseminate information to parents and other stakeholders.

And we do have some evidence that technology can improve student achievement: Some studies have shown increases in student performance on standardized tests; we have evidence that certain types of educational software can facilitate reading comprehension and vocabulary development and increase students’ understanding of mathematical and scientific concepts. However, we have yet to build a compelling case that increases in the use of technology are reflected in measurable improvements in student learning.

Why have we failed to demonstrate clearly that technology can improve student learning? I would argue that it is because we are asking the wrong question: We focus on technology and ask whether its use is improving student achievement, but it is processes—educational practices—that determine how well students learn, and technology is not a process but a tool through which educational practices are mediated.

Let me use ThinkQuest, a program that my organization once operated, to illustrate this point. Arguably the world’s most successful educational technology program (more than 100,000 students from 125 countries have participated since its inception in 1996), ThinkQuest is a wonderful example of project-based learning: A handful of students form a team, intensively study a subject for several months, then create a web site to reflect the knowledge they’ve acquired.

Technology makes certain things possible in ThinkQuest that cannot be done otherwise. Teams, for example, often consist of students from different countries, and their online collaboration is made possible by the internet. Also, the nearly 6,000 web sites created by students during the past seven years are published in an online library, creating a valuable educational resource used by two and a half million visitors a month. ThinkQuest, then, is a compelling example of how technology can be used to motivate kids to engage in their own education.

But the educational practice that is at the heart of ThinkQuest is project-based learning—students researching subjects and working on projects reflecting the knowledge they’ve acquired—an educational practice that predates the introduction of technology. In ThinkQuest, students use technology to complete their project and produce their output, but the end product could have been a written paper, a play, or a diorama.

If you wanted to assess the extent to which ThinkQuest improved student learning, what would you be evaluating: ThinkQuest or project-based learning? Yes, technology is a powerful motivator, and online collaboration is a valuable experience, but fundamentally it is the educational process—project-based learning—that is at issue here.

By focusing on technology as an agent of change, we avoid asking much harder questions: What are our educational goals, and in what ways—if at all—must we change educational practice to achieve these goals? These are the questions we must ask first, for if technology is to make a contribution to improving student learning, it must be aligned with educational practices that we determine are most likely to achieve this fundamental goal.

When I asked how we must change educational practice to achieve these goals, I added “if at all” because, though everyone agrees that we must improve student achievement, we do not have a national consensus today that a transformation of educational practice is needed to achieve the goal of improving student performance. We agree that we must improve student learning, but we do not agree on how to do this: Do we want to preserve educational practices in essentially their current forms, or do we want to take this opportunity—made possible in part by technology—to transform education in ways that will achieve dramatic improvements in student learning?

There is no question that we will continue to invest heavily in technology in our schools, but we will never understand the most effective role for technology in K-12 education until we articulate clearly our educational goals and how we want to achieve them. If we do not articulate our educational goals and strategies first, we will never understand how to align technology with educational practice to realize the goal of improving student learning.

Technology, then, will not in itself change educational practice. Paraphrasing the oft-quoted adage from President Clinton’s 1992 campaign, “it’s the pedagogy, stupid,” for it is upon educational practice that we must focus our efforts to improve student learning. This is where our principal challenge lies.

Dr. Steve Rappaport is Director of Programs for Advanced Network & Services, a nonprofit organization that promotes the use of technology in K-12 education.

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