What’s holding back the digital curriculum? A lot of things: too few classroom computers, poorly conceived professional development, and a lack of time to research and plan–to name three big factors, according to a new report from the nonprofit Education Development Center (EDC).

The study, “Effective Access: Teachers’ Use of Digital Resources in STEM Teaching,” examines how high school teachers use digital libraries and other electronic resources to support “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics” (STEM) exploration and instruction.

Despite the recent progress touted by some policy makers–progress some are using to justify cuts in ed-tech spending–EDC researchers found that schools still lack the appropriate infrastructure to integrate the full-scale use of digital materials into the classroom, and teachers do not receive the proper training to make full use of available classroom technologies. “Effective Access” also says most teachers don’t have the time to properly research and plan the use of digital curricula.

The study asserts that STEM teachers want web-based materials that save time and energy, such as easy-to-use search engines; the ability to easily determine the validity of digital resources; web sites that are easier to navigate; interoperability of digital resources in the multiple-platform environment of most schools; and materials that illustrate real-world applications of STEM concepts.

Katherine Hansen, director of the project, said she and the report’s co-author, Bethany Carlson, first started looking into the issue of how digital materials were used for STEM instruction when they were developing online courses.

“We were intrigued by this disconnect between the assumptions of those who are developing digital resources –including ourselves–and the end users,” Hansen said. “It seemed to us that there didn’t appear to be an integration between the canon and the pedagogy on the development side [and the curricular needs of those] on the education side.”

The study was based on the surveys of 236 teachers across the United States. While not a full-scale, representative investigation of the use of digital curricula by American high school teachers, “Effective Access” nevertheless deepens the discussion of how such resources are perceived, gathered, and used.

“This is a small study,” Hansen said. “We don’t want to say it applies to everyone.” Still, the findings reflect many of the concerns and frustrations expressed by educators across the curriculum: Teachers need better technological infrastructure and the time and professional development to integrate it into the classroom.

Availability of technology

One of the big issues that the report’s findings appear to confirm is that any discussion of the availability of web-based content is linked to a discussion of access.

More than 70 percent of teachers said they use the internet “frequently or always” to prepare for class, and 58.5 percent of respondents said they use the internet in class with similar frequency. Yet most of those interviewed complained of inadequate availability of hardware. Just over 47 percent said they have only a single computer with internet access in their classrooms, and 41 percent said they have access to a computer lab. But a quarter of teachers don’t have such access, and others who do say it’s hard to get into the labs.

One respondent complained that, at her school, “people book the lab for months straight. The art teacher has it now. I know she needs the computers to show all the art history images, but it means that other classes can’t get in.

“Having computers available is important,” the teacher continued. “And if the classroom has only one computer with dial-up–that’s bad. You need at least enough computers so only two kids share one.”

The study also found that school equipment often is not provided with enough support, “leading to frustration and reducing the positive impacts in the classroom.” The report goes on to say that “the technology environment often does not reflect high school STEM teachers’ or students’ needs or use patterns.”

Critics of educational technology spending have said that, after pumping billions of dollars to equip schools with technology, schools should be adequately wired to make use of digital materials in the classroom. The Bush administration has used this assertion to support its own proposed cuts in ed-tech funding.

Keith Krueger, chief executive officer of the Consortium for School Networking, said his organization “strongly agrees” with the EDC report’s findings.

“The facts speak for themselves,” Krueger said. “While we have made tremendous progress as a nation in both connectivity and infrastructure, we are far from the sort of pervasive technology environment we see in the business or other work environments.”

Lack of time

Bound up in the question of access is an issue that affected nearly every educator involved in the study: time. Time constraints played a significant role in how much teachers believed they could do in terms of providing internet-based materials to their students, according to the study.

Most teachers surveyed (63.4 percent) said they use digital resources less than 25 percent of the time. Seventy-five percent of teachers in suburban areas said they use web resources less than a quarter of their teaching time.

Teachers said the time consumed by locating digital resources is the No. 1 barrier to their classroom use. Many teachers listed connectivity issues–specifically the time it takes to download resources–as being a barrier to their use. That, the report says, is directly related to the connectivity speeds at individual institutions and the number of computers available to students and teachers.

“If [teachers] are surfing the web at home, downloading a resource just for themselves, they can and will wait if they think it will be a valuable item,” the report says. “However, as soon as students are involved as audience or participants, teachers’ willingness to wait is gone.”

Poor professional development

“Effective Access” also found that, although professional development (PD) is critical to the successful integration of digital resources in education, “teachers express frustration about the lack of quality, on-time training.”

More than 60 percent of respondents said they had taken part in some amount of PD for finding web resources or computer trouble-shooting. Nearly 75 percent of respondents said they had taken part in PD for using technology in STEM instruction.

But many teachers said the PD they received was not adequate. “Most [PD workshops] have been frustratingly basic,” one teacher complained. “I’d go to PD sessions and there was never anything advanced, never tailored to different levels of technical expertise. It wasn’t useful for either extreme. The teachers who were techno-phobic couldn’t keep up, and the instructors would get mad at experienced users who tried to jump ahead.”

One teacher also complained of poor planning on the part of his district. “We all have SMART Boards,” he said, referring to interactive whiteboards from SMART Technologies Inc. “But they scheduled PD for us before the SMART Boards arrived. Now, [the boards] mostly sit off to the side collecting dust, because we don’t have time to teach ourselves, and the training last summer was not hands-on.”

What teachers want

STEM instructors often go online to seek supplemental materials to their textbooks or for a more deeply involved lesson or lab, the report says. Most of those surveyed agreed they wanted to be able to find content more rapidly. The most desired feature for digital resources was a search tool that saves educators time and frustration.

“Teachers want multiple entry points to accommodate different learning styles, and they repeatedly stated that materials need to be more visual than text-based,” the report says. One teacher commented that “if it’s not visual, I can’t use it. I like a nice clean site that’s labeled and easy to see, read.”

Some form of verifiable assurance that the site is sponsored by a reputable source is the second most commonly desired feature of internet resources.

Educators also said that they wanted interoperability between multiple platforms, because so many students use different computers at home–and schools might be operating on multiple platforms within the same building. In addition, the report notes, “the instructional resources teachers most wanted for their students were all interactive in nature, ranging from illustrative applets and simulations to engaging games and tailored assessments.”

The report urges content developers to include tutorials, assessments, and “other learning tools that have multiple ways of providing direct feedback to students and that encourage critical thinking.” It also urges more district investment in hardware, internet access, professional development, and tech support. “Consider collaborative agreements with other schools or districts to provide subscriptions or other resources at a lower cost,” it recommends.

“We’ve got some rethinking to do,” Hansen concluded. “Otherwise, [the internet and computer technology are] just the latest version of putting a TV in the classroom.”

See these related links:

Education Development Center

“Effective Access: Teachers’ use of digital resources in STEM teaching,” by Katherine Hansen and Bethany Carlson