Who was Coretta Scott King–and what role did she play in her husband’s civil-rights efforts?

What were the factors that contributed to this year’s record warm average temperature in the United States for the month of January?

Why was Shakespeare so popular a playwright in his day? Are these the same reasons his works endure today?

For decades, teachers have asked students similar questions that can be answered only by doing extensive research outside their textbooks. Sometimes, their intent is to generate a deeper understanding of the core curriculum material; other times, it’s to expand the skills and concepts students are learning in their core curriculum subject areas and apply these to what is going on in the world around them.

Whatever the reason for these assignments, today’s digital resources–a web site, a video clip, an online database or library–make this kind of supplemental research and instruction easier than ever before.

It’s now possible to open up a whole world of learning right at students’ fingertips, whether they live in some remote rural area or a cultural and intellectual epicenter.

What’s more, access to online materials–such as full-text articles in an electronic library–can be provided for all students simultaneously, from home and from school, for a fraction of what it would cost to equip school libraries with enough copies of books to achieve the same goal.

“The information you get from an online database is so economical compared to print resources,” said Linda Williams, president of the American Association of School Librarians. Williams is also director of library media services at Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland.

“We study the states in elementary school,” Williams added. “You can’t buy five books and serve the whole school.”

Yet, despite the availability of these resources and the promise they hold for education, teachers and students still are not using them to their full potential. A number of barriers exist that prevent the more widespread use of digital materials to supplement instruction.

In this Special Report, we’ll examine the most common of these barriers–and we’ll look at some of the ways that educators are overcoming them.

The potential to ‘transform’ instruction

With a demanding curriculum schedule and no one-to-one computer access, Angie Herdman, a second- and third-grade teacher at Silver Stream Public School in Richmond Hill, Ontario, in Canada, finds it challenging to incorporate digital resources into her lessons on a regular basis.

“Time and resources are the biggest problem,” said Herdman, who teaches a split grade level. “It takes kids enough time to do anything anyway.”

Using computers takes up precious classroom time, Herdman said, because there is a huge discrepancy among students’ computer skills. In her third-grade class, some kids are computer whizzes, while others have trouble turning on the computer. The province has no time set aside for teaching computer skills in the elementary grades, she said.

“There’s so much to teach them, too,” she added, referring to an already packed curriculum.

Access to computers also is an issue. Her classroom has three desktop computers, so to get all students on computers at the same time, she must reserve the school’s computer lab or mobile laptop cart–resources that often are in high demand.

Herdman does show content from electronic sources to the class using a digital projector hooked up to a desktop computer. But, ultimately, having students use computers on their own happens infrequently.

Herdman’s example is typical of teachers in many schools. In a study published last year by the nonprofit Education Development Center Inc. (EDC), time and access were among the most frequently cited challenges to using digital resources in instruction.

“Digital resources, including digital libraries, have the potential to transform science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education,” according to the study. Though the study focused on the use of digital materials to teach STEM courses in particular, it would not be a stretch to apply its findings to other subject areas, too.

Digital resources, the study’s authors said, can provide access to innovative curricula, stimulating applets and simulations, and other materials that will engage students in new and exciting ways–ultimately improving student achievement.

However, the study cited a number of challenges that are inhibiting the full integration of these kinds of resources into the core curriculum, including:

  • A lack of time;
  • Insufficient professional development;
  • Disparate access to computers; and
  • A disconnect between developers and end-users.

“Effective Access: Teachers’ Use of Digital Resources in STEM Teaching” consisted of a brief literature review and surveys of 236 teachers across the United States. It found that most teachers surveyed (63 percent) use digital resources only 25 percent of the time or less–and three out of four teachers in suburban areas use digital resources less than a quarter of their teaching time.

Lack of time

“There are a lot of time nuances tied to [the use of] digital resources,” said Bethany Carlson, research associate at EDC and co-author of the report.

Teachers have to determine whether the material meets their targeted grade and reading levels; whether the content will download fast enough; whether it meets required teaching standards; and, if not all students have access to classroom computers, teachers have to carve out time to transport their classes to the computer lab and set up the computers, she explained.

Then, there is the time it takes to locate appropriate resources in the first place–the No. 1 barrier to teachers’ use of digital resources in instruction, according to the study.

In using the internet, the report notes, teachers often use “simple search strategies and are not often satisfied with their results.” Educators said their search results often were “too broad,” and they did not find adequate materials. Most of those surveyed agreed that they wanted to be able to find content more rapidly.

To solve the problem, schools are turning to a number of different solutions.

One is the use of education-specific search engines, such as netTrekker, that direct teachers and students only to vetted, educator-approved web sites organized by grade level and subject area.

Another solution is the use of a streaming video service, such as Discovery Education’s unitedstreaming, that organizes short video segments according to grade level, subject area, and content standard.

A third solution: digital libraries, or electronic databases that contain full-text books, journal articles, periodicals, photographs, audio files, simulations, and more.

A digital library is not like the internet, where validity of the content and author are unknown, and where the search results are vast and unfocused. Instead, it is filled with content from reputable publishers. Its resources are as valid as the traditional print material found in the reference section of any school or public library. The only difference is the format and the way the material is accessed through an internet connection and current web browser.

The EDC study was funded by the National Science Foundation to help determine ways to get high school teachers, in particular, to use the National Science Digital Library, or NSDL–a free online library filled with exemplary science resources such as graphics, data sets, manipulations, and simulations.

“Many teachers don’t know of NSDL; they haven’t heard of a digital library at all,” said Carlson. “Most teachers said they find their resources through Google. That’s fine, but it takes so much longer than a targeted search,” like that offered by an electronic library database.

Besides free resources such as NSDL, a number of commercial digital library solutions are available, such as NetLibrary or Questia.

Questia Media’s digital library database reportedly contains some 65,000 full-text books and more than 1 million articles. Susan Showalter, library media specialist at Elkhorn Area High School in Elkhorn, Wis., said subscribing to Questia was the “easiest and cheapest way” to inflate her school’s library collection of 8,000 books.

“I needed a way to increase our holdings to keep our collection current and affordable,” Showalter explained.

Questia offers its subscribers access to full-text books and full-text newspaper, magazine, and journal articles. The mostly nonfiction collection focuses on two areas: humanities and social science.

“It’s just like picking up a book off the shelf,” Showalter said. Students see every page of the book, including the cover, title page, table of contents, and index. “As far as it concerns a teacher grading a paper, it’s the exact same,” she added.

Research suggests that access to high-quality librarians and library resources–including digital libraries–improves a school’s overall student achievement, said Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). Electronic libraries are less time-consuming to search and offer timelier, more topical information, he said.

“I’ve seen those databases be well used. I’ve also seen them go away and cause a lot of pain to those who were using them,” Knezek said. The state of Texas had subscribed to numerous full-text electronic databases, called the Texas Library Connection, but in 2003 state officials stopped offering the service owing to budget cuts, he said.

To pay for such services, the EDC report suggests that schools “consider collaborative agreements with other schools or districts to provide subscriptions or other resources at a lower cost.”

Although electronic databases are already fulfilling a great need in schools, Knezek agrees more can be done to improve their full integration into the curriculum. As the EDC report identified, limited access to computers, poorly conceived professional development, and a disconnect between publishers and educators are some of the other barriers.

Disparate computer access

More than 70 percent of teachers responding to the EDC survey said they use the internet “frequently or always” to prepare for class, and 59 percent said they use the internet in class with similar frequency. Yet most of those interviewed complained that limited access to computers hampers their ability to integrate digital resources as often as they’d like.

Nearly half (47 percent) of respondents said they have only a single computer with internet access in their classrooms. Though another 41 percent said they have access to a computer lab, these teachers added that it’s often hard to get into the labs.

“The kind of access teachers have to computers affects what they can do with digital resources,” Carlson said. Many teachers, for example, will make handouts from materials they find online. It’s not because they aren’t tech-savvy, it’s because they don’t have computers for every student, she said.

How often teachers use digital resources depends largely on the technology set-up in their classroom. Teachers with a laptop for every student can use electronic content much more readily than those without such ubiquitous access to computers. But laptops are expensive, and fewer than 10 percent of schools have one-to-one computing programs, according to published reports.

The age and quality of the machines also are factors. “Computers have reached a high level of saturation in schools. Nearly every classroom has one, but that doesn’t mean it’s in good working condition,” Carlson said. Teachers aren’t always able to download Java or Flash upgrades needed to access online content.

In classrooms with one internet-connected computer, teachers are using digital projectors to share electronic resources with the entire class. And some schools are using wireless laptop carts–computer labs on wheels–that are shared among floors or departments as a cost-effective way to get computers into the hands of every student.

Anne Arundel County Schools employs both of these strategies. There are computers in the classrooms, but not enough for every student. Each school has a computer lab with 12 to 14 computers, as well as wireless laptop carts, and most classrooms have three desktop computers.

Often a teacher will hook a television or computer to an LCD projector and demonstrate to students how to access and search the district’s electronic database. Then, the students are given an assignment to access the database at home or in the library, Williams said.

Other teachers use projectors to integrate digital resources directly into their teaching. The carts are useful, too, for bringing computers right to students in the classroom–saving the time and eliminating the hassle of bringing students to the lab, Williams said.

Bringing access home for students

The ability to access high-quality, easily searchable electronic resources from home or school is another key selling point of digital libraries. Many schools are leveraging this ability as another way to stretch access to these resources and make up for the scarcity of computers in school.

Cindy Wilson-Hyde, curriculum technology integrator at Gulliver Schools, a private school serving 2,200 students in Miami, Fla., says her school maintains a large group of electronic library databases for use by students and teachers.

“Last year, we were able to make all of our library databases accessible from home as well as from school,” Wilson-Hyde said. Copies of the logins and passwords are sent home with all students. The same information also is included in a parent newsletter and in a presentation to parents about internet safety.

“I … review the available databases with parents to remind them that their children have access to tremendous amounts of safe research materials in a controlled environment and do not need to be ‘surfing’ the internet for information,” Wilson-Hyde said.

For students to take advantage of home access to electronic resources, they have to have a home computer with an internet connection–something not all families can afford. But Alabama’s Roanoke City Schools has hit upon a highly successful, cost-effective strategy for extending these resources into all students’ homes.

Roanoke purchases desktop computers and loans them out to families who don’t have them. A family pays a refundable $25 deposit and undergoes training before being allowed to pick up the machine. A pilot program in the seventh grade has proven so successful that district officials have expanded it to include grades six, eight, and nine.

“According to parent [survey] data, 80 percent of our students’ homes had computers and internet access. That would mean that in a class of 120, only 24 households would not have a computer,” explained David Crouse, director of federal programs for the district. “If we provided them [with] a home computer, the cost would be [about $15,000]. While this was still a lot of money, it was not impossible.”

For many educators, however, the only way to guarantee that all students have hands-on access to digital resources remains trekking down the hall to a computer lab. But as Jean LaBelle, a history teacher at Maynard High School in Maynard, Mass., points out, there are steps teachers can take to make the most effective use of precious lab time.

LaBelle says she tries to break down assignments into all of their core components to see which parts can be completed in class. “I have kids team up on projects, because there are not enough computers in the lab for everyone,” she added. “And I make sure I have the relevant web sites or other resources chosen in advance, so students don’t waste time searching.”

Maynard subscribes to a few electronic databases that LaBelle has found useful for student research. In one project, she had students review campaign ads from the 2004 presidential election and then write a campaign ad for the pre-Civil War president of their choice. Students recorded their projects as audio WAV files, which they then uploaded as podcasts.

Sometimes LaBelle also signs out a digital projector that is shared among the other teachers on her floor, to show primary-source digital resources to her students. So far, she hasn’t had much trouble securing this technology resource to use in her classroom. But “once everyone else catches on to how useful it is–forget about it,” she says with a smile.

Insufficient professional development

Not surprisingly, teachers who told EDC researchers they most frequently integrated digital resources into the classroom “also cited having [strong] professional development,” Carlson said, explaining there is a clear link between the amount of training educators get and how frequently they use technology.

But as LaBelle’s comment reveals, there is more to professional development than simply training. Awareness also is key. School leaders need to make educators aware of how digital resources can benefit them and their students–and how these materials best can be used to raise student achievement.

There is a learning curve to overcome when using supplementary electronic resources for the first time, but a learning curve is inherent to all new tools. “When you move to using a new resource, there’s always an investment of time needed,” said ISTE’s Knezek, who recommends offering teachers meaningful incentives–such as allowing teachers to attend out-of-state conferences–in exchange for taking professional development courses or training independently. Some schools also provide laptop computers to teachers in exchange for undergoing training.

Unfortunately, the professional development programs of too many schools fall short. One common problem is that the training is not targeted to teachers’ specific needs. Experts say professional development must be relevant, useful, and must connect the technology directly to the execution of teachers’ everyday tasks.

Professional development also must take into account the kind of access teachers have to computers, Carlson said. This access will help define the strategies and pedagogies teachers will employ in using the technology.

Anne Arundel County Public Schools subscribe to several electronic databases, including ProQuest’s CultureGrams, Microsoft Encarta, and Grolier Online.

“At first, we needed to do far more training to get people to know that they were available in the county. And that’s true for any new set of tools,” Williams said.

The district held general training sessions and then created a brochure for teachers that listed the database URLs and passwords so teachers could access them. Later, the district offered specific training for each discipline to help social studies and English teachers, for example, integrate the content into their own subject areas.

“What’s worked the most is dealing with what they deal with. Rather than just showing them the database, we take a unit they are teaching and show them how they could use the database,” Williams said. “Once somebody is in a database, and once they see it has good, reliable information, they are going to use it again in the future.”

Another idea is to use something that hooks teachers’ interest in the database, such as asking them to research a genealogy question about their family. Williams has moved away from this practice, however, because she prefers showing teachers how they can use this resource to teach the curriculum.

Carol Ann Winkler, the librarian at Nerinx Hall High School, a private Catholic school for girls in Webster Groves, Mo., takes a more subtle approach to convincing teachers of the value of her school’s electronic library database.

“I keep my ears open in the faculty room and at department meetings. Later, I surprise individual teachers with things I have found in our database to address informational needs I overheard them discussing,” Winkler said.

Disconnect between developers and end-users

Though digital libraries and other collections of electronic learning materials can save teachers time in locating high-quality, reputable sources of information, not all are created equally. According to the EDC study, most electronic databases are not designed primarily for K-12 use; the material they contain is fragmented; some lack teacher guides; and some have complicated, advanced search engines.

The study says part of the problem is that developers’ and educators’ motives are different. Developers generally want to employ the latest and greatest technology to make a profit, whereas educators want consistently easy-to-access information.

“The ability to limit a search to specific titles or, even better, reading levels is one that any teacher can appreciate,” said Kate Cronn, school library media specialist at Oneida Senior High School in Oneida, N.Y.

Integrating digital resources creates challenges related to preparation, pedagogy, and logistics, said Joni Falk, of TERC, a research and development nonprofit whose mission is to improve K-12 math and science teaching and learning. Falk has been observing the integration of digital resources in three Massachusetts schools and three Michigan schools for two years and is in the process of submitting a paper for publication, called “Infusing Web-based Digital Resources into the Middle School Science Classroom: Strategies and Challenges.” The paper, which was presented to the American Educational Research Association in 2005, was funded through a National Science Foundation grant.

It takes a lot of time for educators to select digital resources, preview them, locate supplementary content relating these resources to the lesson, measure the difficulty level, assess overall ease of use, and validate the accuracy of the information, she said.

Though access to a digital library can help educators address many of these challenges, Falk said, “it doesn’t do it completely.”

For these resources to be integrated effectively into the classroom, teachers need help from content developers, web developers, and those who provide teacher professional development to identify appropriate digital resources for particular grade levels, standards, and purposes, she said.

Fortunately, publishers of digital libraries and other electronic resources are getting wise to these needs. A growing number of publishers are adding tools that can help teachers use their resources more easily.

For instance, at the Florida Educational Technology Conference in Orlando this month, Questia will announce a new lesson-plan feature designed to save teachers time and help them integrate Questia’s content into the curriculum.

Teachers will be able to search by various topics and subject areas for lesson plans that are aligned with national and state standards. All 49 states have published standards and benchmarks, except for Iowa.

Professional educators will write all the lesson plans, Questia said. All plans will be educator-reviewed and aligned with the Lexile Reading Levels in addition to state and national standards.

Linda Bessmer, vice president of institutional sales and marketing at Questia Media Inc., said the new lesson-plan feature is intended “do the heavy lifting for teachers,” referring to recent studies (such as EDC’s) that say teachers lack the time to plan lessons that incorporate the high-quality content from readily available digital library databases.

Questia’s lesson-plan addition builds on the company’s Classroom feature, an environment in which teachers can develop, organize, and assign reading lists and lesson plans for students. With this tool, teachers also can create courses, maintain data for course sections, keep enrollment records, view student activities, communicate assignments, attach reading resources, and even guard against plagiarism by validating the resources in Questia’s library, according to Questia President Troy Williams, who called the feature a “bridge” from the library to the classroom.

Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools has tried to create a similar time-saving solution of its own for teachers–but created a new problem in the process.

The district gives its teachers a variety of pre-made lesson plans proven to meet each state standard and benchmark, but teachers were overwhelmed by the amount of resources provided to them.

The district has an instructional services department consisting of eight curriculum specialists who create complete lesson plans that correspond to each state benchmark. The lessons are intended to lighten teachers’ workload so they can focus on how to teach, instead of finding what to teach. Each lesson plan created by the district includes material lists, instructions, handouts, supplemental resources, and web sites, and is based on what materials and tools the district has available.

“The problem we were having is that our teachers were overwhelmed. We have so many resources, but they were not organized in a way [teachers] could access easily,” said Mary Jo Watson, Fairfax County’s instructional technology architect. “Plus, we had resources that were constantly going out of date.”

Previously, the district’s program of study was given to teachers in a big binder or on compact disc. Now, the district’s curriculum is housed, delivered, and updated on a web-based learning portal that uses the Blackboard content management system as its backbone.

The portal has a place for handouts, assessments, standards, and benchmark indicators.

Teachers can create their own content or use a lesson already designed by another teacher. Plus, the portal allows teachers within the district to share their materials, lessons, and ideas.

“Our vision … is to have all of our curriculum and content delivered through this 24-7 learning system,” Watson said. This home-grown, single database is meant to be a one-stop shop for teachers to find content and lesson plans to teach. Parents, students, and teachers all have accounts on the portal, so they can access it from any internet-connected computer.

Endlessly searching the web, the library, and through classroom materials to plan lessons soon could be over. With resources such as Questia’s new lesson-plan feature and Fairfax County’s home-grown solution, teachers can find what they need faster, leaving them more time for their students.

A former eSchool News editor, Cara Erenben now works as a freelance writer in Canada. Senior Editor Corey Murray and Managing Editor Dennis Pierce also contributed to this report.


Education Development Center

“Effective Access: Teachers’ Use of Digital Resources in STEM Teaching”

American Association of School Librarians

Anne Arundel County Public Schools

Questia Media Inc.


Discovery Education

National Science Digital Library

Elkhorn Area High School

International Society for Technology in Education

Gulliver Schools

Roanoke City Schools

Maynard High School

Nerinx Hall High School


American Educational Research Association

Florida Educational Technology Conference

Fairfax County Public Schools