By Ying Xu
“We are at a point in the history of education when radical change is possible, and the possibility for that change is directly tied to the impact of the computer.” – Seymour Papert
In the 1980s, while pencil and paper still dominated U.S. classrooms, Dr. Seymour Papert, one of the world’s leading educational theorists, envisioned the revolutionary potential of computers in education. Dr. Papert predicted that children and teachers would use computers as instruments for learning and enhancing innovation. It has been three decades since Dr. Papert wrote about the potential radical change in education, and his prediction seems to have come to fruition.
According to the National Statistics of Education, Public schools in the United States, on average, provided at least one computer for every five students in 2013. Annually, public schools spent more than $3 billion on digital content. In addition, achieving equity of technology access and usage at school has been a priority for policy makers. Led by the federal government, the country is making a great effort to make affordable high-speed Internet and free online teaching resources available to the rural and remote schools. Moreover, during the 2015-16 school year, state standardized tests for the elementary and middle school grades were administered via computer more than by paper and pencil.
All these actions are taken with the rationale that technology can improve students’ learning. However, such improvement has not always proven to be the case, as the wealth of technological resources in today’s schools are still underutilized and have failed to make a significant impact on educational practices and student learning.
“The wealth of technological resources in today’s schools are still underutilized and have failed to make a significant impact on educational practices”
Access to technology devices does not necessarily lead to abundant classroom technology use by teachers and students (Cuban, Kirkpatrick, & Peck, 2001; Proctor & Marks, 2013). According to a national report, 60% of the surveyed teachers indicated that they and their students did not often use computers in the classroom during instructional time. This disconnection between access and usage in schools is slightly more common in high-poverty schools. In addition, even though technology is used in classrooms, it may not be used wisely and constructively – that is in a way that can actually improve learning and prepare students for the twenty-first century workplace. Further, academics and parents alike have expressed concerns about a number of potential problems of technology, such as digital distractions, ways in which unequal access to and use of technology might widen achievement gaps.
A Lesson from LA Unified’s iPad Program
In 2013, the Los Angeles public school system undertook a $1.3 billion effort, to give each teacher, administrator and 640,000 pupils an Apple iPad preloaded with educational software provided by publishing giant, Pearson. This program was once seen as a way to boost the city’s low-income students, who previously had limited access to digital educational tools at schools. However, the program did not achieve its original goal and soon turned into a crisis. One year after the program was initiated, the superintendent suspended the contract with Apple and Pearson, as problems had been occurring almost daily with either the technology or the curriculum. This situation even resulted in the resignation of the superintendent (see the timeline of this program here).
But what went wrong?
A team led by the U.S. Department of Education investigated the project and identified several inter-related issues that had brought about the failure of this ambitious project. Among the causes of the failure were a lack of district-wide instructional technology strategy, deficiency in teachers’ professional development, and insufficient instructional support of technology. Simply put, there was a breakdown in technology integration. Similarly, the most recent National Educational Technology Plan by the U.S. Department of Education also emphasized the importance of integration:
“Effective integration of technology is achieved when students are able to select technology tools to help them obtain information in a timely manner, analyze and synthesize the information, and present it professionally. The technology should become an integral part of how the classroom functions – as accessible as all other classroom tools.”
However, Los Angeles is just one classic case of school districts getting caught up in the educational technology frenzy without fully thinking through a practical plan. Because no one wants to be the next LA Unified, an important lesson must be learned – having access to the technology devices is just the first step; technology should become an integral part of how the classroom functions.
Teacher as the agent of technology integration
More and more policay makers and educational practitioners have agreed on the crutial role teachers plays in implementating technogloy in classroom instruction. Teachers should be viewed as the agent of technology integration.
In general, most teachers have recognized the potential of technology in enhancing student’s learning, and believe that technology helps them accomplish professional and/or personal tasks more efficiently. However, they are hesitant to adopt curricular and/or instructional innovations and may even view technology as “disruptive” (Laurillard, 2008). What forms this gap between high perceived utility value of technology and low usage?
In a review article titled Teacher Technology Change, several reasons why teachers are reluctant to incorporate the technology into the classroom are identified (see Ertmer & Ottenbreit-Leftwich, 2010 for an overview). Those reasons included:
- The lack of relevant knowledge (Mishra & Koehler, 2006). Teacher’s knowledge, including the knowledge in technology usage and the knowledge in technology integration, has been identified as key factor determining the technology integration level (Shapka & Ferrari, 2003).
- Low self-efficacy in technology usage. Research has showed that teachers with lower self-efficacy scores are likely to be less-prepared to integrate technology into classrooms (Moore-Hayes, 2011).
- Conflicting pedagogical beliefs. Many studies suggests that belief systems influence how teachers use technology in the classroom. In general, teachers with more conservative beliefs are more likely to implement more traditional or “low-level” technology uses, whereas teachers with more constructivist beliefs are more likely to implement more student-centered or “high-level” technology uses (Roehrig, Kruse, & Kern, 2007).
- School/Subject culture. A previous study demonstrated that a technology innovation was less likely to be adopted by teachers if it deviated too greatly from the existing values, beliefs, and practices in the school. By constrast, changes in beliefs about technology use occurred more readily among teachers who were socialized by their peers to think positiviely about computer use (Zhao & Frank, 2003).
Three Practical Approaches Toward Teacher Change
How can those barriers be overcome?
Several effective approaches have emerged from previous studies.
- Emphasizing teacher professional development
Fortunately, we have recently witnessed a trend that more and more technological interventions are coming with a package of rigorous teacher training, demonstrating an increasing national recognition for the importance of teacher technology professional development. Plus, more and more States are now requiring teacher’s technology skill training in order to acquire the teaching certificate.
This enhanced professional development, in general, has demonstrated satisfactory results for both the teachers and students. Studies have reported that teachers tend to have positive attitudes and higher confidence toward technology integration, and students benefit more from the classroom technology, as a result of providing teachers with such professional development.
Several best practices of professional development have been identified by Lawless and Pellegrino, such as activities being tailored to individual teachers’ needs, the settings in which the teachers serve, as well as the school’s overall vision for change and administration (Lawless & Pellegrino, 2007).
- Improving collaborative environments among teachers
Regular professional development is important, but not enough. Teachers need daily support from their fellow colleagues in the same community. In an article on technology integration, Macdonald (2008) wrote that “to effect lasting educational change”, collaboration for teachers needs to be facilitated in “authentic teacher contexts”. Teachers not only share their knowledge, but also share their emotions, especially the common frustration in implementing technology in the classroom.
One case study explored the modeling practices of teacher collaboration in a California middle school (Warschauer, Knobel, & Stone, 2004). In this school, more than ten technology facilitators were selected from teaching staff in different disciplines, who received intensive in-service technology training which provided technical and pedagogical support to their colleagues. One teacher explained the benefits of this strategy:
“Those teachers are in the various different [subject area] departments and they’re available for the other teachers to come to as a kind of mentor. So if they get stuck on something, they’ve got another teacher that can help them in the classroom, someone that teaches the same subjects as they do and maybe have some ideas about how the technology can be used to teach.”
- Enhancing technical support
Technical support is another factor that influences technology use (Lim & Khine, 2006). Technical problems make it difficult to use technology in classrooms, and slow network performance and inadequate computers are an obstacle to using technology in education (Pelgrum, 2001).
In a qualitative study, Warschauer and colleagues recognized the crucial role of technology support in improving teacher’s technology integration (Warschauer, Knobel, & Stone, 2004). Let us consider a school that has implemented technology into classroom instruction successfully, has a broad-based technology committee and a full-time media specialist. This school must have made a conscious decision to free up specialists within the teaching staff to provide technical and pedagogical support to other teachers, and students have been recruited for maintenance, installation, and other technology-related work as well.
When Salisbury Township School District in Pennsylvania started its 1-to-1 laptop initiative named Teaching and Learning 2020 (TL2020) for grades K-12 in 2011, they designed a series of technology trainings for all teachers in the district for four years. Much of the training focused on progressive concepts, such as learning to support each individual student’s needs, as opposed to directing them; maintaining student engagement in learning; and creating activities that integrate technologies into the existing curriculum. Four actions have been taken by the district to maximize the effectiveness of their teacher training program: aligning professional development (PD) goals with 1:1 program goals; hiring technological support personals; personalizing the PD program through differentiation and choice; and evaluating PD efforts to meet developing needs.
Even though the final results have not been revealed, as the initiative is still on-going, we can still foresee the potential of the program to cause substantial changes in teachers’ knowledge, beliefs, and culture regarding technology integration. Once the teachers’ mindsets have changed to include the idea that teaching is not effective without the appropriate use of technology resources to achieve student learning outcomes, and once they are equipped with knowledge to use technology wisely, our education will have reached a significant milestone.
The most recent encouraging news is that Salisbury School District was awarded the No. 2 spot on the 2014-15 Digital School Districts Survey for communities with student populations of 3,000 or less, which is released annually by The Center for Digital Education and the National School Boards Association.
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Ertmer, P. A., & Ottenbreit-Leftwich, A. T. (2010). Teacher technology change: How knowledge, confidence, beliefs, and culture intersect. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 42(3), 255-284.
Laurillard, D. (2008). The teacher as action researcher: Using technology to capture pedagogic form. Studies in Higher education, 33(2), 139-154.
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