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Evaluating Technology’s Role in the Classroom

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Second Annual ‘Teachers Talk Tech’ Survey Examines the Long-Term Impact of Technology on Learning

Teachers are using computersmore than ever before for everything from instruction to handling administrative chores and communicating with parents. With states and school districts asking for measurable results, educators are increasingly tapping technology for help. Most of the nation’s teachers agree that computers improve performance on standardized tests, yet educators do not feel that they have enough computers or training to make the most of the technology in their classrooms. These were the major findings of the 2004 “Teachers Talk Tech” survey conducted by CDW Government Inc. (CDW·G). Now in its second year, the in-depth study revealed what K-12 teachers are saying about technology.

For the study, we asked 1,012 teachers nationwide to evaluate the role of technology in their classrooms, urging them to take a step back from their daily classroom responsibilities and examine the long-term impact of technology on learning. In the battle to improve our schools, teachers are the frontline warriors. As they fight the good fight, three priorities loom high on their wish lists:

  1. More training for themselves;
  2. More computer access for their students; and
  3. High-quality technology that’s appropriate for their classrooms.

Independent researchers interviewed teachers in roughly equal numbers from elementary, middle and high schools. This random sample, based on regional U.S. demographics, was drawn from D&B Market Data Retrieval’s Teacher Response Data Bank. Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates, an opinion research and public policy analysis firm, conducted phone interviews in April 2003. The survey’s margin of error is +/- 3%.

Professional Development

More school boards and district administrators are asking teachers to become computer literate and to use technology tools to increase academic performance. When asked to evaluate their classroom-computing expertise, eight out of 10 teachers told us they want more technology training; however, few states mandate such preparedness. According to Education Week data, only 15 states require incoming teachers to take courses in technology, and only Florida and Georgia have such a requirement for their administrator candidates.

As for taking a technology test to demonstrate competence, just nine states require this of their teachers and only four states expect their administrators to take such a test. In lieu of mandates, many schools are looking to teacher incentives in order to draw educators into additional technology training. A mix of state funding and foundation grants has helped 27 states develop technology-related professional development with incentives for administrators. In Orange County, Fla., for instance, teachers who successfully complete a 13-hour course in integrating technology are each given a Palm handheld.

Educational technology, much like teacher training, is a work in progress. The changeover to wireless computing is a case in point. Wireless technology facilitates collaboration, and training helps school districts make the most of this new capability. As schools begin the switch of integrating the new technology into the teaching process, they will need to dedicate training dollars and plan for ongoing professional development.

Educators, like the kids they teach, learn in different ways and at various speeds. Roughly half of the nation’s teachers are self-taught, according to our survey, while others rely on traditional seminars and workshops for technology fundamentals. Additional sources of instruction are friends, colleagues and the teachers’ very own tech-savvy students.

Like most people, educators juggle work and family obligations. Nearly half of the teachers polled said that they don’t have enough time to become skilled with computer equipment and software. In some cases, technology may offer a solution to these training dilemmas. Delivering professional development online, for instance, gives time-strapped educators 24/7 access to training. While face-to-face sessions are still the norm, many schools and districts have augmented professional development with this anytime, anywhere deployment.

U.S. colleges of education graduate preservice teachers with excellent technology skills, and most U.S. school districts provide in-service teacher technology training on Internet research, e-mail and word processing skills. Technology is also playing an increasing role in communication between teachers and parents. Online communication not only keeps parents informed about school activities, but also helps them address concerns about their child. In our “Teachers Talk Tech” survey, more than half of the respondents with school Web sites said that technology has improved parental involvement - that’s an increase of 8% over last year’s survey.

A growing number of teachers are posting class notes, homework, assignments and other information to a school’s Web site. Knowing how to do this more effectively would facilitate the process, according to teachers. Electronic communication with students and their families is substantial and on the rise. Many parents welcome e-mail correspondence from their child’s teacher, including e-mailed report cards. Teachers are in the classroom all day with precious little time for phone calls. So, for parents and teachers, e-mail is a compelling alternative that eliminates a lot of phone tag.

Access to Computers

The No Child Left Behind Act raises the bar for school performance. It also requires schools to document this performance by collecting and analyzing vast amounts of data. Computers help children learn and verify that they are learning; teachers overwhelmingly accept this finding. Of the teachers we polled, eight out of 10 believed that access to classroom-based computers improves student performance in the classroom. More than half of the teachers surveyed cited not having enough computers for student use as an “extremely” or “very” serious problem. This finding is backed up by numerous accounts of kids often having to double up or take turns on computers, and many classrooms having just a few computers on hand. Regionally speaking, the Northwest was a standout for having the highest percentage of teachers who said that they have “the right number” of classroom computers. Nearly half of those teachers expressed satisfaction with the current number. On the other hand, teachers in the Southeast and Texas said that they need “a lot more” computers. (See the chart below for a full breakdown by region.)

Just how many computers is “the right number” of computers? According to teachers, that all depends on how you use the technology. Some report using computer time as a reward for all students completing tasks, while others use computers for small-group remedial lessons. The most favored computer-to-student ratio, of course, is 1-to-1. Many educators feel that moving toward this number is a critical next step. That’s not surprising, considering the value of computers in teaching core academic skills. According to a majority of the teachers we surveyed, computers are effective as a teaching tool for all core academic skills, with written English, including spelling and grammar, topping the list. This was followed by learning scientific concepts, reading English, doing basic math, and learning mathematical concepts such as geometry and calculus. The survey also found that real-world simulations reinforced classroom learning in all manner of subject areas - from basic math to social studies. Some students even share what they learn by designing their own Web sites.

Quality Issues

A decade ago, many teachers did not own a home PC. If they did, chances are they weren’t connected to the Internet. Today, educators are wired and eager to use their technology tools. While personal familiarity breeds acceptance of computer technology, it also generates impatience. Today’s computer-literate teachers have high expectations for hardware and software; they also crave state-of-the-art solutions. Asked about the quality of computer hardware and software available at their own schools, teachers offered mixed reviews. Slightly more than half ranked their hardware “good” to “excellent,” and less than half had kudos for their classroom software. Appropriate technology is also an issue, with nearly half of the teachers polled citing the difficulty of acquiring high-quality software suitable for students at their grade level as an “extremely” or “very” serious problem.

Implications and Actions

The CDW·G “Teachers Talk Tech” survey pointed us to several conclusions and recommendations for educators, IT professionals and administrators:

  • Everybody’s input counts. Great buying decisions are more apt to happen when educators, IT professionals, administrators and vendors pool their special insights. For dollar-stretching help, check out “The Big Deal Book of Technology” (available as a free PDF download online at www.cdwg.com/education), which provides information on grants, research Web sites, free materials and training programs.
  • Trumpet your success. Teachers are nothing less than miracle workers. Despite aging hardware and a national budget crunch, they are using technology to improve academic performance - and they can prove it. Why not share that message with your local community. Show them what you are doing and what can be done with technology. Perhaps you can persuade the local press to spread the word as well.
  • Training is not a sometimes thing. Technology changes rapidly; we tend to move more slowly. Learning how to operate new hardware or software is the tip of the educator’s iceberg. The real challenge is integrating technology into the core curriculum and making it a valuable teaching tool. One of the best ways to do this is with ongoing professional development.
  • Plan ahead. Although the rapid pace of innovation often upsets the best-laid plans, strategic thinking still pays off. Failing to plan, or promising more than a school can deliver, can trigger a backlash against future spending. Some administrators recommend focusing on what you want to accomplish from an educational standpoint and setting funding priorities to achieve these goals. Don’t forget to factor in the need for standards-based learning, the core skills students require to compete in the new economy, the present cost of a school’s computing infrastructure, and the most cost-effective way to accomplish necessary upgrades.
  • Go wireless. Consider using mobile computing and wireless technology to improve student access. Rather than having students travel to a computer lab, a mobile computer lab travels to the students for use in their regular classroom. By combining mobile computers with wireless technology, schools can achieve a 1-1 computer-to-student ratio less expensively.

It takes 21st century tools to outfit students with 21st century skills. Teachers understand that better than anyone else. CDW·G hopes that the 2004 “Teachers Talk Tech” survey and other research efforts will help educators get from here to there - from ambitious hopes and goals to affordable and effective integration of new technology and core subject matter.


Key Findings of the 2004 “Teachers Talk Tech” Survey

  • 81% of the teachers said that classroom computer availability increases student academic performance.
  • Two-thirds reported that they do not have the right number of computers in their classrooms.
  • 62% of the teachers indicated that computer technology aids student performance on standardized tests, an 8% increase over 2003.
  • 48% reported that having enough time to become skilled with computer equipment and software is an “extremely” or “very” serious problem.
  • 57% of the teachers said that they believe computer technology increases parent-teacher communications.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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