From Black and White to Color: Technology, Professional Development and Changing Practice


In 1998, the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) embarked upon a two-year project, "Applying Technology to Restructuring and Learning" (ATRL), with six schools - one each in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. The aim of this project was to help teachers create learner-centered, technology-rich learning environments. For the most part, instruction in these schools was traditional and technology use was virtually nonexistent. At one particular school, 21 of 25 teachers either sat at their desks or stood in front of the room going over short-answer worksheets with students during my initial classroom observation. In several other classrooms, computers were like corpses in a morgue: enshrouded in sheets, still and silent. When I asked teachers why they weren't using their computers, they told me they were afraid students would break them.

Though this school was at the lowest level of technology use and learner-centered approaches, we were surprised because we were told that teachers had undergone district technology training - in some cases as much as 30 hours - to receive the hardware in their classroom. Yet, 80 percent were either nonusers or occasional users, using technology about once a month, with only a handful of teachers qualifying as serious users, i.e., using technology once a week (Cuban 2001).

The Technology Transformation

In our first professional development sessions in summer 1998, many teachers were clearly uncomfortable with computers. A few had no idea how to type or move the mouse. More critically, even after the first day of professional development in which teachers had clearly enjoyed making charts with Microsoft Excel, learning to create a museum exhibit with MS PowerPoint and exploring open-ended geography software, most said they would still not use technology with their students.

However, a good deal changed over a two-year period. Our spring 2000 classroom observations painted a very different classroom portrait from what we originally observed. Whereas 47 percent of project classrooms had originally been classified as low in learner-centered approaches, that number had fallen dramatically to 15 percent. Meanwhile, the number of high learner-centered classrooms had increased nearly sixfold to 29 percent (see Chart 1 above). The percentage of classrooms in which student use of technology was a regular practice exceeded 80 percent. By the second year of the ATRL project, between 80 percent and 85 percent of the "computer corpse" classroom teachers reported regularly using word processing, electronic presentation and concept mapping software, as well as the Internet.

The shrouds had been removed from the computers, which now functioned as essential learning tools as students used technology for research, problem solving and creative expression. Moreover, students were active and engaged, collaborating with peers, and clearly comfortable with the operation and learning potential of technology. Teachers were facilitators, mentors and producers (versus directors) of the learning production. They appeared to learn with and from students about technology. These kids clearly felt comfortable and confident using technology, and they made the teachers feel this way too.

Over a two-year period, 25 teachers in each school received 36 hours of professional development both years. These professional development sessions were supplemented by monthly on-site follow-up visits to each teacher's classroom. The sessions were tailored to the needs of individual schools and provided time for sharing ideas, reflecting about challenges and successes, as well as time to hone new teaching and learning skills and strategies. Specifically, there seemed to be three strengths in our professional development model that are worth examination and perhaps emulation:

  • Elevation of comfort in technology over proficiency;
  • Focus on classroom management techniques; and
  • Modeling of the very type of instruction and technology use we advocated in the classroom.
  • Comfort vs. Proficiency

    By the time the teachers came to our first professional development session in summer 1998, many had undergone some form of district technology training. In one school district, that included 30 hours of skills training in various software applications for 14 of the 25 project teachers, which was far more intensive and concentrated than would be true in the ATRL project. However, baseline teacher technology surveys revealed the minimal to nonexistent use of classroom technology.

    Our interviews and discussions with teachers revealed three weaknesses with skills-based technology instruction. First, the training began with some sort of curriculum-related activity as an adjunct. Such training, according to teachers with whom we spoke, cast technology and curriculum as separate entities in teachers' minds. It also did not help in figuring out how to solder together these different components of instruction. Second, by focusing primarily or exclusively on technology manipulation, the sessions had the unintended consequence of conflating proficiency with mastery. Several teachers held to the belief that they needed to be experts, not just in the operation of technology, but also in its instructional implications and in troubleshooting technical issues. Finally, the intensive length of such training sessions - in most cases three to six hours per application - unintentionally conveyed the belief that teachers too, if they were to use technology with students, would need to cede a significant portion of curriculum time to technology training.

    In contrast, ATRL professional development focused not on proficiency, but rather on comfort, opting to embed technology within the curriculum activity and stressing minimal proficiency. The typical method of technology training we used involved showing one teacher from each collaborative group no more than five commands for using a piece of software, and then sending that person back to teach the rest of their group. When teachers were confronted with operating challenges, we encouraged the use of intragroup or intergroup problem solving, cheat sheets or a Help menu. Only as a last resort did we intercede to guide them orally to a resolution of their technology issues. In essence, we redefined proficiency to mean not a high degree of fluency with technology operations, but "just enough" skills to impel teachers to let students use technology.

    This model of peer-based, "just enough" minimal skills cultivation facilitated the teachers' shift toward technology integrated learner-centered approaches. First, it vaulted technology comfort over technology expertise, making teachers feel more comfortable and confident using the application in their classroom. Once they achieved this threshold of comfort, they seemed to regard themselves as more proficient in the application, whether or not that was actually the case. Further, this "just enough" comfort-based approach propelled teachers to allow student use of a technology application even when the teachers themselves had not mastered the application. For example, as Chart 2 indicates (see page 41), reg-ular classroom technology use by students increased significantly in two years.

    Second, teachers could reproduce this approach in their classrooms. They didn't want, nor could they devote, much of their time to training students to use applications such as AppleWorks or Excel. But by gathering a group of students together, launching them on an application with no more than five commands and sending them to train their peers, teachers came to realize that the smallest amount of input could yield greatly improved output in terms of the quality of student work. Teachers reported that they began to see immediate improvement in the form and content of students' work once they began using technology.

    Consequently and subsequently, teachers became more comfortable in allowing students to teach one another, and in time, to instruct teachers themselves in software use. Eventually, technology became the first area in which teachers ceded some control to students and in which they began to see students as equal, or even superior, in terms of knowledge, often voicing surprise at students' facility with computers. Gradually, teachers began to accord students more control and autonomy in terms of research and expression than would be the case were the technology not available.

    Though classroom use of technology increased, teacher technology proficiency remained fairly low. Results from teachers' computer skills self-assessments showed that though comfort and use of individual applications increased over two years, the level of overall technology expertise remained fairly modest. In our data collection we disaggregated teacher technology skills into four clusters: low, medium-low, medium-high and high. By the end of the project, the difference among each of the four clusters was barely discernible. Teachers did not view themselves as particularly proficient with technology, yet were comfortable enough using it with students. Thus, technology comfort had eroded the old anxiety of not using computers until they were experts.

    Focus On Classroom Management

    Before embarking upon the ATRL project in 1998, we asked teachers about their fears regarding technology. The predominant concern across all campuses was classroom management of limited hardware resources. Their concern spoke to a larger fear: disruption of the natural order of the classroom, with power shifted away from the teacher to the student and the teacher's loosened grip of classroom control. Consequently, we infused all of our first-year professional development activities with a classroom management structure. Professional development sessions were rarely, if ever, held in a lab. Instead, we placed teachers in a classroom or library with one to four computers, thus approximating their own hardware constraints. They were grouped, as students would have to be to use technology, assigned specific roles within the group and given their task, which they had to complete together with one computer. These classroom management models, the most prominent of which are described below, were designed so that teachers could replicate them in their classrooms. The classroom management structures and the professional development activities can be downloaded from the SEDL Web site at

    Learning stations model (teacher-computer ratio: 13-to-2). Teams of four to five rotated through three different "learning stations" to gather data and information for their project. In one particular application of this structure, one station used a digital camera to gather images, another station used a simple electronic spreadsheet to analyze data, and a third station used printed materials about the community. Each of the stations had roles for every team member as well as instructions for completing the tasks at that station.

    Navigator model (teacher-computer ratio: 4-to-1). Using a road trip analogy, teams of four to five were assembled and given role cards. The "driver" controlled the mouse and keyboard, while the "navigator" helped the driver operate the computer. "Back-seat driver 1" managed the group's progress and "back-seat driver 2" served as the timekeeper. The navigator attended a 10-minute to 20-minute training session in which the facilitator provided an overview of the basics of particular software. Once trained, the navigators returned to their teams and instructed team members in use of the software. The navigator could only give instructions; they could not touch the mouse or keyboard. The rest of the team rotated "driving" the computer so that everyone had a chance to use the software.

    Facilitator model (teacher-computer ratio: 6-to-1). This model was useful for carrying out more complex projects that required different skill sets and levels of expertise. The designated facilitator had some experience with the software in use and showed the most novice users (students) how to use the software application to create a layout for a final product. Like the navigator in the above model, the facilitator had to instruct verbally without touching the mouse or keyboard. As the facilitator worked with the layout group, the content group worked without a computer to create content for the newsletter or report. All group members, with the exception of the facilitator, rotated through the layout and content groups to ensure each member gained experience with the software and the content.

    Collaborative groups model (teacher-computer ratio: 7-to-1). In the collaborative groups model, each small group was responsible for creating some component of the whole group's final product. For example, one part of the group wrote a report, another created a map, and a third used the computer to gather census data and display it in graphs. Armed with these classroom management models, teachers' anticipated fears of eroding control did materialize. Technology did turn the natural order on its head with the power differential between students and teachers shifting in the students' favor. Teachers couldn't micromanage 30 kids and four computers, and they loved it. Even the formerly fearful teachers embraced the new classroom order. Most reported that discipline problems decreased when they devolved some control to students and made room for greater collaboration.

    In essence, because of hardware constraints, less proved to be more. Because no classroom, with the exception of labs, enjoyed a perfect 1-1 ratio between students and computers, teachers had to group students to take advantage of technology. To allow for such groupings, both the physical configuration of the classroom and the organization of the class became less centralized. Students worked together and relied on one another - as opposed to the teacher - for guidance and creative input. With students relying more on one another for ideas and strategies, and on technology for information and product creation, the teacher became more of a facilitator. When the teacher witnessed students' creativity, and in many cases, proficiency with technology, they appeared more inclined to give students even more autonomy in terms of their work.

    The ensuing shift in the way work was accomplished led many teachers to restructure curricula to allow for greater technology use and student activity. Ironically, this scarcity of resources resulted in more creative and fuller uses of those resources. This frequency and degree of collaboration did not occur in classrooms with a perfect student-computer ratio. These classrooms (labs) tended to provide evidence for the lowest degree of learner-centered approaches. Here, students did not interact with one another, but with the technology. Even when students were supposed to be collaborating on an activity, there was a greater tendency for diminution or dissolution of group cohesion, with individuals wandering to a computer and working independently.


    Within our professional development activities, we (the SEDL facilitator) served as the teacher, while the teachers themselves became the students. We acted as a guide, coach and mentor, explaining the overall problem- or project-based task to the teachers, assigning them to their groups, and providing minimal instruction in the technology tool needed to complete the task. For the rest of the activity we circulated among groups, clarified any activity-related questions they had and directed them to help one another troubleshoot technology issues. Only when all other help options were exhausted did we intercede; and then only orally, giving directions, but never removing the mouse or keyboard from the teachers' control.

    Teachers, in contrast, were essentially students. They collaborated on the process and product, negotiated competing ideas and strategies, monitored one another's performance, solved problems together, and had fun with the activity and each other. The activity culminated with whole group and individual reflection components in which teachers discussed how they might use this new instructional approach or software in their classroom, the obstacles they might face, and strategies for surmounting such impediments. By providing these experiences and allowing time for reflection, teachers were able to use and adapt the learner-centered and technology integration strategies that were modeled in the activities. Teachers needed to see how to use and integrate technology in their classrooms in ways that promoted a new type of instruction. This had clearly been missing from the type of technology training they had previously undergone. Teachers reported that this approach helped them to learn not only how to use technology, but how to teach in a new way. In addition, teachers realized that technology and collaboration make learning more fun, and that their students, like themselves, are more likely to engage in activities when they enjoy them.


    Cuban, L. 2001. Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Class-room. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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