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Technology's Value in Education

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Teacher Survey Reveals the Importance of Student Access to Computers, Need for More Tech Training

These days, it seems that everyone - from local school boards to Congress to academics - has strong opinions about the value of the Internet and technology in education. Ironically, the voices of teachers, who observe classroom computing every day, rarely are heard. This is unfortunate since feedback from front-line educators has several positive impacts. Quantifiable teacher input helps taxpayers and administrators understand the importance of technology investments, especially in times of budgetary crisis. Teachers are often in the best position to see the true impact of technology on learning, knowing what it can and cannot do. Thus, feedback from classroom educators can be essential in helping communities make academic and technological choices that are in the best long-term interests of students and schools.

CDW Government Inc.'s purpose for conducting "Teachers Talk Tech," a nationwide survey of K-12 teachers, was simple: to provide a broad, objective and nonpolitical picture of technology's value in education. We also wanted to give a voice to busy classroom teachers who rarely get a chance to step back and consider a wider view of technology's value and impact on learning. The in-depth study, commissioned by CDW·G, found that experienced classroom teachers have few doubts about the benefits of computers to students, schools and themselves. It also revealed that computer familiarity breeds respect and success. So, the more teachers use technology, the greater their appreciation of its actual and potential contributions.

Method

Independent researchers interviewed 606 public and private school teachers, including equal numbers from elementary, middle and high schools. The sample was drawn from 1.6 million educators in the Market Data Retrieval's Teacher Response Data Bank. Respondents averaged 17 years of teaching experience and 23 students per class, while 85% were 35 or older. Telephone interviews were conducted in May and June 2003 by InfoTek Research Inc. The survey's margin of error is a maximum of +/- 5%.

The results can reasonably be viewed as applicable to many U.S. schools, and should be informative for educators. Overall, respondents voiced clear benefits of technology's evolving role in teaching, in communicating with parents and in classroom administration. These major benefits fall into three categories: benefits in the classroom, benefits outside class and benefits to teachers.

Benefits in the Classroom

The teachers who were polled offered strong evidence that computers have earned a respected place in the classroom. A majority (86%) of respondents said in-class computers improve academic performance, while 74% said computers increase student attention in class. Surprisingly, 65% of the teachers actually said that computers can be more effective than teachers in conveying certain types of educational materials.

As for grade levels, the teachers polled said computers become even more appropriate teaching tools as students get older. When asked about the suitability of computers in class, 54% of elementary teachers, 63% of middle school teachers and 68% of high school teachers voiced strong approval. Many of these responses correlate with a recent study conducted by the CEO Forum on Education and Technology (www.ceoforum.org), an influential group of chief executives concerned with educational computing. Their latest report clearly links technology usage to quantifiable improvements in a wide range of skills, including math and writing, collaborative problem solving, organization and planning, visual and information literacy, creativity, risk taking, project-based learning, and interpersonal skills.

If teachers surveyed by CDW·G had a common desire, it was for more technology, both in and outside of the classroom. This was apparent when four out of five teachers said their classrooms have computer-to-student ratios higher than 1-to-2; though, most of the teachers reported 1-5 ratios. It should be noted that a growing number of states are currently working toward achieving a 1-1 ratio.

Parent-Teacher Communication

Although attention usually focuses on in-class benefits, teachers reported significant advantages in using the Internet to electronically extend their classrooms and schools to parents and the community. Middle schools are especially likely to use technology to communicate with parents. The report found that more than three-fourths (77%) of schools have Web sites to share information about classes, homework, grades, etc. In addition, nearly half of the middle and high school teachers reported sharing grades with parents online or via e-mail. Overall, 64% of the teachers reported that they communicate electronically with parents, while virtually all (96%) of the teachers have e-mail access at school.

Tech-savvy teachers reported benefits for parents and students alike. They said e-mail improves parent-teacher communication, which leads to greater parental involvement. Among teachers who post homework assignments online or send them via e-mail, 58% said it increases homework completion rates. And if there was any doubt about the importance of computers outside of the classroom, 72% of the teachers who were polled believe students with computers at home have a major advantage over those who do not.

Gains in Teacher Performance

Thankfully, teacher access to technology is no longer a problem in most cases, with 94% of the respondents reporting that they have in-class access to computers. And of the teachers polled, 72% said that computer technology has made their job easier. One important and emerging reason for this is that computers have begun to ease teachers' administrative work, with 25% of respondents citing improved efficiency in attendance tracking, lesson planning and other routine tasks as the most important functions of school computer technology. A full 85% said using computers more frequently for administrative purposes would be "extremely" or "very" useful. A likely reason for this is because reduced head counts for aides and other administrative helpers make cyberassistance to teachers even more crucial.

In addition, technology has altered how educators run their classrooms, with 88% of teachers reporting that computers have changed how they teach. Higher income communities reported the most dramatic results, followed by mid-sized and larger schools, with small schools reporting the least amount of impact.

Remaining Concerns

Survey respondents said they feel that substantial technology investments by schools are yielding results for multiple constituencies. However, we also uncovered several areas of concern. If not addressed, the following areas could negatively affect the benefit of Internet and computer usage in schools.

Technology training is lagging. Busy teachers are doing a good job of learning and teaching computer technology, with 46% considering themselves "intermediate" users and 40% saying they are "somewhat advanced" users. Interestingly, most teachers claimed that they learn by personal experience at home (69%) or by trial and error (58%). Even so, teachers reported deficiencies in their ongoing technology training, with 76% saying they need more training to make the best use of technology in the classroom. The vast majority had fewer than five hours of training, while 33% had no computer training in the past year. Predictably, the more computer training teachers had, the more benefits they realized for their students. In addition, 45% of teachers with zero hours of computer training in the past year said they believe computers are "very useful." That figure rose to 60% for teachers with greater than five hours of annual training.

Product vendors have work to do. One of the most surprising results in the survey was the response to this question: "If you had one wish from a technology genie, what would it be?" The most common answer, by 24% of the respondents, was a strong desire for more intuitive software that could automatically adapt to individual student needs. Specifically, teachers wanted software that would be easier to learn and teach, perhaps offering several tiers of expertise for users of varying capabilities. The desire for more intuitive software clearly finds roots in the desire of teachers to minimize in-class application training, freeing them to focus on curriculum. We asked the teachers who participated in the poll to grade their existing hardware and software products. A breakdown of the results can be seen in Table 1 below.

Actions & Implications

While more research remains to be done, the "Teachers Talk Tech" survey suggests several conclusions and recommendations for educators, IT professionals and administrators. The following are a few of the more significant actions and implications.

Schools must continue to optimize technology dollars. The likelihood that technology budgets will continue to be put under a microscope makes it more important than ever for schools to buy and deploy technology wisely. But, selecting cost-effective computer technology is easier said than done. Lean on your technology vendors to help you determine the right products and the right brands for your particular needs.

Schools must get better at demonstrating the value of classroom technology. Educators, administrators, IT professionals, consultants and vendors should continue to improve their abilities to understand, articulate and concretely demonstrate the value of computer technology, both within and outside the classroom. Rely on publications such as CDW·G's Ed Tech magazine (www.CDWG.com/EdTech) and T.H.E. Journal, which share case studies and best practices of technology being successfully implemented in education.

Teachers should be more involved in software selection. Picking the most effective and appropriate products for students is crucial for school systems. At present, 50% of the teachers polled reported having some input in choosing educational software. While teachers obviously don't need to do the actual purchasing, this survey data suggests that the selection process could benefit greatly from increased input from these front-line advisers.

Provide more funds and additional time for teacher technology training. This persistent cry takes on a new urgency with today's scathing scrutiny of IT budgets and increasing introduction of technology in schools. Realization is growing that even the most advanced technology is useless without trained teachers.

All of this points to the need to ensure that adequate funding, time and tools are available for teachers' continuing technology training. It also suggests that teachers need more in-service workshops, more collaboration with teaching peers, more practice time and more district-level support staff. There are also numerous free online courses and resources available to teachers, which can be found by searching the Web. Perhaps most importantly, teacher education should not focus on technology alone, but on its alignment with curriculum.

The need for greater computer mobility. A growing number of cost-conscious schools are adopting mobile computer labs that can be rolled into a classroom, instantly connected to a wireless network, then loaded up and moved to another room. By bringing computers to students as opposed to moving students around to a stationary computer lab, teachers can save precious class time and allow students to use the computers in their regular classroom. In many ways, these labs make it easier for schools to achieve a 1-1 student-to-computer ratio.

CDW·G in partnership with Discovery Channel School (http://school.discovery.com) has created and distributed 50,000 posters regarding wireless technology to middle and high schools nationwide. We have also sponsored a sweepstakes that gave away a wireless lab in which nearly a quarter of all K-12 schools in the United States (more than 24,000) participated.

Continued support of cutting-edge research and programs that reduce the digital divide. The 2003 "Teachers Talk Tech" survey leaves little doubt that teachers see the importance of student access to computers. Ultimately, continued support of programs like those run by CDW·G and the Universal Service Funds for Schools and Libraries (E-Rate) will help ensure access to technology for urban, low-income, minority and rural schools. Everyone agrees on the importance of preparing our children for the 21st century. CDW·G hopes the "Teachers Talk Tech" survey will help administrators and educators continue to close the gap between an admirable goal and a rewarding reality.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.

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