Administrative Technology: NEW RULES, NEW TOOLS

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A Pilot Study of Excelsior Software’s Electronic Gradebook Solution Reveals the Impact and Time-Saving Qualities of Administrative Software

Much of the focus for education technology through the ’90s was on technology equity as measured by student access to computers. While efforts to improve technology equity and access were met with wide success in the years that followed, the focus of education technology is now shifting away from such issues as new themes have started to emerge. Most of these themes focus on the question of how best to utilize technology in schools. Admittedly, we have seen an explosion in technology use for curricular delivery and enhancement in the past decade, and that trend seems likely to continue unabated.

But the passage of No Child Left Behind modified the paradigm into which technology fits in public schools. Because of NCLB, teachers must now target their efforts exclusively toward increasing the achievement of every student, regardless of whatever handicapping or disadvantageous condition a child might bring into the classroom, while simultaneously being held to higher standards of accountability for performing the teaching function. Given the scrutiny and elevated expectations that public schools now encounter, teachers face a growing challenge: Finding time in a finite school day to individualize instruction so each child can perform to his or her full potential.

Education technology - particularly computers - may hold the solution, but not in the manner in which schools have adopted technology to date. Because of the daunting NCLB requirements, schools no longer have the luxury of viewing technology as an add-on that functions at the periphery of instruction as a curricular enhancement, an enticement to student engagement in learning, or an occasional frill that “makes learning more fun.” Instead, schools must adopt and embrace technology so that it restructures the way they are managed and administered. For most schools, this is a whole new world.

Lessons in History

Although there are many critics of the business-model approach to school reform, there is much to be learned from the private sector’s experience with technology adoption and integration. La Porte (2001) argues that the widespread adoption of computing technologies by businesses was driven by the unique ability of computers to collect and organize information. The resulting productivity increase was essential to their survival; they had no choice but to undergo a fundamental organizational restructuring. On the other hand, schools have “skipped the productivity lesson” in their adoption of technology, while focusing almost exclusively on technology equity (i.e., student access to computers) and the impact that technology has on service quality (i.e., delivery of the curriculum).

However, it won’t be enough for schools to simply increase their productivity. Johnson (2004) distinguishes between technology that automates and technology that “informates.” For example, electronic gradebooks automate the process of calculating grades and exporting them to the student information system. But when a gradebook is accessible to parents on the Web and enables real-time monitoring of student progress, that’s informating. According to Johnson, it’s in this direction of informating that schools should be heading.

Developing Capital

For many teachers, the notion of increasing the efficiency and productivity of the teaching process is an anathema. They argue that teaching is more of an art than a science, and that it cannot be quantified in sterile measures such as time inputs and student outputs. This is a reasonable argument, but it misses the point since the wise use of technology is only one ingredient in the overall recipe for improving productivity.

In the business community, cutting-edge research about the impact of technology on productivity focuses on “organization capital.” This is referred to by some researchers as a “computer-enabled asset,” which is “an asset that includes a company’s work practices and routines, its storehouse of corporate knowledge in computer databases and in people’s heads, and even culture and values as they guide how a company operates” (Lohr 2004). Technology, then, in facilitating how information gets communicated and coordinated in a company, is one of the key building blocks for nurturing and developing organization capital.

What d'es this mean for schools? Improving the efficiency of teachers, and thus the overall productivity of schools, is not simply about performing individual tasks in the classroom quicker. Rather, it’s about the schoolwide use and adoption of technology in a manner that builds organization capital: modifying teacher work practices and routines (electronic assessment, grade recording and reporting); storing knowledge in databases and in people’s heads (student information systems, student performance profiles and special instructional needs); and shifting school culture and values (viewing technology as an integral component in school management and administration, instead of as an add-on remaining at the periphery).

Emerging Trends

There is encouraging evidence that a trend toward technology-based restructuring - or the building of organization capital through the adoption of management and administrative technology - is emerging in schools. In 2000, 34% of teachers reported using computers “a lot” for administrative record keeping, a use that was rivaled only by “creating instructional materials” at 39% (NCES 2000). According to Education Week (2003), more schools were using computer-based assessments of student performance for faster results and to meet some NCLB school accountability standards in 2003. At a September 2004 conference, Quality Education Data reported that technology supporting the building blocks of student assessment is the next “killer app.” QED also reported that 56% of school districts were planning on purchasing or enhancing their student information systems, while 70% were planning to purchase or enhance their instructional management systems.

As previously noted, among the many promising new technologies available to support the administrative restructuring of schools is the electronic gradebook - a software system designed to build databases of student performance by collecting and recording information about student attendance, performance and progress. These gradebooks have the potential to serve as one of the fundamental building blocks of restructuring school management and administration with educational technologies. With several gradebook-type software systems emerging in recent years, two reasonable questions to ask are: Do these systems work, and do they impact teacher efficiency and productivity?

Promising Research

In 2002, a small-scale pilot study of the Pinnacle System gradebook solution from Excelsior Software was conducted in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools (Tetreault 2002). The system is a suite of software products designed to manage, collect and distribute information to and from classroom teachers via an electronic gradebook, and then formulate and distribute that information as needed to administrators, principals, students and parents. The study sought to address several questions, including:

  • To what degree have teachers implemented the Pinnacle System?
  • How has using the gradebook solution impacted teacher administrative and instructional routines?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the electronic gradebook, both at the teacher (classroom) level and at the school (administrative) level?
  • What critical factors are present/absent at the school and district levels that impact the system’s implementation?
  • What potential role d'es the gradebook solution play in school efforts to implement a vision for the use of educational technologies in general?

The study sought to answer the research questions through the gathering of data at six schools - two elementary, two middle and two high schools - all of which displayed some degree of variation in size and student demographics. Data were gathered through the distribution of teacher surveys, as well as through on-site visits that included interviews with selected teachers, administrators, school technicians and other personnel.

The study also sought to characterize the environment for technology-based school reform by gathering information about the efforts of individual schools and districts to transform low- or no-tech schools into high-tech ones. This was considered a critical aspect of the research since the implementation of a “change agent” like the gradebook occurs in a dynamic school environment that is characterized by political forces and shifting fiscal priorities.

Several interesting and provocative findings emerged from the study. For instance, researchers found that teachers had implemented the electronic gradebook in varying degrees depending on several factors, including:

  • The degree of school administration support and encouragement;

  • Access to sufficient training in the use of the system and all of its features;

  • Perceptions of administrative commitment to its long-term use; and

  • The degree of teacher confidence in technology not to “lose” data through network or hard drive crashes.

Interestingly, none of the limiting factors in adopting the technology were directly related to the gradebook system itself, but rather to external support factors beyond the reach of the application. For example, in schools where there was a clear technology leader among the administrative staff, and that person’s long-term commitment to technology use was evident, teachers were universal in their praise for using more technology in general - the Pinnacle gradebook solution specifically. In contrast, teachers from schools with less internal support for technology expressed some reservation about making a complete commitment to technology-based grade reporting and classroom management based on their lack of confidence that school administration - and the district - shared that commitment.

Regarding teacher administrative routines (i.e., tasks that are either required by the district or support instructional activities), the most frequent uses of the Pinnacle gradebook solution included keeping track of student attendance (90% of teachers reported this use), keeping track of student grades on individual assignments and tests (91%), calculating student grades (92%), and preparing student progress reports (83%).

In its conclusions, the study reported that successful adoption of educational technologies at the school level is highly contingent upon a technology leader or cheerleader who not only displays high levels of personal competence in technology use, but also espouses a philosophy about the importance and potential role of technology in schools. The study also concluded that the major obstacles to school reform in general - and technology adoption in particular - are often political, and not necessarily related to qualities inherent in the technology itself. The obstacles are political because they are often personnel-related. Therefore, values and beliefs about the importance of technology, the appropriate role of technology and the future of technology all shape the organizational culture, which either facilitates or prohibits the transition.

Stated differently, it appears that the schools which were most successful in using the Pinnacle gradebook had established mechanisms to support the building of organization capital: a culture and belief system that embraced technology from the classroom to the attendance office, a reliance upon technology to manage and store information about clients (students) and the quality of service (instruction), as well as the sharing of information in databases (student information systems) and in people’s heads (teachers’ knowledge of student needs and special characteristics).

Looking Ahead

Studies like the Pinnacle System gradebook project offer enough provocative findings to suggest further research. Though they hint at the potential time-saving qualities of administrative software, we still know little about how they redefine the instructional routines of teachers. For example, if a teacher is saving two hours each week, how is that time being reallocated? Thus, the next step in thinking about how to define research in this arena is to develop models that will quantify the actual amount of time saved, and then observe and record exactly how teachers use that time. Once the new uses of that time are recorded, it would then be logical to measure whether those uses have a positive impact on student achievement.

The first step in developing a model might include a grid of teacher tasks, as well as a comparison of the time required to complete these tasks both with and without technology. Using several assumptions about the length of the school year and the time required to complete administrative tasks, one could develop a model that reflects the assignment of hypothetical values for a typical classroom teacher. Again, it should be emphasized that the long-term goal is not to measure efficiency by minutes saved, but rather to determine how saved time might be used to improve the achievement of all students.

The model presented below includes several assumptions:

  • The school semester is 90 days or 18 weeks; there are two semesters per school year. A school day is based on six contact hours.
  • The time required to record grades and daily attendance is the same regardless of method.
  • Time-savings occurs largely at the end of the semester when final grades are calculated. (Additional time-savings would occur if homework/tests were scored electronically — i.e., with a bubble sheet and a scanning device — and then those scores were automatically entered into the electronic gradebook.)
  • If grades are tallied and reported more than once per semester, additional time-savings would be realized.
  • “Communication” assumes that a teacher spends 45 minutes per week discussing grades and achievement progress with students; at the secondary level, this assumes about 1.5 minutes per class daily. It also assumes that a teacher spends about an hour a week calling parents to discuss issues related to student achievement; this assumes about 10 minutes daily.

Prototype of a Framework for Assessing the Impact of Administrative Software in the Classroom.

Motivating Change

After a decade of adopting computing and networking technologies, schools are entering a new frontier of technology use. With the establishment of an installed base of hardware and attendant software programs, attention is now shifting toward maximizing technology’s instructional, administrative and classroom management potential. At least one aspect of this potential focuses on improving the productivity of teachers through the use of technology that organizes and manages the administrative tasks in the classroom. Given the demands of federal legislation such as NCLB, the emergence of this focus is particularly fortuitous.

Early research regarding administrative technologies in the classroom indicates support and enthusiasm from both teachers and administrators. However, the impact of these technologies is dependent upon the shared values and beliefs among school personnel about the importance and potential of technology. And when schools use technology to build organization capital, they maximize its potential.


References

La Porte, M. 2001. Technology and teacher productivity. Online: www.4teachers.org/testimony/laporte/index.shtml.

Johnson, D. 2004. “Classroom Tech: Informate, not Automate.” Education Week 1 September.

Lohr, S. 2004. “Technology and Worker Efficiency.” The New York Times 2 February.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). 2000. Stats in Brief: Teacher Use of Computers and the Internet in Public Schools. Washington D.C.: U.S. D'E. Online: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2000/2000090.pdf.

Education Week. 2003. “Technology Counts 2003: Pencils Down: Technology’s Answer to testing.” 8 May. Online: http://counts.edweek.org/sreports/tc03/.

Quality Education Data (QED). 2004. “Educational Technology Trends: Back to Business.” For a summary of the report’s findings. A report from QED’s 10th Annual Technology Purchasing Forecast, 2004-2005, which were presented at QED/Heller’s EdNET conference in September 2004 and at NSBA’s T+L2 Conference in October 2004. Online: www.scholastic.com/administrator/technology/business.htm.

Tetreault, D. 2002. An Evaluation of the Excelsior Pinnacle System Electronic Gradebook (Gradebook2) in Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Columbia, S.C.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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