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Special Report | Feature

So Many Devices, So Little Use

Classroom observation data suggests that technology, even in the most device-rich schools and districts, is not being used by teachers or students.

As you enter the classroom you see desks arranged in five rows of five. Students are sitting at their desks as the teacher stands in front of the class lecturing and asking occasional questions. After a few minutes, the teacher instructs the students to get out their workbooks and complete the worksheet on page 43. Now for the big question: What year is this observation? 1950? 1980? 2000? 2011?

Data indicates the answer to that question is yes.

What Classroom Observations Tell Us
How is technology really being used in the classroom by teachers and by students? Many educators have opinions, but we now have quantifiable data to provide an answer to that question, and the results are surprising, if not a little disappointing.

McREL has gathered observation data from more than 60,000 classrooms across 34 states that use our classroom observation tool, Power Walkthrough. These schools represent urban, suburban, and rural settings; high, middle, and low socioeconomic levels; elementary, middle, and senior high institutions; and a range of technology use from very limited to 1-to-1 schools. (Please note that the collected data, while extensive, does not represent a stratified random sampling of the US teacher population, but rather a representation of schools that use McREL's Power Walkthrough observation software and process.) Using the Power Walkthrough software, administrators and lead teachers have visited classrooms (unscheduled and at various times of the day) and have collected data on:

  • the primary instructional strategy being used by the teacher
  • the cognitive level of Bloom's Taxonomy on which the lesson focused
  • how students are grouped for instruction
  • the technology being used by the teacher
  • the technology being used by the student
  • the primary evidence of learning during the visit.

Prior to conducting their walkthroughs, observers attended a two-day workshop to learn what to look for during each three- to five-minute walkthrough. Observers were also advised to vary the times they visited each classroom so that on one day they might see the opening of a lesson and the next day they might observe the middle or end of the lesson. The idea is to collect data representative of the entire spectrum of the instructional day. Although McREL facilitators train all classroom observers (which includes demonstrating actual classroom walkthroughs and facilitating debriefing sessions about those demonstrations), we recognize that instrument calibration across observers requires additional effort among those who have been trained. To that end, we encourage observers to begin their actual observations working in pairs or small groups toward the end of achieving inter-rater reliability.

The main purpose of the Power Walkthrough process at a building or district level is to determine the extent to which the organization's professional development initiatives are actually making their way into the classrooms with students. Schools and districts also use this data to make decisions about what professional development is needed to improve student learning. And, because McREL has the ability to aggregate this district data into a common database, we are able to create a picture, based on Power Walkthrough schools, of what classrooms look like across the nation.

Are Teachers Using Technology?
Researchers reviewed two data sets related to technology use in the classroom: the first on teacher use and the second on student use. We looked at a broad range of technologies including brainstorming software like Inspiration; calculators (some schools only count graphing calculators); clickers; web 2.0 tools; diagnostic/prescriptive tools including STAR, Alpine, and similar software; document cameras; interactive whiteboards (IWBs); computer or internet-based educational games; multimedia; virtual manipulatives; Microsoft Office tools; and web-based research. If during the observation the teacher was observed using technology at all, even for a portion of the observation, it was checked as used.

What we found was startling. Observers reported that in 63 percent of all observations teachers utilized no technology at all. These data include a range of schools from those with limited classroom technology all the way to schools with 1-to-1 laptop programs.

IWBs were observed in use by teachers in 13 percent of all observations, followed by document cameras in just under 9 percent of observations, and videos in 5 percent. All other forms of technologies appeared in less than 2 percent of observations. While it is true the technology data includes schools across the total spectrum from almost no available technology to those with 1-to-1 programs, looking at a few specific schools helps put the data in perspective. In one Midwest elementary school with IWBs in every classroom, a robust district technology professional development program, and an IWB trainer among the staff, the percentage of IWB usage was 12 percent. Looking at a high school in that same district--and even limiting the data to just the four core subjects--IWBs were in use in only 8 percent of observations.

Are Students Using Technology?
The data on students' use of technology is even less inspiring. Research indicates that when students are the users of technology there are positive gains in achievement as measured by researcher-constructed tests, standardized tests, and national tests. Yet, Power Walkthrough observation data indicates that students used no technology in any form in 73 percent of observations. Observers were trained to include any observed use of technology, even if it was one student working on a computer in the corner of the room. When students were seen using technology, IWBs topped the list at a mere 4 percent of observations, with watching videos following at 3.5 percent. Web research, word processing, and educational games were observed in about 2.5 percent of walkthroughs. All other forms of technology applications were observed in less than 1 percent of observations.

Why Isn't Technology Being Used?
McREL has conducted hundreds of interviews with teachers and administrators to try to learn why technology isn't making a bigger impact on teacher pedagogy. The biggest barriers we hear are lack of ongoing professional development, lack of time to learn the new technology skills, and a perceived lack of resources.

Teachers report they receive an IWB and a day of professional development at most on how to use the board. Then, they are left on their own to make sense of how to use this wonderful new tool within their curriculum. Rarely, teachers say, does someone guide them as they are learning. There is also a lack of collaboration among teachers. Everyone feels they are working in isolation to "re-create the wheel." Also, while they indicate their administrators want them to use technology more, there is very little accountability to see they do. Soon they realize that not using technology doesn't seem to have any negative implications, so it moves to a back burner.

In one district the superintendent was very surprised to learn that teachers were only using IWBs in less than 2 percent of all observations, considering the district had just invested considerable money to put one in every elementary classroom. We asked teachers why they weren't using the boards more often and learned the district had provided a two-day workshop for all teachers on how to use the new technology in June, and the boards were installed the week before school began in August. Everything they had learned months earlier was ancient history when they finally had the technology in their rooms. Rather than look bad in front of their students, they just didn't use the boards. In another district in the Midwest, the district training center had the latest and best software and hardware along with excellent trainers. The problem was that the hardware and software in the classrooms didn't match what was in the center. Teachers got really excited in the workshops, and then back in the classroom nothing worked the same way.

If we really want to see technology supporting quality instruction in the classroom, the data indicates we need to get serious about providing ongoing and targeted professional development and set clear expectations for the use of technology, both as an instructional tool for teachers and as a way for students to learn and express their learning. Let's move beyond building up inventories of technology devices and focus instead on creating a clear vision of how technology should be implemented in the classroom to advance learning outcomes that can be best achieved through the use of these important tools.

About the Author

Howard Pitler is senior director of field services with McREL in Denver.

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