Technology Built for Teachers



We all love technology. Even folks with extreme resistance to technology prefer refrigerators to iceboxes, or immediate communication via telephone to months-long delays in correspondence. Who would exchange the comforts of a modern home for the chill and filth our ancestors endured?

But get a teacher talking about computers, and that joyous affair with technology turns into a bitter struggle for domination. Overnight, more hardware appears in classrooms, in libraries and even in hallways. As a result, pressure on teachers rises: they must find a way to make this work in their classrooms.

Most teachers just grit their teeth and refuse. “We need training,” they say, but they mean something very different. They mean, “Call me when you have something I can use. Right now, I’m too busy with what I do already.”


Time Drain

On average, teachers work almost 50 hours a week. Committed ones work even more. The very idea that they undertake learning an entirely new medium for class instruction pushes a few folks over the brink. However, most educators do try to integrate technology and teaching, or at the very least, look into the possibilities. Almost all of them conclude the same thing: technology is a time drain. Of course, Web searches eat the most time, but almost every techno-trick available, from PowerPoint to class-management software, consumes time, a teacher’s most precious resource.

Look at a staple like PowerPoint from a teacher’s perspective. It takes longer to assemble a PowerPoint presentation than to write the same material on a blackboard, but the better-looking PowerPoint presentation survives repeated use. Assuming all the technology works, this seems like an even swap: better than even if the teacher has to make the same presentation to three or four classes.

But teachers rarely make identical presentations. They vary the pace. They vary the focus. They vary the questions they ask. Teachers don’t change these things to annoy technology specialists or to confound curriculum developers. They change them to communicate better with their students. Classes with the same profiles in ability and demographics still differ in personality, so each teacher will relate differently to each class. In this case, whatever advantage a teacher might have gained in time through using PowerPoint rapidly diminishes.

Then add into the mix the fact that technology seldom works perfectly, and that training in PowerPoint can take many weeks. The advantages rapidly dwindle to nothing. Teachers, like anyone, need a demonstrated advantage to change their methods. And if old standbys like PowerPoint don’t provide them, why would any teacher bother to look further?


The Promise

Teachers keep looking because they know what technology can do. Think what an advance the chalkboard represented. Instead of hoping that students understood their assignments, instructors merely had to hope they copied his or her words accurately. Chalkboards caught on. The World Wide Web still promises to become a colorful, powerful chalkboard, but only when using it becomes as intuitive as writing on a large piece of slate.

Some computer-based resources have shown themselves to help teachers. Gradebook programs have earned many devotees. Even though most do little more than a simple spreadsheet program can do, the designers have made the interface user-friendly and almost foolproof. Teachers can see the benefit right away: either write grades in a ledger and get out a calculator, or type them in and let the computer do the work.

Most educational software, however, d'esn’t achieve such an obvious advantage. Research indicates that hardwiring in our brains dictates that people learn from other people. Think about how we acquire language. A polyglot friend of mine always insisted that he learned languages through the same method: “First thing I do,” he told me, “is find a dictionary with hair.” Kids can drill or find information on the computer, but to actually learn, they usually need an instructor to sit beside them. Teachers have quickly realized that this one-on-one work d'esn’t use their limited time effectively.

It would seem that a resource as rich as the Web would easily lend itself to classroom use, but it d'esn’t. Just getting to a cool site on black holes, or hooking into the Library of Congress American Memory archive d'esn’t integrate those resources into instruction. Few schools have enough computers to allow teachers to conduct entire classes online. Most teachers look at the plusses available through the Web, and then calculate the difficulties in time, training and resources. They tend to make a busy person’s choice, deciding it’s not worth the trouble.


Teachers Know

I’ve heard all the explanations blaming teachers for the slow integration of technology into the classroom. They need more training. They’re technophobic or, worse, embarrassed to admit that their students understand computers better than they do. They just don’t understand how computers can help.

These excuses only attempt to justify the approximately $20 billion spent so far to bring computers into America’s classrooms. It shifts the blame for the shamefully minimal impact computers have had in instruction, from technology advocates to teaching professionals. While few can doubt that the bottleneck limiting the integration of technology in the classroom occurs with the classroom teacher, these excuses lay blame in the wrong place.

Teachers turn away from technology because most of it d'es not do what technology is supposed to do: it d'es not save us work. Teachers, as a whole, have shown remarkable restraint in not howling against being force-fed computers. It’s because they know that computers have achieved remarkable efficiencies in education for administrators. Attendance, grading, supplies, payroll and demographic research now occur in electronic flashes, but these efficiencies rarely translate into the classroom.

A teacher’s labor remains steadfastly low-tech, because the core of it has to be. Education takes place between people, and the mediation of machines seldom helps. A quick survey of the effective distance-learning models confirms that people learn well when technology merely closes the gaps between human beings, but not when technology replaces interaction. Classroom give-and-take, even through e-mail, makes education effective.


Helping Teachers Teach

Technology can help education, but only as a supporting player for the featured relationship between teacher and student. So far, very little technology automates the work that contributes to teaching moments. Almost anything that pulls teachers away from the time they spend on direct instruction — except professional training in new pedagogical methodologies — weakens education.

Unfortunately, most work teachers do in support of direct instruction resists technology. Most teachers would kill for a machine that graded papers automatically, but grading requires human intelligence. Computers can check spelling and, to an extent, grammar, but they cannot point out inconsistencies, logical flaws or intellectual gaps, and they cannot applaud a well-constructed sentence, an interesting insight or excellent comprehension.

Well-built gradebook programs, on the other hand, do help with record keeping. Some new Web-based workflow applications show significant promise. Solutions like these will make in-roads with educators, but both of these functions represent only a piece of the classroom puzzle.

More than anything, teachers need a software designer to examine how they allocate their work, and find ways to automate those parts that don’t involve direct instruction. Most course preparation can benefit from automation.

For example, Goosewing wraps curriculum development, lesson planning and materials gathering into our AutoMedia Technology, saving an enormous amount of time. Record-keeping and standards-correlation have already had some attention from the education technology community, but they each still rely heavily on educator input to function properly. They will truly benefit teachers when they integrate fully with software that d'es not require one-to-one teacher management. Rubrics, scheduling and teacher/student/parent communication have all begun to show up on ed-tech radar lately, but only as stand-alone functions, not as a useful package.

The industry has created lots of cool tools and useful devices, but not much to save teachers their most precious commodity: time with their students. We will not make many advances in classroom integration until we take teacher rejection of current technology seriously. Then we can provide them with what they need to work more efficiently.

When teacher-focused technology becomes a reality, it will have startling results on the educational process. Giving teachers a sense of ownership of the technology will increase their passion in the classroom. Saving teachers time spent away from direct instruction will allow them to focus on what they do best. Unless we do our part to make technology a natural and seamless part of instruction without requiring a massive investment from the teacher, we can expect a disquieting bottleneck as technology tries to enter the classroom.

I believe building a system that helps teachers do their very demanding and difficult work represents the best solution to integrating technology into the classroom. We love technology not because it looks cool, but because it works for us. Teachers deserve technology built just for them.


To learn more about Goosewing, visit


This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.