Teachers Talk Tech

The Teachers Talk Tech survey exposes a growing problem: Cash-strapped schools must choose between using computers as administrative or instructional tools.

by Chris Rother

We all know that a gap exists between technology for teachers and technology for teaching—and it may be getting wider. K-12 teachers are using computers more than ever before to send e-mail, record attendance, and post information to their school’s intranet. Yet, while eight out of 10 of the nation’s teachers rely on computers for administrative functions, only a little more than half of them are integrating computers into their daily curriculum.

The No Child Left Behind Act is driving the shift in priorities from instructional computing to data management for reporting purposes. And as schools scramble to meet accountability standards and qualify for government funding, the rush to build complex data networks and huge databases may be leaving instructional computing behind.

These were the major findings of the 2005 Teachers Talk Tech survey conducted by CDW Government Inc. (www.cdwg.com/education). The indepth study, now in its third year, revealed what teachers are saying about technology.

For the survey, we asked teachers nationwide to assess the role of technology in their classrooms. As communities grapple with academic and technological choices,classroom educators can provide a vital reality check. It is teachers, after all, who see the true impact of technology on learning,and know what it can and cannot do. Their input helps communities make purchasing decisions that are in the best long-term interest of students and schools.

Speaking from their front-row perspective,educators told us that:
• Technology has changed the way they teach.
• They need more computers for their students.
• Those computers should be in the classroom— and not in a media center or computer lab down the hall.
• Administrative computing saves valuable teacher time, but it may be shortchanging the students.

The Battleground is Shifting
Gone are the days when pioneering teachers had to sell reluctant school administrators on the benefits of technology. Today, decision-makers from state governments, to local school boards, to school principals clearly support the use of technology in schools.Having won that battle, technology advocates are now facing a new one: the use of computers as an administrative tool for teachers versus an instructional tool for teaching. This has become such a problem because cashstrapped school districts are finding it difficult to afford both.

The skirmish comes at a time when more than three-quarters of teachers consider technology an effective tool for the subjects that they personally teach. In an age of mushrooming paperwork, the focus is on using technology to meet the increasing administrative requirements of K-12 education. While the resulting productivity improvements are good news for teachers and administrators, the emphasis on administrative applications may reduce efforts to leverage technology to improve classroom instruction and student learning.

For 21st century children, hands-on computing is a must-have skill and an entrée to a decent job.“If the kids can’t use technology, you are handicapping them,” says Rex Wallace, a social studies teacher at Jackson County Comprehensive High School (GA).

It’s not that teachers don’t appreciate the timesaving advantages of using computers to take attendance, e-mail parents, or enter test scores, because they do. But they fret over skewed national priorities and classroom computer ratios that haven’t budged over the past school year.Moreover, three out of four teachers report that they still work in a classroom environment with only a handful of computers for all of their students to share.

“Two or three computers in the back of the room are not ideal for teaching purposes,” says David Lasky, a math andcomputer teacher at Olean High School (NY). “In today’s world, all students need to be connected.”Unfortunately, many of these back-of-the-room dinosaurs lackInternet access altogether.

Professional Development
According to the survey, the number of teachers perceiving their computer skills as advanced or expert nearly tripled this year—from 6 percent in 2004 to 17.5percent in 2005. Teachers attribute their growing technology comfort level to a winning combination of hands-on experience and sound professional development.

Teacher training is evidently succeeding—at least when it comes to proficiency with Internet,word processing, and e-mail software.Although 2005 saw no change in the amount of formal professional development, teachers told us that technology training is optional but generally available for those who request it.

A gratifying finding in this year’s survey is the embrace of technology by veteran educators.The old stereotype that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks—or persuade a tenured, successful teacher to adopt a new set of tools—simply isn’t true. If anything, the impact of technology on personal teaching style is greatest among veteran educators who did not grow up with computer technology. Younger educators, like the children they teach,may not see or fully appreciate the impact of technology because it feels so natural to them.

The present thrust of professional development is on administrative applications and activities.This includes the use of assessment software for NCLB reporting. And since slightly over half of the nation’s teachers remain skeptical about how technology can improve performance on standardized tests, enthusiasm for this software is guarded at best.

Let’s think about this:What really drives learning? Is it the lecture,the textbook,oneon- one tutoring,the chalkboard,hands-on learning, homework, the competitive need to be the best, parental involvement and pressure, or technology? I believe the answer is a combination of all these elements, depending on the student and the subject, because you can’t really isolate one thing that motivates a student to learn.

“Is technology improving test scores? With so many changing variables in educational technology, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s happening,” says Lorri Saracini, a K-5 math focus teacher at Gardner Magnet School (AR). “If my school buys laptops, will test scores automatically go up? Only if the laptops are used for instruction—and carefully designed instruction at that.”

One thing that is missing from the training equation is the development of classroom management skills. For instance, teachers need to provide a set of rules for their children, model computer use, and give students a realistic list of learning expectations.

Finding the Right Balance
It comes as no surprise that 1-1 computing remains a popular, if unobtainable,goal in the nation’s public schools.More than half of K-12 teachers support 1-to-1 as the ideal ratio of students to computers, with nearly another third favoring 1-to-5.

While 60 percent of teachers believe that students’ academic performance improves with the use of classroom computers, just 38 percent say they have the right balance of computers to students in their classrooms.But CDW•G’s survey indicates that computer access is not just a numbers game. Closing the gap between administrative and instructional use also appears to be a question of where the computers are located.

Successful learning is a complex blend of creative problem-solving and organizational ability. Since everyone learns differently, time management and study skills are not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Therefore, 1-1 access to wireless computers—an optimum scenario— assures that students are poised for action when a teachable moment occurs.

Some schools are addressing the problem with handheld devices and tablet PCs.But as industry and higher education move toward the anytime-anywhere computing model, many K-12 schooldistricts are being left behind.

“You can’t really do anything with four or five computers in your classroom,” says Matthew Dykty, a fourth-grade teacher at Maureen M.Welch Elementary School (PA). His preference is for multiple carts with wireless computers as a convenient, cost-effective,and space-saving alternative.

Teachers view computers as an effective classroom tool for teaching reading and writing skills, conducting math drills, and developing the ability to think critically. Computers and the Internet engage and motivate digital-age children, challenge gifted children, provide opportunities for remediation and practice, and expand students’ views of the world. For instance, “children can hear famous speeches that were delivered before they were born,”says Kris Kidder, a K-3 teacher at Richards Elementary School (NH).

Taking Action
The Teachers Talk Tech survey led us to a number of conclusions and recommendations for educators, IT professionals, and administrators:

Prepare for the inevitable. There’s no time like the present to plan for future growth. Prices are dropping, machines are becoming more powerful,and students are living out a technology experience that their parents and teachers never had. If technology is commonplace in the workplace, it is going to be commonplace in the schoolroom—if not today, then tomorrow. If we’re going to prepare students for 21st century citizenship, we need to prepare them by putting technology in the classroom and in their hands.

Commit to incremental change. Just because schools can’t do everything they want d'esn’t mean they shouldn’t do anything.Even if instructional dollars are in short supply, schools and communities should revisit their technology vision, do some strategic tweaking, and take incremental steps toward a reasonable classroom technology goal. Schools should gradually improve computer-to-student ratios—even if 1-1 access currently is not an option. It is my experience that many schools implementing 1-to-1 today started by planning and taking small steps about a decade ago.

Go wireless. Has your school thought of introducing wireless labs? Mobile computing and wireless technologies are a great way to stretch your budget while improving student access. It’s also a steppingstone toward handheld devices and tablet PCs.

Hold a bake sale. Some schools are charging their students an annual technology fee in addition to a special levy on sports and other school activities. Take creative financing a step or two further by having car washes or holding a bake sale to buy computers for your classrooms. Or think green by recycling toner and ink cartridges, and using the proceeds to supplement the high-tech budget at your school. Information on recycling cartridges and other high-tech equipment can be found through the FundingFactory Web site (www.fundingfactory.com).

Listen to the teacher. Classroom educators have a ringside seat for technology’s transformative powers.They see changes in student motivation and performance behavior on a daily basis. Encourage them to document these changes and share their insights with the community. This provides a way to justify the costs and benefits of instructional computing.

Quality Education Data (QED; www.qeddata.com) administered the Teachers Talk Tech survey and follow-up focus group on behalf of CDW•G. During February and March 2005,QED completed phone interviews with a thousand K-12 public school teachers nationwide. During a follow-up focus group, researchers asked nine teachers how their technology expectations are changing in light of the current standards-based, accountability-driven environment. The random sample was drawn from QED’s National Education Database of K-12 schools,which is a census of all schools and districts in the United States. The survey’s margin of error is +/- 3 percent. For further information and specific data from the survey, visit www.cdwg.com/ttt.

Chris Rother is VP of Education for CDW•G.E-mail: [email protected].

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.