Special Report | Feature

The More We Use It the More We Love It

An annual survey of teachers suggests that their use of technology has steadily increased over the years, along with the value they place on it.

With each passing year, teachers say that they increasingly use, rely on, and value media and technology for classroom instruction.

How do we know this? PBS and Grunwald Associates have been tracking teachers' use of media and technology for classroom instruction for eight years in a nationally representative, statistically valid study. Every year, we conduct an online survey of full-time classroom teachers in K-12 public schools and, for the past two years, in pre-K public and private schools as well. Drawn from a large national panel, the sampled population is carefully screened to represent the US teaching force in terms of geographic location, district size and profile (urban, suburban, rural), gender, years of teaching experience, and grades taught. 

So what is it that we know? Nearly all K-12 teachers reported in 2010 that they use some form of digital media--including interactive games, activities, lesson plans, and simulations--for classroom instruction. This is a significant increase from previous years, and in fact use of most individual forms of media and technology has been trending up over the past eight years. Currently, more than six in 10 teachers (62 percent) report that they use digital media frequently (two times a week or more) and almost one in four teachers (24 percent) report that they use digital media every day for classroom instruction. Similarly, more than 80 percent of K-12 teachers report that they use TV and video content in the classroom at least once a month--and 76 percent are accessing this "traditional" content by streaming or downloading it from the internet.

Teachers also seem to be much more strategic in their use of media and technology. For example, we've seen significant increases over the years in teachers' use of short video segments, rather than entire, full-length programs. Digital technology, such as DVDs and web-based media, makes it easier for teachers to make this shift and use just the right clip. This also suggests to us that teachers are integrating media more thoroughly into content and instruction--to introduce a topic or reinforce a concept or provide differentiated support for some students, for example. Indeed, the vast majority of teachers report that technology and media are more effective when they are integrated, rather than stand-alone, instructional tools.

Teachers also report strong preferences and affinities for specific types of technology, often tied to the grade levels they teach. Teachers of grades 4 through 6, for example, use interactive whiteboards the most, with 47 percent reporting that they use them to supplement or support their teaching. A good number of K-12 teachers (17 percent) who don't have access to interactive whiteboards say they want them. Pre-K teachers, on the other hand, use and value digital cameras more than any other device. And, while cell phones are banned in most schools, 17 percent of high school teachers say their students use personal cell phones for classroom assignments or activities. K-12 teachers at all levels also see strong potential in portable technologies, including laptops, tablets and pad-like devices, and e-readers--the same kinds of devices that are popular among consumers.

Takeaways From Eight Years of Survey Results
The PBS annual survey captures teachers' perceptions of their use of technology as well as their attitudes about technology. The striking trend we've noticed is that, even as teachers report more technology use over the years, the extent to which they perceive its benefits and value has increased even more so.

Teachers report a wide array of important educational benefits that help them do their jobs better and help students engage in learning. Teachers say they value many types of digital resources, from student games and activities to information for their own professional development. (Some newer applications have enjoyed pronounced increases in teachers' perceptions of value, including student-created content and content on handheld devices.) Teachers report that digital resources stimulate student discussions, increase student motivation, and help students and teachers be more creative, among other educational benefits.

We also believe the survey results indicate that behind-the-scenes use of media and technology makes a difference in classroom instruction. Some of the many digital resources teachers value, such as information for their own professional development and interactive lesson plans, wouldn't necessarily be visible during class time in terms of teachers or students in front of a screen. Even pre-K teachers rate information for professional development as highly valuable--the only digital resource so rated by a majority of pre-K teachers.

One in four K-12 teachers tell us about another behind-the-scenes use of technology--online professional communities. Teachers say they join these groups because they want to exchange resources, obtain information or advice, and feel connected with other teachers--important activities in a profession that otherwise tends to be isolated.

Another extra-classroom technology is the school or district data management system. A majority of teachers say they use these systems to make instructional decisions based on this data, track assessment scores, refine the curriculum, develop individual education plans, or get professional development or feedback. About one in four teachers report that they also used web-based content management systems.

What Will We Be Watching in the Future?
We don't want to suggest that there are no challenges to media and technology use in schools. Here are six big ones we'll be watching in future research:

  1. Technology infrastructure and availability. Many teachers report that they run into technical difficulties with streaming video, which could be an indication of inadequate bandwidth and could discourage teachers from using the internet in class. Plus, not all teachers have access to the media and technology resources they value. Most teachers report shrinking school budgets--and they're turning to free sources, or educational resources they purchase themselves, to make up the difference. To what extent are these temporary issues or lasting trends?
  2. Technology preferences. Teachers see the potential in many popular consumer devices--laptops, iPads and other tablets, e-readers, and iPods /iPod Touches, for example. At what point will these new and emerging devices become mainstays in education, so teachers and students can use the devices they prefer seamlessly, in school and out of school? And, since some of these devices are optimized for the consumption--not the creation--of media, to what extent might some of these devices result in a step back from the emerging trend of students as producers and manipulators of media?
  3. School policies. School policies typically ban the use of many student-owned devices in classrooms, despite the fact that many teachers (and others) see the potential of smart, mobile devices. For example, when asked which devices hold the greatest educational potential, 81 percent say laptops, 53 percent say tablet-like devices and e-readers, 28 percent say iPod Touches, and 23 percent say MP3 players or iPods. There is a drumbeat of news coverage on "sexting" and other inappropriate uses of student-owned devices that justifiably concerns school officials. On the other hand, there are reports every day of districts and schools easing up on their policies and even requiring students to bring their own devices to school. How will schools manage these competing tensions? 
  4. Technology management. If schools do move toward relaxing policies and allow students to use their own devices in school--which could save them money--they must have a plan for students who don't have their own devices. Moreover, use of student-owned devices may exacerbate the bandwidth problem--and it introduces challenges in managing many different devices, platforms, features, and providers. How will districts balance district-owned versus student-owned devices?
  5. Professional development. Grunwald Associates' and other research suggests that some teachers don't make greater use of media and technology in their classrooms because they don't know how to integrate these tools with instruction, don't know how they can support teaching and learning, and/or can't find (or don't have time to find) useful resources. Does professional development mean the difference between frequent and infrequent use of technology in the classroom?
  6. Cost saving. Ongoing budget pressures may push schools towards viewing media and technology-based learning as a cost-saving strategy. We'll be watching this trend--in particular its impact on the integration of technology into instruction, and more generally, its impact on education.

About the Authors

Peter Grunwald is the president of Grunwald Associates, a market research and strategic consulting firm.

Robert M. Lippincott is the senior vice president for education for PBS.