The Paradox of Integrating Handheld Technology in Schools: Theory vs. Practice


The annual district leadership luncheon adjourned with administrators agreeing to set another date to meet. Suddenly, you could hear the whir of handheld computers starting up and the flap of leather date books cracking open. Even though the district had earned a federal technology grant three years ago that gave all of the principals handheld computers, it was clear that only some had converted to such technology. Observing this phenomenon, the superintendent even joked, “Jeez, our million-dollar grant brought all of us the latest toys and I still can’t get folks to move away from day planners and pencils.”

The district’s technology director was so intrigued by the offhand observation that he decided to find answers to the questions that were at the heart of the superintendent’s remark. A puzzle of this sort required an honest dialogue with the principals and teachers he worked with. And while this discussion would fit on the “Technology Agenda” at the upcoming district curriculum meeting, the director realized that this was not the proper venue. He needed authentic answers rather than hollow ramblings snorted through a filter of political correctness.

So the idea for a meeting was scrapped, and the decision was made to invite some trusted principals and admired technology teachers out to the district’s watering hole for a beverage. This article frames some of the insights garnered from such informal conversations between principals and technology specialists about what it means to integrate the latest toys from the digital world into schools.

The Evolution of Ed Tech

School administrators need to understand the history of education technology in order to introduce new ideas and learning opportunities to students. Pownell and Bailey (2002) described four predominant waves in the history of education technology: In the 1960s, the first phase included mainframe computers, which allowed for high-speed computation used mostly for administrative tasks. Phase two took place during the 1970s when personal computers allowed administration, teachers and students to have computer access. Phase three allowed the Internet to provide a different level of communication between school personnel during the 1990s. And the fourth phase of education technology is still evolving. The cornerstone of this fourth wave is wireless technology, which is small and mobile. In short, “handheld computers appear to be the hottest emerging technology” (Pownell and Bailey 2002).

Pfeifer and Robb (2001) described a suburban middle school in which 130 students received handheld computers. They found that the following school practices had changed: time was no longer spent installing wires for computer access; there was no longer a need for computer labs, thereby allocating additional space for classroom instruction; student productivity increased; and the cost and time of photocopying decreased due to a paperless system.

Norris and Soloway (2003) surveyed teachers and administrators and found that teachers who had “ready access to computers had their children use the computers.” The authors contend that by providing students with handheld computers, a 1-1 ratio with computer technology is reached that makes them more engaged in “technology-supported learning.”

School administrators use handheld computers to access student information such as student names, photos, class schedules, grades, attendance, emergency contact information, etc. School administrators can also use handheld computers to access student information in crisis situations (Fasimpaur 2002).

Finally, while handheld computers have been used in a variety of educational settings, such technology needs to be introduced in a way that is palatable to administrators and educators. Therefore, school personnel must have adequate and continual handheld technology training in order to fully integrate it into their classrooms, buildings and districts (Underwood and Underwood 1990).

The Truth About Technology Integration

Historically, practitioners have used two ways to define technology and its relationship to school districts: Either you are a school (or district) that is integrated or you are not. This black-and-white definition is the result of a “bandwagon neutrality” created by the competition between school districts for funds and students. All of the cutting-edge districts can espouse their commitment to technology as one more way to deliver a superior education to students. The pressure to add the phrase “integrated technology” to district mission statements eventually results in discussions about technology integration that all too often end up as how-to diatribes disguised as professional development.

Part of why we embrace the term integrated technology is because it makes us sound scholarly, cutting edge and important. In this day of “marketplace schools,” school system culture has partially evolved into a publicity machine geared to retain and attract new students. No matter what our standardized test scores are, we have to be able to showcase other offerings that are interesting to students and their families. Thus, technology is a safe and sexy selling point.

The heart of integrated technology, like many curricular issues, is centered on the commitment of school leaders. Before principals can do their job to facilitate a cultural embrace of technology, they need to be able to think about what technology means to them. For principals, this meaning can be broken down into two parallel lines of thought: (1) how digital toys are valued and assimilated in their own personal lives, and (2) how they see digital toys being valued and assimilated in their schools.

In order for the above to take place, principals must have the time and a willingness to tackle a technology learning curve that is not only steep but ever-growing since technology is constantly evolving. Therefore, the first step is to reframe how we think of technology and its relationship to the functioning of a school. We need to see integration not as something linear like a single course listed on a dinner menu, but rather as an amalgam of opportunities at an the “all-you-can-use” buffet.

The Technology Buffet

The identifying characteristic of a buffet is that there are a lot of choices and everyone can begin at whatever portal they want. For example, some folks load up on chicken and pork chops, while others go straight for the steamed broccoli and salad. Still, others go straight to the brownies and lemon pie. What this ultimately means is that when offered a vast series of choices, people either take little bits of everything or stick with comfortable favorites. And sometimes the overwhelming choices at the technology buffet can end up squashing our desire to go in the first place.

The first true step for school leaders is to take comfort in the realization that a willingness to learn anything about technology is a step toward the integration of technology in your life. Because the technology integration process is multidimensional rather than linear, we have to remember that each participant in the technology revolution approaches this culture in a different way. That is why there is no clear global definition of technology integration. And like so many other issues related to the evolution of a school, the job of figuring out how technology plays a role in student learning and achievement is up to the leadership team of a community to decide.

Gravitating to Technology

Before principals can authentically facilitate a technology vision for their school, they must first understand the vision. And before someone can understand a technology vision for an entire school, that person must understand technology on a personal level. For many school leaders, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and other exotic technologies are the “soy-milk tofu squares” of the digital age. These gadgets, while good, essentially provide a service that is already performed by other familiar tools. Case in point: One principal adamantly claims that her leather day planner keeps all of her appointments organized perfectly well. But the technology teacher argues that his PDA d'es everything her planner can do and more. The principal retaliates, “I don’t want to invest the time to learn about something that I won’t use because I can already do the job with the tools currently at my disposal.”

Is this principal against change? No, she simply conducted a cost-benefit analysis of her time and responsibilities. The result of her analysis left the PDA from the district on the storage shelf because the long-term commitment of training was not worth it to her. Sometimes educators and schools have pragmatic and politically motivated reasons to shy away from technology. Consider e-mail for example, it allows us to communicate with anyone at any time. What d'es that mean for principals? Well, it could mean 60 e-mail messages a day from various staff and district office folks either talking about nothing or discussing very important things - all demanding a response and the time to prioritize communication.
E-mail flattens out an organization in terms of providing instant access for subordinates to people above principals. For the principal, who is a middle manager, this means even more time devoted to e-mail or phone calls.

E-mail is also an interesting option because those who do not enjoy confrontation can simply (and safely) communicate in CAPITAL LETTERS TO MAKE SURE EVERYONE UNDERSTANDS THAT THEY ARE FRUSTRATED. No matter how many in-service workshops regarding e-mail etiquette you have, someone will always prefer to sit quietly in a meeting and scream at you over the Internet because you forgot to order the right colored chalk for September.

The Digital Divide

Often we think of the digital divide as something between generations. A systems perspective reveals that it also exists between school administrators and district curriculum/technology experts. These two groups simply do not have equal amounts of time available to surf the tsunami of technology out there. Thus, all the responsibilities of adhering to a vision of integrated technology become something of a side dish; one more thing to do in the midst of training for crisis intervention and standardized test score elevation. School leaders are often reluctant to participate because they simply don’t want to invest their time in learning about something which they are not all that convinced is useful for them.

The logical retort to this administrative perspective is that an initial investment in quality technology training - in a context that is relevant for leaders - can foster exponential results. In reality, what happens is that time becomes a bargaining chip between curriculum facilitators and administrators who are trying to prioritize what principals should be focused on during district-sponsored training meetings. Technology often loses out to more pressing issues such as textbook adoption updates, literacy program training, and program alignments to state standards. Therefore, technology education is often placed in the “some is better than none” category. Unfortunately, some training may only serve to alienate an administrator who lives in a world of immediate results even further.

To decide where you are in terms of embracing the technology you personally use, consider the following questions for yourself and your principal:

  • What are the pieces of technology that the district has provided me with?

  • Do I use these pieces? Why or why not?

  • Initially, am I willing to sacrifice a little efficiency for a lot of effectiveness in the long run as a leader?

  • What are the small things that I can convert to technology use today which won’t take much time to learn? What could I do differently now?

  • What technological tasks can I strive to learn for the long-term future if I start small and work my way up (baby-stepping is the key)?

  • Am I willing to take the same kinds of risks that I ask my teachers and students to take when they are learning new things?

  • Will I be able to laugh at myself when something g'es wrong (and it will)?

Implementing the Vision

How you see yourself fitting into the continuum of technology use and implementation is the first step in determining how you see the vision for your school unfolding. Knowing what you value in terms of technology will help you decide what you value for your school. The first step in determining the reality of implementing your district’s vision for technology is as simple as sitting down and listing the following three lines of expectations for yourself:

  1. What do I expect to see in our classrooms and offices in terms of technology?

  2. In terms of technology, what types of behavior do I expect to see in our teachers, support staff and administrative staff?

  3. What behaviors do I think I need to model for my school and community concerning the use and value of technology in education?

After you have reflected on the previous questions, think and talk about how you and your staff see technology integration in relation to your school. These conversations are the perfect time to share the reality of what you understand about technology, what you personally want to learn about technology, and what you want your staff to learn. When opportunities arise for development and training, take the time to consider how beneficial it is for the people being trained. If the training is mandatory and will be part of the district’s expectations, then you need to be ready to participate at some level - your involvement is imperative in order to build credibility with your staff.

Another way to ensure that you and your staff are serious about embracing technology is to not only share the expectations you’ve decided on with your staff, but also to make certain that you include dialogues about these expectations in your teacher-evaluation process. Without that effort, there is no sense of accountability or assessment. And without this sense of accountability or assessment, your staff may wonder just how serious you are about embracing the vision you’ve constructed. Once we understand this web of accountability in terms of what we say, what we think and what we do, then we can really begin integrating technology in our schools.


Fasimpaur, K. 2002. “The Power of Handheld Computers in Education. Media and Methods 39: 16-18.

Norris, C., and E. Soloway. 2003. “The Viable Alternative: Handhelds.” School Administrator 60 (4): 26-28.

Pfeifer, R., and R. Robb. 2001. “Beaming Your School into the 21st Century.” Principal Leadership: Middle School Education 1 (9): 30-34.

Pownell, D., and G. Bailey. 2002. “Are You Ready for Handhelds: Using a Rubric for Handheld Planning and Implementation.” Learning and Leading with Technology 30 (2): 50-55.

Underwood, J., and G. Underwood, G., Eds. 1990. Computers and Learning: Helping Children Acquire Thinking Skills. Oxford: Blackwell.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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