A Second Look at the Nature of Technology in the Classroom

Research gathered from visiting schools nationwide reveals that while investing in computer-based instruction and assessment programs can improve student learning, an engaged teacher is still far more invaluable in driving student success.

Four years ago, I set out to visit schools across the United States with a question: Why, after investing billions in computer technology for schools are the measurable results so meager?

Throughout that next year, I visited schools in seven states, where I sat in classrooms for weeks observing teachers and students. I shared computer headphones with second-graders, staffed a high school help desk, shadowed a technology coordinator as he raced from building to building, and was drafted as a classroom aide by a harried first-grade teacher. I listened to teachers in lunchrooms and lounges, and watched quietly in elementary, middle, and high schools, taking notes on all I saw and heard.

This was not a highly scientific sampling. In fact, little about the study was highly scientific; instead, it was highly personal. I was intensely curious and wanted an answer to my question. For more than four decades, I had developed print and digital products for the classroom, and believed in the transformative power of computer technology. Computers have reshaped my personal and professional life, so I could not understand why they were not having a similar transforming effect on schools?

The search for the answer took me into urban, rural, and suburban schools. A number were poor, a couple were rich, and many were in between. I did not look for blue-ribbon schools; instead, I sought out the real world, and believe I found it.

I describe my experience in The Technology Fix: The Promise and Reality of Computers in Our Schools, which was published by ASCD in 2004. Though published, the book's story remains unfinished; it always will be. As long as technology continues to change, and schools' use of it evolves, the narrative needs to be continually updated and refreshed.

By my study's end, I had found a simple answer to my simple (some would say simplistic) question. I concluded that computers had no affect on measurable performance because students didn't spend enough time on them doing things that can affect measurable results. But there are some secondary conclusions, which I address in the book, that are more important than my narrow, primary answer. Here are several of these conclusions:

  • For many students, computers are not cost-efficient tools for delivering conventional computer-based training (CBT).
  • Computers can be more valuable as data processors and assessment tools than as delivery platforms for CBT.
  • The equation of Kid + Computer = Learning does not work. Instead, the equation must be Kid + Computer + An Engaged Teacher = Learning. In other words, the teacher, not the computer, is key.

The study offers other conclusions-and several recommendations. They are not revolutionary, but they flow from dynamics already in play (above or below the surface) when I did my study.

Helping a School In Need

Recently, I visited more schools and spoke with more teachers and technology coordinators. I wanted to see how computers were now being used to support school-improvement efforts spawned by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). In particular, I looked for schools where computers were used in ways I recommended in my book.

First a disclaimer: none of the schools were responding to my recommendations. I merely report on them, I didn't cause them. Also, as with my earlier study, I do not use the actual names of schools, school personnel, or software programs in this article.

So what did I recommend, see, and hear as I renewed my visits to the schools? My first recommendation was to focus computer use on those students who will benefit most; don't dilute the value of computers by insisting that all students have equal access (William Pflaum, The Technology Fix: The Promise and Reality of Computers in Our Schools, ASCD, 2004).

That's what they did in the Alexanderville district I had visited two years earlier. At that time, Alexanderville was a 4,000-student district in administrative disarray. Superintendent turnover, a revolving door on the technology office, acute performance shortfalls by an outside technology support firm, and a severe budget squeeze had left equipment debilitated by viruses, as well as the district without a vision or plan for technology.

One of the district's schools, Henderson Elementary, had been in academic emergency for three years. Two more years and it stood in danger of being reconstituted. This year, however, it emerged from that category, and I visited them to find out why.

As I approached the school on a hot August day, I see the principal waving goodbye to the last afternoon bus. I meet district assistant technology coordinator Bob Jacobson in the school lobby. He stands in front of a bulletin board that displays information about school uniforms. As Jacobson and I walk to the classroom of technology coach Beth Adler, I savor the freshly painted, bright yellow walls and the gleaming waxed floors.

School is about to begin-you can just feel the special vigor that comes with the opening of a new school year.

From outside of Adler's room we hear voices. Jacobson looks in, Adler comes to the door, apologizes that her sixth-grade team meeting has run late, and asks for 15 more minutes. So, Jacobson and I settle in a fifth-grade classroom across the hall where he tells me the story of Henderson's previous year-the year it emerged from academic emergency.

Jacobson tells me that he and Adler applied for a federally supported Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) grant. The proposal was successful and brought Henderson $158,000 in hardware, software, and professional development-more than $500 for each of the school's 300 students; next year, another $42,000 will come from the grant. To date, no other school in the district has anything that even compares to the resources focused on this school in need.

And need there is: 90 percent of Henderson's students qualify for free or reduced lunches. Student turnover is about 30 percent a year, but faculty turnover is light and the cohesive group works well together. 'There's a lot of love here,' Jacobson tells me. 'Love for the kids and respect for one another.'

Adler soon joins us, explaining that her teacher team had to deal with several first-week-of-school matters. A smile fills her face when I ask her to describe the program and its results. Pride shows as she reports the growth in fourth- and sixth-grade math scores between 2003-2004. Math and reading were the program's areas of special emphasis.

In fourth grade, math passage rates went from 15 percent in 2003 to 62 percent in 2004 - a fourfold increase. At sixth grade, the passage rates went from 14 percent to 44 percent-more than a threefold increase. Reading passage rates climbed 55 percent at fourth grade and 70 percent at sixth grade. Schoolwide, math passage rates increased 40 percent and reading rates increased 52 percent.

This was no accident. So, what made the difference? 'It was a lot of things,' according to Adler. Hardware was one: 'My three old Macs couldn't do what our powerful new computer can. The hardware and software are important reasons, but not the only ones.'She then g'es on to tell me how technology was harnessed to support the school's improvement effort. It was not used for its own sake, but focused on strategic goals that were shared by the entire school community.

What she says ech'es the visionary language of the school reform movement. But I sense that at Henderson such language has been translated to action-the vision made real in the hard reality of the classroom.

I ask what elements of reform have driven their effort, and Adler quickly ticks off three: 'better alignment to standards,' 'a commitment to data-driven instruction,' and the use of 'differentiated instruction,' all made possible by technology. As Adler speaks, the fifth-grade teacher whose room we have borrowed walks in. He stands, listens, and nods in agreement.

Adler and Jacobson tell me that the state selected the materials for the program: computer-based reading and math software for grades K-6, a Web-based utility for analyzing and reporting student performance data and for correlating lesson plans to state standards, and a structured online program that nurtures technology skills through curricular content.

'We had intensive professional development,' Jacobson interjects. 'At least eight days for every teacher. The trainer, who came from the software distributor, connected to the teachers and really modeled how to use the technology.'

Adler adds, 'I didn't hear a word of complaint from any teacher,' as Jacobson and the fifth-grade teacher nod assent.

'Why the acceptance?' I wonder aloud, knowing how professional development programs, and especially technology-focused programs, are so often received.

'After three years in academic emergency, we were struggling and willing to do new things,' Adler explains. 'The old ways were just not working. I didn't hear teachers saying, 'I've been doing this for 20 years and I am not changing.' We knew we had to change.'

Fortunately, the EETT grant provided the tools for change. Adler and the fifth-grade teacher who joined our discussion tell how they strengthened their instruction by correlating computer and textbook lessons. One enriched the other, and all lessons were aligned to standards, which helped them focus their energies and those of their students.

For Adler, new tools included four powerful PCs, an electronic whiteboard, and periodic use of one of the two wireless laptop carts purchased by the grant. She also used data on student performance to adjust her own teaching. 'The data helps me see where I can improve my instruction, and I can see what kids are not getting,' she explains. 'I can change what I'm doing in my whole-group instruction when data says the kids aren't getting it. And I can find the right intervention materials for kids who need individual help.'

That intervention material, targeted to specific, identified needs, is often delivered through computer-based lessons. Students at Henderson Elementary spend an average of four hours each week working on computers each. However, special-needs students, with the support of a resource teacher who coordinates with classroom teachers, receive much more computer time.

Another tool, which was not technology-based, was short-cycle testing, in which teachers constructed proficiency-like tests and administered them every two to three weeks. The day after the tests were given, teachers would review the questions intensively with students, and then analyzed performance to identify gaps in knowledge or instruction. Jacobson and Adler hope that these paper-and-pencil tests will one day be replaced by self-correcting computer-based tests.

However, all is not bliss. 'Whenever you put in all this new equipment, new servers, new software, things won't work at a high-efficiency level. They just won't,' says Adler. 'That seems to be the nature of technology.'

And while reading and math scores accelerated, writing, social studies, and science performance barely budged; it even went down at some grade levels. But Jacobson and Adler are convinced they've taken the right path to reform by focusing resources on those students who will benefit most. With access to data, they intend to analyze what needs to be done and start moving social studies, science, and writing in the same direction as reading and math.

Implementing a Computer-based Assessment Initiative

Another of my recommendations was to use computers for assessment, and benefit from their ability to correct tests automatically and provide results quickly (William Pflaum, The Technology Fix: The Promise and Reality of Computers in Our Schools, ASCD, 2004). That is what they did at the Winterville district in northern Ohio. But Winterville hardly seems like a district in need of reform, with its three elementary schools, middle school and high school all rated 'Excellent'-the district nailed 18 of the state's 18 criteria for success.

But something nagged at district administrators. Math scores among the three elementary schools were uneven, despite very similar soci'economic profiles. The administrators were troubled by these discrepancies and wanted a positive way to address them. The schools' only difference was that they served new home communities that seemed to have almost sprung up overnight in cornfields of this once rural area.

I went to Winterville to meet with the architects and engineers of an assessment-based improvement program for those schools: district technology coordinator Larry Conroy and district technology integration specialist Rebecca Longstreet.

We met in the high school's recently opened technology wing-an eight-classroom complex with the latest in communications infrastructure. It features fiber and wireless networks, and equipment such as Apple Power Mac G5s in the school's graphics lab. Conroy cares for the 2,100 computers in the 4,000-student district.

Longstreet, who has a master's in instructional technology, will succeed Conroy as district technology coordinator when he retires at the end of this year. 'The transition will be easy,' Conroy tells me, after taking chairs in Longstreet's small office adjoining a technology classroom. 'Even though I am technically in charge of hardware and Longstreet handles curriculum, in fact, we both focus heavily on instruction. And we work closely with the district's curriculum director, who supports technology solutions to curriculum problems.'

Longstreet joins in, describing how the curriculum director asked them to see how technology could address the discrepancies in math scores among the elementary schools. 'We examined what the schools were using for math instruction. It was a very teacher-centered system,' Longstreet says. 'We wanted a system that would support the district's standards-based instructional program, one that would offer regular assessments and provide tools for targeted remediation and enrichment. We found it, almost by accident, but it was a happy accident.'

She g'es on to explain that the system, developed over 25 years at a major southern university, follows the principles of curriculum-based measurement. At Winterville, each student is tested weekly for 15 minutes on the skills and understanding of the school's standards-based math curriculum. The tests are taken in the school lab and the results are delivered to teachers either the same day or the next day.

After analyzing results, teachers assign students targeted remediation or enrichment activities that the system delivers, then scores and reports. This is usually done on classroom computers or on a computer from the school's wireless laptop cart.

'Teachers aren't intimidated,' Conroy tells me. 'In fact, we have teachers asking how they can drill down behind the first level of data to learn more about how a student performed. The data's there, it's easy to get to, and teachers go after it.'

None of this is magic. It is the result of planning, financial investment, and hard work. Conroy and Longstreet did the planning with support from the superintendent, the curriculum director, and technology facilitators at each school.

Conroy and Longstreet did the initial hard work. They spent two long days with the publisher learning about the program. 'We wanted to deliver the training ourselves,' Longstreet tells me. 'We wanted to do it the Winterville way. We know our teachers; they know us. We had to build trust, and the training had to be personal-geared to the needs and personality of the district.'

Conroy and Longstreet go on to explain that the initial training took place over two days. The first day was a 'flyby'-an easy introduction to the philosophy and features of the program. This got teachers interested.

'We had to establish a reason to learn it and implement it,' Longstreet says. 'Teachers are skeptical. There are no busier people than teachers, and demands on them have grown heavier with proficiency testing. If a program has no value for teachers, they won't use it. They'll resent it; technology has to actually help in the classroom.'

'The second day was hands-on,' Conroy adds. 'Teachers learned how to use the program. The training software contained a fictitious database that let teachers delve into it, just like they do with their own classes now. They really became familiar with the program's features and payoffs.'

'And has it paid off?' I ask. 'We think so, but this is a several-year effort,' Conroy answers. 'It will be a year or so until the data is definitive, but preliminary results suggest it's paying off. We went live for grades one through six in February. Principals are now analyzing a half-year's results.'

With no hard results yet published, could I call the Winterville computer-based assessment initiative a success? Conroy and Longstreet think so. Their gut feeling, the preliminary results delivered to principals, and the changed teacher attitudes smell like success to them. And they find support in what teachers say:

  • 'This is the first time in my teaching career that I've been so aware of standards. With the information from this program, I'm not teaching to a sea of faces but to individuals,' a third-grade teacher told Longstreet.
  • 'We talk about curriculum now,' reported a fourth-grade teacher. 'And we're not afraid to share experiences. I taught arithmetic, he taught arithmetic, she taught arithmetic. We can see immediately how our results differ, and we can talk about them.'

According to Longstreet: 'Teachers are starting to bring results from the program to PTO meetings. They are depending on it, building it into their repertoire. It is becoming an important tool.'

'If, in a year from now, the program is deemed a success, what will the reasons be?' I ask. Longstreet answers quickly and Conroy agrees: 'Professional development. That's the No. 1 reason for success. Next are the support mechanisms that make teachers feel 100 percent confident. We guarantee 24-hour tech support; any problem that's reported gets addressed and resolved in 24 hours. And, of course, the publisher was important, first by creating this product, then by taking the teachers comments seriously. That meant a lot.'

'There were bugs,' Longstreet acknowledges, 'but you just expect that. I had a report system so that teachers reported any glitches they encountered. I forwarded them to the publisher, who responded within 24-48 hours. Teachers knew they were being listened to. That helped a lot.'

As I left Winterville, I was disappointed that I came away without hard numbers like I had found at Henderson Elementary. But I came away sharing Conroy and Longstreet's sense that future results would justify the investment. They had a defined goal, they planned well, they had infrastructure and hardware to match the plan, they trained and supported their staff, and they provided a tool that offered practical help to the teacher. Why wouldn't it work?

Common Characteristics for Success

On reflection, I saw five important characteristics that were common to Henderson Elementary and the Winterville schools. These five, I believe, were essentials of their success. They were:

  1. A critical mass of hardware. The schools were not constrained by old or poorly networked equipment. Though never sufficient by itself, appropriate equipment is necessary for success, and these schools had it.
  2. Trust between teachers and technologists. The technologists were technically competent; as important, they respected teacher priorities. They understood that technology is first about instruction, not about bits and bytes.
  3. Appropriate professional development. Professional development was well planned and delivered.
  4. Commitment to standards-based instruction. Teachers at each school were beginning to understand it and appreciate its benefits.
  5. The right software. Important as it is, this comes last. If the first four characteristics don't exist, the software choice will be inconsequential. But at each school the programs were selected with specific, focused goals in mind and the equipment, trust, professional development, and commitment were in place.

These, I believe, are the solid bedrock upon which successful technology initiatives can be built in this standards-based era. Do you agree? How d'es your school or district measure up against them? Please let me know by e-mailing me at [email protected].

Bill Pflaum is a writer, editor, and speaker from Dayton, OH.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.