Monday, March 13, 2006

Should "technology integration" be an important goal in schools?

I was being interviewed the other day by a technology consultant who is writing a chapter for a book about best practices in professional development. One of the questions that she asked me was "What are the most effective ways that schools can increase technology integration in the curriculum." The implication of her question--confirmed when I asked some questions about it--was that technology integration is without a doubt a good thing, and anything that schools can do to increase technology integration is also a good thing.

As someone who works in a university program called "Technology in Education," I would be expected to be an advocate of technology integration. And yet I found myself quibbling with the assumptions of the question, instead of answering it as posed.

What I found myself saying (and, upon reflection, wanted to reiterate here) is that technology integration is not necessarily a good thing. There are both good and bad applications of technology, and schools should strive not to maximize technology integration, but to maximize student learning. When the use of technology increases student learning enough that the negative consequences of using the technology are offset, then technology integration is a good thing.

Some of the negative consequences of using technology are easy to see. Computers cost money that must come from somewhere; often, it comes from other parts of the budget, such as textbooks, materials and supplies, teacher salaries (or from not hiring someone to decrease class size, the extracurricular budget, facilities, science equipment, musical instruments. Even when computers are funded using "new" dollars such as from a grant or referendum, putting the money to computers means that other needs remain un- or under funded. The effort necessary to pass a referendum to purchase computers might be better placed into building a new gymnasium.

But computers can "cost" the school in less obvious and more pernicious ways. Veteran teachers who rely on more traditional methods often are marginalized. Decision-making often becomes heavily influenced by techies on the faculty, in the administration, or on the staff. Computers take up space that might be used for other purposes. Student (and teacher) attention devoted to computers might otherwise be spent on art projects, or face-to-face discussion, or social activities that don't have obvious educational purposes.

Teachers who are pushed to "integrate technology" are differentially affected by this pressure. Younger, more technically oriented teachers, or those predisposed to group work or "open-ended" projects, may find that such expetations help them to do what they already want to do, while other teachers--older, perhaps, or more given to lecture or traditional assignments such as research papers or seat work, or more interested in whole class discussion--may find such expectations distracting or annoying. Some teachers may even become "turned off" from the school administration and spend precious energy on resistance and refusal rather than on doing what they do best.

When a school makes an investment in computers, there is a natural desire on the part of the adminiistration to make them "worth it," and so teachers are pressured to use them, even when such use is not guaranteed to increase student learning. And the truth is that a lot of the ways that computers get used in schools may actually decrease learning. A project that 25 years ago might involve use of the school library might be redesinged to use the Internet, where students are much more likely to use questionable sources, to "copy and paste," and to waste time with endless browsing. Student presentations become protracted opportunities to practice using a variety of fonts and colors in PowerPoint. Activities that might previously have focused on the construction of a diorama or collage shift to a competitioin to see who can find the funniest cartoon about the Cold War.

The best studies of the effects of technology integration show that technology integration per se has little beneficial effect on student learning. Other than the likely effect of increasing technology skills themselves (a relatively minor goal in the wide range of learning objectives), technology integration only improves student achievement when their use is combined with substantial changes in teachning methodlogy, class management, and assessment. Rarely do technology budgets include sufficient teacher training is the mere use of the technology, let alone in the complex contextual alterations necessary to support increased achievement.

If we look at the history of education during the last 2500 years or so, the methods that have "worked" have varied little. The major technological change prior to the late 20th century was moveable type, and the mass production of books that made possible. The advent of books worried some academics, who feared what their availability would do to students' listening and reasoning skills. It would be hard to find someone today who continued to argue that "book integration" is bad for schools. But there is a lot of bad "book integration"--both teaching methods that use books improperly and the use of bad books (such as most textbooks). And if you think about it, the availability of books has certainly had a negative effect on people's ability to listen to lectures or oral storytelling, which has become a nearly lost art.

If we allow ourselves to think critically about the use of computers in education, we will likely find ourselves critical of many of the practices we see in schools. I can think of dozens of scenarios in which I have seen computers misused. There are many more examples of misuse than examples where the use of the computer clearly increased student learning. Most computer use in schools is mindless, unimaginative, and anti-intellectual. Encouraging more of such use is tantamount to seeking more mindlessness, less imagination, and less focus on intelligent teaching and learning than we have currently.

By almost any criteria, we should urge caution in the push to "integrate technology" in schools. Rather, we should urge educators to focus on the desired result--student learning--and use technology only when it helps achieve that goal.


Michael Lach said...

Great post, Craig, and great blog. This is a really difficult issue, and I think you've nailed it. In science education, for instance, there's great examples of technology integration that really does improve student learning--the use of probes and graphical analysis software in the ASU Modeling Physics stuff, for instance--but many more examples of tech just for tech's sakes that doesn't seem to do much except cost schools money. Thanks for this.

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Ms. Shreve said...

I completely agree with you. My job is one of trying to get teachers to integrate technology into their classrooms. My stuggle is how to help teachers do it while increasing student learning. The computer is not just a machine to sit the students at so that you can grade your papers. That's the same as using a worksheet or a coloring page. Student learning increases with higher order questioning and making them justify their thinking, that requires communication.

Sharon Elin said...

I'm one of 55 instructional technology integrators in a surburban county Virginia school system serving approximately 60,000 students. Our job description emphasizes -- and our placement in schools is based upon -- our prior experience and mastery of effective teaching methods. We do not believe that technology is "the answer." We believe that it is simply one tool among many that, if used correctly, can engage and enlighten students so that the content becomes more relevant for them and the process of interacting with information becomes active rather than passive. Our focus is on the content, concepts, and the learning process itself -- not on hardware or software in and of itself. Your comments are absolutely correct. Technology is not a magic wand that can disguise or minimize ineffective teaching. Technology must be used thoughtfully and in combination with other teaching strategies in order for it to become a successful classroom tool. One of my favorite quotations about technology says, "Putting a computer in front of a child and expecting it to teach him is like putting a book under his pillow, only more expensive." (Author Unknown)
--Sharon Elin, NBCT, Chesterfield Co., Virginia

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