Just Use It: Rethinking Technology Training for K-12 Teachers

A popular and long-standing marketing slogan exhorts potential athletes (and customers) to “just do it.†While arguably not a model for decision-making on matters of great importance, it is worth contemplating whether the underlying philosophy of that phrase might not be the best approach for teacher technology training. Rather than expending time and resources on certain types of computer technology training for K-12 educators, wouldn’t it be better if we (this is the “royal we,†encompassing all who do technology training) espoused a training philosophy of “just use it?â€

Lest this sound incredibly naïve and/or a backdoor argument for advocating the termination of all teacher professional development (it is not), I explain this rationale below.

In spite of the prevalence and fairly established history of computers in K-12 schools, districts still devote substantial amounts of time instructing or training teachers in the use of certain software. Much of this instruction is in what I call “show and tell,†intuitive software that is often Wizard-driven and conceptually simple — such as PowerPoint, Word, Inspiration and Publisher. As a brief illustration, in the late 1990s, I worked in a school district in which teachers, in order to become “certified†in technology skills, had to matriculate through two three-hour sessions in PowerPoint. I recently checked the district Web site only to discover that eight years later the two-three hour sessions are still required for PowerPoint certification and that PowerPoint certification is required for all teachers who have a classroom computer—begging the larger question of why one needs to be “certified†at all in a relatively simple software application such as PowerPoint.

This district is by no means an anomaly, nor is this focus on technology training confined to US schools. Last year, as part of a required orientation for new faculty in a Mexico City university, first-year instructors were required to devote two eight-hour days to learning BlackBoard. Neither PowerPoint nor BlackBoard is a proverbial “rocket science†application and in both cases, the essentials could be grasped in a lot less time than 6 and 16 hours, respectively. Do we still need this sitzprobe model of technology training in which teachers are forced to devote hours or days to software whose structure fairly constrains what the user can do in the first place? Do we still need technology training models which focus on telling us about the technology versus simply letting us use it?

In my own work as a teacher educator in the area of technology integration, I’ve seen the diminishing returns of skills training. Several years ago, while working with the SouthCentral RTEC, I participated in a long-term professional development project which focused on technology integration and differentiated instruction. Most of these teachers had undergone some form of district technology training. In some districts this training was quite comprehensive and cumulative, with six hours of instruction in word processing, spreadsheet, electronic presentation, Internet and E-mail applications — approximately 30 hours of skills training in various software applications.

Yet this rather substantive training did not translate into classroom use, neither by the teacher nor, more importantly, by the student. Certainly, 30 hours of technology training should have conferred some degree of "proficiency," translating into actual classroom use. Yet, despite such training, various surveys, classroom observations, and interviews with these teachers revealed a surprising lack of non-use and low levels of teacher-reported proficiency with the applications in question. When asked to survey their individual software application skills, 60 percent reported "no" or "low" levels of proficiency with the applications in which they had received instruction. More critically, only 17 percent of teachers reported regular use of technology in their classes, and, of that, 72 percent was with remediation or skills-type software or word processing software. 1

I have seen this pattern repeated across schools in which I have worked, both in the US and abroad, and this highlights several fundamental weaknesses in the prevalent model of computer skills training. First, in spite of the inevitable focus on the creation of an academic product (using PowerPoint to present a lesson, for example), in such a skills-training model, technology is the focus and curriculum an adjunct. Such training, according to teachers with whom I have spoken, casts technology and curriculum as separate entities in teachers' minds and makes technology manipulation appear more important than it actually is.

Second, the “one size fits all†approach of a good deal of skills training often means that instructors spent time focusing on the “bells and whistles†of the application or on features-driven instruction (i.e., teaching “about†the technology). Thus, the software, according to these same teachers, is inadvertently presented as more complex than it really is. More critically, this form of instruction does not allow teachers to moderate technology use in order to match their own instructional needs.

Third, such sessions often have the unanticipated consequence of conflating proficiency with mastery. Teachers interviewed as part of our research reported a belief that they needed to be "experts," not just in it the operation of technology, but also in its instructional implications and in troubleshooting technical issues. In addition, the intensive length of such training sessions, in most cases 3 to 6 hours per application, inadvertently conveyed the belief that teachers too, if they were to use technology with students, would need to cede a similar portion of curriculum time to technology training.

Finally, the focus on protracted skills training unintentionally or intentionally places the locus of expertise in the person of the technology instructor, not teachers themselves, and in so doing mystifies technology. Because you need an “expert†to unlock the canon of Excel, the technology itself remains a mystery, resulting in the creation of a technology “priest†class whose job it is to impart knowledge and through whom a teacher’s technology learning must be mediated. Though this description is clearly tongue in cheek, the reality is that in many school districts, teachers still cannot even get access to a computer unless they pass through the requisite suite of software courses, even when they already know how to use such software. And, though the number of in-service teachers needing technology instruction may have diminished over the years, this model of technology instruction predominates in many countries and is still the prevalent instructional model with American K-12 students.

Just Use It

In contrast, a better model for technology in professional development is one that employs a “just enough†approach, focusing not on skills training but on curriculum, instruction and collaboration. I have used, and have witnessed the success of, such a model time and again, over the past several years, and in a variety of US and international settings, with teachers of all grade levels and subject areas.

This type of model2 organizes teachers in collaborative teams to complete a curriculum-related project (creating an online museum showcasing the history, culture and economics of their community, for example) employing a couple of software applications. In terms of “training†in the actual software itself, one representative from each team is shown a few basic steps that provide an overview of how the software works. He/she returns to the team and instructs teammates who, in addition to learning from and with this peer facilitator, are also encouraged to explore the software, make mistakes, work collaboratively within and across teams to troubleshoot difficulties, and to focus on “just enough†technology use to complete the task at hand. The instructor or facilitator intervenes only as a last resort and only when all other resources (peers, experimentation, the Help menu) have been exhausted. The focus of such sessions is not on proficiency but on “just enough†understanding to create a sense of teacher comfort and confidence; not on manipulation of software but on how the software can fit with the curricular and learning goals of the activity. The ultimate goal of this model (as is the goal of traditional skills training too) is that teachers feel comfortable enough to allow students to use the software.

In my experience, this model of peer based, "just enough" minimal skills cultivation has shown much greater actual success than a traditional skills-based approach for several reasons. First, it is more efficient. Why should teachers spend hours on the intricacies of Word when they can spend a fraction of the time learning enough to suit their instructional needs and then discover more on their own, or from students, as needed?

Second, such a model vaults technology comfort over technology expertise with the result that teachers often feel more comfortable and confident using the application in their classroom. I have been involved in research3 which demonstrates that once teachers achieve this threshold of comfort, they seem to regard themselves as more proficient in the application, whether or not that was really the case.

Third, this "just enough" comfort-based approach allows teachers to permit student use of a technology application even when the teachers themselves had not mastered the application. To revisit the cohort of teachers mentioned earlier, after this type of hands-on, “just use it/just enough†type of approach, classroom use of technology leapt from 17 percent to 80 percent and 42 percent of teachers surveyed reported that they allowed students to access software tools that they themselves had never used4.

Finally, teachers can reproduce this approach in their classrooms. Subject-area teachers don’t have time to "train" students to use PrintShop or Excel. But by gathering a group of students together, launching them on an application with no more than five commands, and sending them forth to train their peers, teachers report that the smallest amount of input can yield greatly improved output in terms of the quality of student work. Consequently and subsequently, teachers experiencing such an approach have become more comfortable in allowing students to teach one another, and in time, to instruct teachers themselves in software use. In fact, technology often becomes the first area in which teachers ceded some control to students and in which they began to see students as co-equal, or even superior, in terms of knowledge.


Rather than encouraging teachers to “just use†applications such as PowerPoint, Word, Inspiration, Publisher, and (arguably) FrontPage, we are spending too much time on skills training with software that is operationally intuitive and conceptually simple. Such a focus has several drawbacks. It is inefficient in terms of teacher time; can create bottlenecks and impediments in terms of teacher use; conveys the erroneous belief that such show and tell applications are harder to learn than they really are; and means that teachers often content themselves with constant or overuse of software that shows little in the way of promoting higher order thinking among students. Conversely, this misplaced focus on conceptually simple applications diverts our attention from “just using†applications, such as database or statistical software, that are conceptually more complex; which promise a greater return for student higher order thinking; and where teachers could benefit from professional development that is embedded in curriculum and instruction.

Email: Mary Burns

This article is adapted from an upcoming book, Coming Together: Building Communities of Practice through Professional Development.


1.Burns, M. (December 2002). From Compliance to Commitment: Technology, Professional Development and Communities of Learning. Phi Delta Kappan.

2.Dimock, K.V.; Burns, M.; Heath, M. (2001) Applying Technology to Restructuring and Learning: How Teachers Use Computers in Technology Assisted Constructivist Learning Environments. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.

3.Dimock, K.V, and Burns, M. (Forthcoming) Coming Together: Building Communities of Practice through Professional Development. (Working title)