Teachers and Technology -- What's Left?

Technology is the darling of the moment.

The unprecedented, exponential growth of technology has changed the world as we know it, and its impact on every aspect of society is, as of yet, impossible to measure. In the field of education the influence of technology is ever increasing as school districts and even state governments mandate its use more and more each year. A number of funding sources are now available to school districts for the purchase or upgrade of hardware (computers, printers, projection systems, scanners, switches, hubs, and peripherals of all sorts) as well as software and even building infrastructures, which, with some of the structure modifications deemed necessary, can be very costly. Internet access (now a standard offering throughout our schools), digital learning systems, and an increasing variety of software applications and licenses used in our schools have now become important items to fold into the complex budgeting procedures of schools. We are filling our schools with technology, but how prepared are we, as educators, to use it?

Each year expectations increase. As the demands on teacher’s time also increase, the challenge arises as to how best to equip our teachers with the skills needed so that they can incorporate the available technology into their classroom. How can teachers be brought to that place where technology ceases to be viewed as an intimidating, sometimes overwhelming obstacle? How can they be helped to realize what a wondrous tool technology can be and how significantly it can impact and enhance the education experience of today’s students? How do we harness so powerful a resource?

Student learning has changed, thanks to the Internet with its virtually unlimited access to information. In turn, this has affected the classroom and the way teachers teach. And with the growing emphasis on accountability, much more is expected of educators while changing standards and values present entirely new challenges in the classroom.

The research gathered to write this article also raised a number of questions:

  • How is technology perceived by teachers?
  • What would teachers like to see happening with technology in their classrooms?
  • How can technology serve as a tool to enhance the education process?
  • How can teachers find a comfort level that allows them to become receptive to the use of computers?
  • How do we accurately assess technology skill levels in order to best structure training sessions?

As educators we are often at a loss as to know how to develop or hone our technology skills in such a way that positively impacts our students. Those charged with preparing educators wonder how they can best equip teachers with the necessary skills to utilize technology in their classrooms?

During the course of my research, several emerging patterns and strands recurred:

  • Accurate communications / accurate problem assessment : the importance of accurate communications both with regard to explaining/illustrating concepts and identifying and/or assessing technology issues on the part of teachers.
  • Varied technology skills levels : the impact of extremely varied skill levels of the adult students in my class (and in our school district) and the effect of skills advancement and classroom management.
  • Application of learned skills / integration of technology into the classroom : the application of learned skills, teachers mentoring one another and the sometimes unexpected impact of technology in the classroom.
  • Intimidation factor of technology : interwoven throughout the other patterns is the underlying element of the comfort level of teachers towards technology, which affects the ease of acquiring new technology skills.

Although my own primary role in the classroom is to equip my teacher-students with the needed technology skills, the literature that I read has made me rethink my approach in the classroom; I now believe that it is important to address several more far-reaching issues. Rather than just encouraging teachers to “collect” sufficient computer skills, it is important to encourage teachers to develop philosophies of technology integration.

At a national summit on educational technology held January 25, 2002 in Washington, D.C. U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige stated, “The idea here is not to just have the technology, but to make sure the technology is designed to offer solutions to actual teacher problems, to discover what tools have the most dramatic impact on teachers, how students could be best benefited by this. These are the types of questions we seek answers to and invite your participation in”

These perceptions tie in to all of the patterns and strands that emerged from my research and reflect the necessity of developing a vision of using technology, an essential step. Technology often seems to be the focus rather than merely a tool to enhance the education process.

The more literature I read, the more convinced I am that crucial considerations in technology education are foresight, vision, and planning with clearly defined objectives in mind from the beginning so that a productive course of action can be charted for planning training programs that will productively equip teachers with the technology skills they now need.

I teach as a part-time instructor an adult class at a local community college. The course, entitled “Computers as a Tool For Educators,” was developed as part of the Educational Assistant (EA) certification program offered by the college. My students, however, have almost always been certified teachers from the local school district as well as school districts from surrounding communities. This fact in itself indicates that teachers are seeking ways to acquire the technology skills that will serve them in the classroom.

The research I conducted was both in this classroom and in the local school district where I am responsible for technology training and support throughout the district. The answer I was seeking was: how can we equip teachers with the necessary skills to effectively integrate technology into their classrooms? In order to find answers to not only the main question raised, but all of the subsequent questions that arose, I set about the process of collecting data.

I began keeping a teacher journal recording events and conversations in my class as well as in my daily contact with teachers at various school sites in my capacity as a technology resource specialist for a local school district. I began roughing out questions that could be used for the interviews and surveys and, after identifying the dominant patterns and strands that frequently and consistently occurred in my teacher journal, was able to finalize the interview and survey questions:

  • What does ‘integrating technology into the classroom’ mean to you?
  • What kind of training do you feel would be most useful?
  • What would you change about the way technology is presently used in your district?
  • If money were no object, what would you like to see happening in your classroom?
  • How do you see your students benefiting from technology?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of having technology in the classroom?

Interestingly, I found many willing teacher participants eager to be interviewed and surveyed; they seemed to welcome the opportunity to express their views on technology in education. Even if teachers are not drawn to technology, they realize that computers are here to stay, and inevitably, they must resign themselves to developing sufficient technology skills.

I had originally planned to Email the surveys in editable format to recipients, including basic instructions, and request that they Email back to me the survey as an attachment. This, however, proved to be extremely problematic. So many of the recipients were unsure of how to do the necessary editing and return the document via Email as an attachment. Ultimately, it was easier to print out hard copies and distribute and collect. I set about developing a format for the data being collected so that it provided useful feedback and would be easy to triangulate with the data gathered from interviews and my journal entries.

During the process of data gathering, the interview process changed. I was initially planning on one-on-one interviews with teachers only. During the initial stages of several interviews, other teachers asked if they might “sit in” on the process. After listening to several of the questions, they began contributing their own views, and the information gleaned was too valuable to ignore; therefore, several small group interviews were included. These were useful because teachers were eager to discuss technology, and the setting enabled them to feed off each other’s remarks. This sparked many interesting memories relating to use of technology, and new ideas emerged.

One of the most significant patterns that emerged was the intimidation factor that technology presented for most teachers. The degree of comfort level seemed to dictate the quality of their skills acquisition. One novice teacher-student demonstrated this well during the course of one of my classes. We had delved into the more sophisticated aspects of a word processing program; inserting graphics, animating text, incorporating all manner of textured backgrounds, color, and so forth. During a break, this teacher literally rushed up to me and said, “This is fun! I use word processing all the time, but I never dared go past ‘File’, ‘Edit’ and ‘Print’….I was scared I would mess up something; now I’m not afraid!”

When asked what exactly they would like to learn that was technology related, it soon became apparent that many teachers don’t know what they don’t know. However, they are interested in technology, and they want to learn. Many times I have been asked: “When are they going to do a training at our school for XYZ?” During the same class, a teacher with more expert computer skills exclaimed: “I have been using this software forever, and I never knew it did this! I can’t wait to try out some of these things at school!” The software and hardware available to us these days is very user-friendly, but too often, teachers are not aware of this, and tend to assume that any new technology will be cryptic, confusing and a struggle for them to learn.

During my research, another pattern that consistently emerged was the impact on my class of students (teachers) having a wide range of skills levels. Many of these teachers have had diverse experiences with technology and have acquired their skills somewhat erratically. Often during class those students with more advanced technology skills would find themselves discussing other issues in a small group; this was naturally distracting for those novice students and tended to slow the general pace of the class. Although the class syllabus described in detail the material that would be covered, it became apparent to me that it is critically important to accurately assess skills levels at the beginning of a semester or training session and group students so that they can more effectively learn and even mentor each other so that all students can benefit from the material presented.

An equally important and commonly recurring pattern was the issue of accurate communication both with regard to explaining/illustrating concepts and identifying and/or assessing problem areas dealing with technology. Often, when visiting one of our school sites to address technology issues, I would arrive only to discover that the diagnosis that had been reported was totally inaccurate, and an entirely different solution was required. This reinforces the importance of accurate communications, which can be a result of teachers adequately equipped with the needed technology skills. In addition, perhaps an objective instrument such as a standardized troubleshooting checklist of some sort would prove useful in these cases.

Teachers are interested in technology, as the data collected revealed. They want to learn more about technology and how it can be used to enhance the classroom educational experience. Even those teachers who are more reticent are reaching the point where the necessity of integrating technology into the curriculum is slowly outweighing the fear of technology.

Several unexpected experiences surfaced during the course of interviewing teachers. These instances revealed very innovative uses of technology integration.

A teacher at the high school described the positive social impact that the integration of technology had had in her class. At the beginning of the school year, she had students create a visual collage of their lives. Students could gather graphics from any source they chose, and after they had compiled the collage, they would each present to the classroom. Although all sorts of magazines and other printed materials were available, students invariably chose the Internet for graphics searching and downloading and the software installed on the computers to assemble their presentations. They used little text; the idea was as for the other students to figure out what the presenter was trying to communicate about their lives. This teacher described the social make-up of this class as covering the whole gamut: from “preps,” “jocks,” and “geeks” to “bangers” (acknowledged gang members). At the beginning of the semester, there was the associated posturing, depending upon the social echelon. However, during the course of the presentations, the student audience became so engaged in guessing from the collage components what the presenter was trying to communicate that after only a few presentations, all of the students began to forget the posturing and to actually communicate from genuine curiosity. As they became acquainted they learned to laugh together, share Website sources and simply … to bond. This teacher maintained that after this initial exercise, the need for classroom discipline throughout the semester virtually disappeared. What an unexpected outcome while integrating technology into the classroom!

Another teacher shared how technology had served as a ‘leveler’ in one of her computer classes. She was the lab facilitator at one of the junior high school sites, and the project was to teach students Microsoft PowerPoint. One of her students was a special needs student who struggled with reading. The teacher discovered that what this student lacked in academic prowess, he made up for with a natural creative bent. He quickly absorbed the graphics software from the beginning, even more quickly than the other students. During the course of the following weeks as the students continued to learn the software application more in-depth, other students began to ask the special needs student for help or advice. In this teacher’s interview, she described the incredible change in this student as his self-esteem grew, and the respect with which he began to be treated by his classmates. Once more - what a wonderful and unexpected impact this teacher found by using technology creatively to enhance the educational process.

A more practical but nonetheless exciting experience was described by an elementary teacher involved with literacy development; at one of our elementary schools with a large number of students from lower-income families, a first grade teacher considered how she could use technology in her classroom. This was difficult as the only computer in her room was one supplied for her personal use – for grades, correspondence, and so forth. As her first graders were learning their letters and beginning to combine them to form words, this teacher began to take her students to their school’s new computer lab to begin to make her students literate in using a mouse, learning to drag, and so forth, since few of these first graders had computers at home. The students were, of course, very excited about using the computers, and the teacher began introducing them to the keyboarding software installed on the computers on a whim. The first graders loved the software and wanted to make sentences. The teacher worked with them, and they printed out their work. The students were enchanted with the official look of their printed sentences and grew eager to use the keyboarding/word processing software to print out their work. This continued on a regular basis. The teacher began to notice that when the students were writing by hand they began to view their handwritten work in a different light; they would correct their handwriting for mistakes with basic language mechanics after comparing their handwritten work to their printed work. Apparently, it was easier for them to spot errors in the printed work, and it helped them improve their handwriting skills. This teacher was amazed and now uses the computer lab on a regular basis. The other first grade teachers have since followed suit.

Technology is not only changing the world we live in; it is changing the way we educate our children. It will continue to do so. School districts must develop a structure that will provide a vehicle for equipping teachers with the technology skills that are now so needed. It’s wonderful to discover the sometimes surprising ways that technology is already being integrated into the education process. We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel; many teachers told me that they never dreamed they would have the courage to do the things they are now doing with computers. The more teachers learn about technology the more confidence they develop and the more proactive they will become in gaining new technology skills. When equipped with needed technology skills, teachers feel empowered.

This research process has changed the way I view and relate to classroom teachers and the ongoing challenges they face. I feel a great deal more empathy with teachers in today’s classrooms. My perspective has broadened, and it’s easier to really listen to teachers and their own perceptions of many of the daunting issues they must address. I better understand their concerns and am humbled by the dedication and passion they have for their profession. I feel even more motivated to help teachers overcome that fear of technology and help them discover innovative ways to incorporate it into their classrooms so that technology not only makes their lives easier, but inspires them with its enormous potential.

The more effectively we equip teachers with technology skills, the easier it will become for them to overcome that intimidation factor and embrace this wonderful resource. We must reach that point so that teachers can let their imaginations soar alongside their students. We just need to help them take that step. At the semester’s (or training session’s) end, I often share a poem by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire with my teacher-students. It reads:


“Come to the edge,” he said.
They said, “We are afraid.”
“Come to the edge,” he said.
They came.
He pushed them.
And they flew.

Cynthia Kleyn-Kennedy ( ckleynkennedy@clovis-schools.org)