Computers in Schools

Problems and Potential of Digital Technology for K -12

By Linda Flanagan

The information age has radically altered business and industry. People work at occupations that were unknown 10 years ago. The workplace of 2002 looks significantly different from 1972. A visit to any office, bank, hospital, factory or even public library makes it clear that a revolution has happened. Driven by pressure from business to produce computer-literate graduates, and by the perception that students are ill prepared for participation in the information age, school districts in Alberta have invested heavily in computers.

A tour of any school in our province will invariably feature a proud administrator showing off the latest purchases—or at least offering an apologetic reference to the few computers currently owned, with the explanation that “our school council plans to hold a casino to raise money to purchase more soon!”

In Alberta, despite cutbacks in other areas, the government injected $125-million between 1996 and 2001 into educational technology, with a pledge to continue to fund computers until 2004. The Alberta government has committed to providing Internet access to every corner of the province, including every school. School districts have been given grant money on a per-pupil basis to be spent directly on computers to be used for student learning—hardware, software and technical infrastructure.

Before 1998, school districts were required to match this grant.

In June 1998, the curriculum standards branch of Alberta Learning approved the Information and Communication Technology, Kindergarten to Grade 12 Interim Program of Studies. Mandated provincial implementation began in September 2000, and the program is to be fully implemented by June 2003. Students must be prepared “to understand, use and apply technologies in effective, efficient and ethical ways.” Technology integration is meant to be cross-curricular, not treated as a course or topic in itself.

The result has been an influx of thousands of modern computers into elementary and secondary schools in the province, with buildings rewired to enable Internet access, classrooms reorganized to accommodate computers, labs set up in the library. It’s been one of the most sudden and notable changes to occur in the careers of many public educators. Teachers suddenly find the core curriculum requires them to integrate computers regard-less of their ability to do so, and without themselves having had an opportunity to examine computers’ value for teaching and learning. Many teachers and school leaders feel justifiably overwhelmed.

The pressure on schools to adopt new technological tools has largely come from outside the teaching profession. Industry and post-secondary institutions increasingly demand that public school graduates possess sophisticated technical skills. Parents expect schools to equip their children for participation in high-tech sectors upon graduation. Outsiders have attempted to force schools to rationalize, modernize and standardize.

The Alberta Teachers’ Association Position Paper on Technology (1999) issued a caution that cannot be ignored: “The essence of teaching is a personal, pedagogical relationship between teacher and student that may be assisted but not replaced by technology. Contrary to what is often heard from the vendors of technology and from some advocates of school change who place great hopes on technology as the means of improving student achievement, there is no clear connection between the use of technology and gains in student learning.”

The difficult task of planning for computer integration has too often been directed toward the goal of acquiring hardware and software, as if “student + computer = learning.” Schools have focused on purchasing equipment, setting up labs and wiring their buildings, without stopping to consider how—or even whether— computers can be used appropriately to enhance student learning. It is only now, with computers and related technology having arrived in schools, that teachers and administrators are beginning to look for evidence that student learning is improved. Obviously, just having net-worked computers in schools is not sufficient.

Alberta Learning has mandated that students from kindergarten to Grade 12 must be prepared to use technology.

What can computers do differently or better than other methods of instruction? How can computers be used to meet the needs of the diverse learners in our schools? How is a child’s cognitive development affected by exposure to computers? What kinds of instruction are appropriate for younger students? How can our teachers use technology to enrich curriculum in meaningful, integrated ways? Is the investment in computers for schools worth it? Educators, parents and taxpayers must now ask these essential questions.

In our society, computer literacy symbolizes access to the high-tech job market, the global economy and the new information age. And we think of publicly funded schools as places where all students should have the opportunity to acquire the skills needed to fully participate. Unfortunately, in the real world, a “digital divide” often separates students along gender, socio-economic and ethnocultural lines; our investment in education needs to address inequities suffered by students from poor families, minority children, girls, low achievers, students learning to speak English, children with disabilities, and rural youngsters—not make such inequities wider.

Schools have focused on purchasing equipment, setting up labs and wiring their buildings, without stopping to consider how— or even whether—computers can be used appropriately to enhance student learning.

Computer culture, for example, has usually appealed to boys more than girls. Inequities between males and females are evident in the under-representation of girls in high school computer classes, in post-secondary computer design and programming courses, and in information technology careers. Girls make up only 17 per cent of enrolment in high school advanced placement computer classes. At the university level, despite increased enrolment in other traditionally male faculties (engineering, medicine), this disproportionate trend has persisted in computer-related fields. At the University of Calgary, men have consistently outnumbered women in all computer science courses (except in a survey course required by many departments). According to the Office of Institutional Analysis, from 1996 to 2000, female enrolment in computing science courses at the U of C ranged from 10 to 30 per cent of the total enrolment.

In addition to these gender inequities, students disadvantaged by poverty are less likely to have computer access at home, an inequity that may be compounded by the inability of schools in lower socio-economic areas to raise sufficient funds to purchase new computers. Even within the same school, students may experience different degrees of access to computers, based on the interest and skill level of their teacher. Resources are sometimes allocated according to grade level, with younger children using older computers.

Moreover, computers can contribute to the “de- skilling” of teachers. As authority and control are increasingly centralized, teachers lose the ability to set relevant curricular goals, establish content and individualize instruction based on intimate knowledge of students’ desires and needs. Computers can be seen as unwelcome intrusions into classrooms that are over- crowded, underfunded and led by teachers who feel a competing pressure to improve student achievement on standardized tests.

Associated with the perceived loss of teachers’ control over curriculum choices is an over-estimation of children’s technological skills, a belief that is rapidly becoming folk wisdom, even among academics and teachers themselves. The idea is that students have such sophisticated technical skills that, even though we adults may not know how to do something, students will. Based on students’ familiarity with computer games and entertainment applications, we make assumptions about children’s ability to use technology for learning.

Toronto author Don Tapscott expresses this view enthusiastically in Growing Up Digital: the Rise of the Net Generation. He labels children born after 1980 “Net Geners,” a group he describes as accepting of diversity, curious, analytical, assertive and self-reliant. He makes generalizations about a whole generation of children based on his work with 300 participants in a series of on-line forums. These subjects (and we can guess his sample did not include a significant number of children who face poverty, neglect, learning disabilities and English-language deficits), were clearly an articulate, even precocious group, having opportunity and aptitude for expression through digital media. They can hardly be representative of the general population.

Nevertheless, Tapscott concludes education is in crisis, teachers are obstacles to change and that, if left alone with the technology, students will effectively take charge of their own learning. Tapscott’s view is not uncommon. Many technology experts share this bias, which can lead to a further abrogation of educators’ control over the use of new technical tools in their classrooms.

Another impediment to successful technology integration derives from teachers’ lack of access to appropriate, continuing professional development. In Alberta, technical funding has not been expanded to include staff development. Nevertheless, Alberta Learning (1997) demands that teachers “apply a variety of technologies to meet students’ learning needs” and that all certified teachers should “keep abreast of advances in teaching/learning technologies and how they can be incorporated into instruction and learning.” In many school districts, teachers have largely been left on their own to seek out and finance appropriate professional development in technical understanding, while in-services (on-the-job courses) typically focus on acquiring computer skills using software developed for business.  In many cases, teachers have had limited access to computers at school in order to practise and apply what they have learned, and skills learned in isolated in-service courses are quickly lost.

Principals and administrators, faced with pressure to upgrade their technical skills to keep up with curriculum and administrative changes, have had to make difficult decisions regarding equipment purchases, wiring and networking. Because they do not always know the impact of hardware choices on student learning, they’ve often had to rely on advice from technicians; judgments about teaching appropriateness wind up taking a back-seat to financial and technical considerations. The result, in many cases, is a restricted, locked-down approach to school networks. In a 1999 document, “Network design: Best practices for Alberta school jurisdictions,” Alberta Learning recommends the use of firewalls and filtering software. “Security is a major concern: the educators’ tendency to have a ‘trusting’ attitude can be a major problem in this context.” Students and teachers alike must log in with passwords; software filters control their Internet use; restrictions limit file saving and downloading; and closed network structures impede the use of computers for collaborative projects.

Despite these challenges and barriers, computers are here to stay. There are many examples around the province and around the world of ICT being used creatively by teachers and students in ways that democratize learning, encourage critical thinking and facilitate inquiry.

One promising model for ICT integration is the Galileo Educational Network, a professional development initiative which began in three elementary schools in three south-central Alberta school districts in 1999  and has since expanded to 16 schools in nine rural and urban jurisdictions in 2002. The Galileo Educational Network promotes innovation in both teaching practice and the organizational structures that support them. The use of computers is seen as one way of achieving the larger goal of transforming teaching and learning.

Success is measured in the way students ask questions, seek answers, solve problems and communicate their findings. Information technology is integrated in a seam- less, transparent way through careful network design.

Professional development is intensive, offered on-site in a timely fashion. The project incorporates continuing research into ICT integration, which serves to effectively link theory and practice.

In her evaluation of the Galileo Education Network, U of C’s Dr. Michele Jacobsen, assistant professor of education, observed students actively involved in meaningful, real-life learning experiences that encouraged problem-solving and risk-taking. Teachers reported a fundamental shift in both their planning processes and instructional methods. They reported a willingness to experiment with new strategies, including the use of digital tools such as computers, scanners, e-mail, digital cameras and the Internet. It is significant to note that they also began to incorporate more drama, storytelling, music and other interdisciplinary pursuits that reflected the integration of curriculum beyond just ICT.

Another successful initiative is the Telus 2Learn project, which connects teachers with quality resources to assist them in the integration of computers into class- rooms. By working directly with teachers in schools and by always linking to the ICT program of studies, 2Learn has become a dynamic, interactive and relevant project. Teachers develop and post their own tele-collaborative projects, with funding available to support them. Alberta’s teachers and students are encouraged to connect with other schools around the province and the world.

These examples point to the great potential for digital tools to enrich learning. Powerful learning experiences using computers can provide learner control and freedom to explore beyond the confines of the classroom.

Through use of the Internet, students communicate and collaborate on projects across great distances. Students act as teachers to the adults in their lives, as well as to each other. Students can engage in meaningful, self-guided work with the help of supportive and knowledgeable teachers.

But technology cannot be a substitute for experiences in the physical, social world. Young children especially need to move, play, build, discuss and read. As we move deeper into the 21st century, public educators and those who support them must continue to look for ways to improve student learning and better prepare graduates for participation in the knowledge era. Clearly, the investment must be in people as well as machines. Only by understanding the new digital techniques and recognizing both their potential and their danger, can schools take charge of computers to obtain the maximum bene- fit for students.

Linda Flanagan recently completed a master’s degree in educational technology, focusing on the role of the school principal in effective technical integration. She has 25 years’ experience as a teacher and technology leader, and is currently a school administrator.

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