Keeping Our Eyes on the Target: The "Other" Use of Technology in Education

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"Technology in education" refers to many things," most often, lately, to distance education. Although technology offers important new ways to achieve learning at a distance, distance education was a long-standing tradition when technology meant nothing more than a postage meter or telephone.

Technology has another vitally important instructional application, one with the potential to impact all learners, whether distant or on campus. Rather than viewing technology as a tool for delivery, like an interactive video system, we can view technology as a tool for learning, like a textbook or problem set. For example, faculty can use technology to diversify their instructional strategies, providing options for different learning styles. They can assign more complex and realistic problems, as in simulation exercises.

On-campus use of technology in the classroom provides faculty and students with direct opportunities to assess the relative merits of the new tools as applied to different disciplines and learning challenges. Through their experiences and action research, teachers can gain new ways to help students understand and students can learn more effectively and efficiently.

Delivering Technology-Enriched Learning on Campus

A 1995 State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) publication asserted the potential benefits of computers for everyone, stating that they would maximize the learning productivity of students, increase the relevance of higher education to students and society, and enhance equity of access to information and education (SHEEO, 1995). By 1999, Carol Twigg, a leading expert in the use of information technology in education, stated, "Access to a personal computer, a basic array of productivity tools . . . and an Internet connection are baseline requirements for students, faculty, and staff" (Twigg, 1999). Yet many students probably do not have those baseline requirements, and even students who have them seldom are able to use them on an anytime, anywhere basis. Unless the institution has made specific accommodations, students can use advanced technologies during instructional periods only by holding the class in a computer laboratory. An approach that some colleges have begun to use instead is to make every classroom a potential computer lab and to expect technology use outside of class as well.

According to a national survey, about 100 colleges and universities either require students to have computers or provide them with computers (Green, 1999). A growing number of K-12 schools, worldwide, is taking comparable steps, with 105 currently listed as participants in Microsoft"s Anytime Anywhere Learning initiative. 

In the absence of more refined data, a good estimateis that more than 50 of the 100 postsecondary institutions identified in Green"s survey require or provide computers not for all students, but for a sub-set by program or by year in school. I have surveyed campuses we have noted over the years from various informal sources and confirmed 36 that provide universal access for all students and faculty, with all classrooms set up for in-class technology use including individual network access and classroom presentation equipment ( [Suchi, please see if this should be a reference. If so, insert the in-text citation here and link to the URL; insert the complete reference in the reference section] This approach is known as universal access, or ubiquitous computing. Two of the institutions that take this approach are in North Dakota, a state with declining population that is always among the lowest in state funding per student for higher education.

Valley City State University (VCSU) and Mayville State University (MSU) are undergraduate institutions with 1,100 and 750 students, respectively, both with programs in teacher education, business, and liberal arts. They renovated nearly all classrooms, offices, and residence hall roomson campus and provided notebook computers and Internet access beginning in 1996 (VCSU) and 1997 (MSU). They overcame considerable odds to accomplish this, including no additional state funds to underwrite the change; the risk of losing students, many of whom are low income, due to the fee increase imposed to cover some of the costs; and the usual concerns about faculty acceptance. 

What the universities did and how they did it are reported elsewhere (Burgert, 2000; Chaffee, 1999; Chaffee, in press, Benchley, 1999, NCATE Task Force, 1997). The issue at hand here is the results and their implications for the direction of technology in education.

What Happens with Universal Access

Little research exists on the impact of universal access. VCSU and MSU  have undertaken a few small-scale class comparisons indicating that technology enrichment has either neutral or positive effects on learning. They also have a wealth of student opinion data, primarily thanks to Dr. Kathryn Holleque, VCSU professor of education and psychology. The results of four years of surveys can be studied at Dr. Holleque's faculty site at VCSU. [Note, the link to this page,  , is invalid.] According to these surveys, most students are using the computers in the following manner:

Moreover, they are using the computers in ways that seem to enhance their experience in terms of commonly accepted indicators of good practice in teaching and learning:

Finally, the students" summary comments are uniformly positive: 

The universities themselves benefit from universal access, too, often in ways that further enhance the student experience. Although the evidence at this point is primarily anecdotal and impressionistic, positive change seems to be taking place in several ways. The focus on teaching and learning has risen above its always-high level. The universities have attracted quality faculty, staff, and administrators who might not have considered working there without the technology opportunities. Faculty-student collegiality appears to be increasing due to their shared interest in technology. More communication options help develop a stronger sense of engagement and community within the university. Access to information is easier and faster. Everyone is on a level playing field in terms of technology access and horsepower, thus enhancing their ease of communication and reducing the probability of rivalry for equipment and software. Hardware and software upgrades are primarily on a two-year basis, far better than before and better than at many other institutions. The universities are attracting a number of business partners and working closely with their local economic development agencies, yielding high-powered internships, scholarships, and opportunities for invaluable work experience for their students while they are in school. 

Eyes on the Target

When VCSU and MSU began providing universal notebook computer access, everyone on campus was scrambling in part because they were doing so much with so little, but more so because they were excited about the possibilities and believed they were barely ahead of a tidal wave of other institutions that would soon follow suit. The pace of such change elsewhere has been far slower than some of us expected, despite the strong national interest in educational technologies and the self-evident potential benefits of universal access. Why so slow?

Any attempt to answer that question is pure speculation, but theories abound. Universities are notoriously slow to change, whether due to prudent caution or preference for the status quo. When it does occur, change is more often incremental than, as in this case, transformational. This kind of change depends entirely on faculty readiness and buy-in, both of which take time to develop. Large universities have many more difficult issues to address in making this change than do small universities. Prestigious universities may see little reason to change so dramatically. Since the media seem to pay more attention to large, prestigious universities, campuses that might otherwise have been interested may only now be discovering that there are ways to do what they thought was impossible. [These last two sentences are unclear. Did the prestigious universities think it would be impossible to have universal access because they would get bad press" It is unclear exactly what was thought impossible and why the media is significant here.]

So here we are, more than five years after SHEEO recommended universal access to computers, with about 1% of institutions having made the change. Whatever the reasons, the consequences of slow transformation are most unfortunate. First, technology-enriched learning has the potential to provide strong support for the current national focus on the quality of instruction. We are now on the threshold of what may well prove to be the period when almost anything becomes possible pedagogically, thanks to the potential that technologies offer in the hands of competent, knowledgeable faculty. Failure to put technology tools in the hands of faculty and students makes it impossible for them to realize those possibilities. 

Second, we cannot fulfill our obligation to prepare students for a successful life in the Knowledge Age, when nearly all jobs require technological competence, unless we provide them with technology-enriched learning. Future teachers need to learn with technology, from faculty who can teach them appropriate technology uses in the classroom. Future accountants need full access to accounting software as they learn the profession. 

The target is student success, both in college and beyond. The times require technology experience and skills to achieve that success.Universal access to computers, smart classrooms, and faculty who know how to enrich learning with technology is an effective solution that is more affordable than most university decision makers may believe. 


Burgert, S. (2000). Mayville State and Valley City State Universities: Sharing a vision. EDUCAUSE Quarterly, 23 (1), 46-49.

Chaffee, E. (2000). "The Impact of Technology on Institutional Planning." In J. Boettcher, M. Doyle, and R. Jensen, Eds. Technology-Driven Planning: Principles to Practice. (pp 69-"). Ann Arbor: Society for College and University Planning.

Chaffee, E. (1999). "Finding the Will and the Way." In M. Luker (ed.) Preparing Your Campus for a Networked Future (pp. 81-92). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Benchley, P. (1999, Spring). The Results are In. Multiversity, IBM, pp. 4-7.

Green, K. C. (1999). The 1999 Campus Computing Survey. Encino, CA: The Campus Computing Project.

NCATE Task Force on Technology and Teacher Education. (1997). Technology and the New Professional Teacher: Preparing for the 21st Century Classroom. Washington, D.C.: National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

State Higher Education Executive Officers. (1995). Computers for All Students. Denver: SHEEO.

Twigg, Carol A. ( 1999, Spring ). "Getting Results from Investments in Technology" AGB Priorities. (12), pp. 2-3.