Defining the issue:
"Learning on-line must not become a new fault line in American education."
-Richard Riley, U.S. Secretary of Education
(New York Times, February 18, 1996)
In the 1996 State of the Union
address, President Clinton challenged the nation to ensure that
every classroom in the country is connected to the Internet by
the year 2000. A year later, the President again used the State of the Union
to address the issue of technology in the classroom, vowing to
work toward the goal of educating every 12-year old in America
to use the Internet and the World Wide Web. In an attempt to meet
these lofty goals, the federal government has pledged $200 million
in grants for 1997 alone to help bring the power of the "Information
Age" to American school children (Barr, 1997). Why is the
federal government allocating so many resources to this issue?
Information technology skills have quickly become important ones
for workers to possess, skills that high school graduates will
need in the near future. It has been estimated that by the year
2000, 60 percent of the new jobs in America will require advanced
technological skills (Gore, 1996 ),
a pattern of growth that is likely to continue.
To address this coming trend, the Clinton Administration
has formed an Educational Technology Initiative,
a special task-force to help ensure that these goals are met and
to address a number of obstacles that stand in their way. One
of these obstacles, or questions regarding the use of the Internet
in the classroom has little to do with computers or cables or
bandwidth. Instead, it revolves primarily around people, specifically
teachers. Many educators and citizens alike remain skeptical about
the value of infomration technology. Why, they ask, are we devoting
time and fiscal resources toward computer skills and technology
when we have school children that need to learn to read and write?
This can be a compelling argument, but it is one that fails to
accept the realities of the future. Computers and information
technology have become important components of American society,
and are likely to remain so for years to come. Faced with this
scenario, it is crucial that our educational system begin to teach
not just literacy in the sense of reading and writing, but "computer
literacy" and perhaps even "media literacy" as
well (Cortes, 1992). Teaching students how to manipulate, manage,
and understand computers effectively and efficiently means providing
them with skills and methods that can help prepare them, not
only for the future, but for the present as well.
Before we can provide students with the technology
skills they need, however, it is first necessary to address the
technology skills, experience, and attitudes of the current teacher
workforce. Simply put, merely bringing the Internet into every
classroom is only a first step; in many cases teachers have to
be educated themselves before they can effectively teach their
What are some of the obstacles that might prevent
teachers from learning how to use the Internet and the World Wide
Web effectively? How can they be remedied?
These are key questions that this analysis will attempt to address.
A small, but recent, survey of 500 K-12 teachers
found that over half of America's teachers favor using the Internet
in their classrooms, and that just under a third of them are currently
using some form of information technology to support their teaching
(McGillian, 1997). Although these numbers may sound encouraging,
the small sample size and lack of supporting data demonstrates
that the questions surrounding teacher training and use of information
technology are far from resolved. It follows that the training
of teachers will play a crucial role in the ultimate success or
failure of the plan to bring the power of information technology
to every classroom. Thus, it is an issue that deserves a closer
Background of the issue:
The Internet, a system of linked or networked computers,
has been in existence since 1969 (Gates, 1996). The World Wide
Web, a user-friendly, graphic-intensive application that uses
the Internet, was introduced to the public in 1992 (Gates, 1996).
In barely five years, the Web has helped spark an explosion in
Internet use and helped make it a recognized part of our contemporary
culture. Industry figures vary widely, but it is believed that
anywhere from 10 million to 35 million people were "online"
at the end of 1996, and these figures are expected to increase
(Internet World, 1996). While the "average" user profile
reveals that white men, approximately 33 years old and with at
least 4 years of college and a yearly salary of over $59,000,
are most prevalent on the Internet, this profile is only an average.
While there is no reliable way to break down the overall user
figures into sub-groups, there is little doubt that among the
millions of other people online across the country a good number
of them are students.
In order to accommodate and facilitate all of these
students, schools have been acquiring computers in recent years.
But with the rush to integrate computer and information technology
into the classroom has come the realization that simply providing
the machines and the wires is not enough. Powerful as they are,
computers are still no more than educational tools, and students
need to be taught how to use them effectively and efficiently.
In most cases, though, the same can be said for teachers-in order
to help students access the vast array of resources available
to them on the Internet, teachers first need to know how to use
the technology themselves. The importance of "educating the
educators" has been recognized for a number of years now.
It is really an intuitive concept; in order to improve their own
teaching, teachers need to be trained themselves. But while a
number of studies have identified teachers as the key link to
increasing the use and effectiveness of technology in education,
the goal of improved teacher training has proven difficult to
accomplish in practice.
The reasons for this difficulty are numerous. Along
with students, teachers are the human part of the technological
equation in the classroom, and as such, there any number of reasons
why obtaining further training is an unpredictable process at
best. Even with the wide range of obstacles to teacher training,
though, it is possible to group some of them broadly into the
It is widely accepted that teachers are often already
overburdened with the full plate of teaching and testing requirements
for students that they already face without the added challenges
inherent in introducing a new area such as technology to the classroom.
It is understandable that technology is not a priority for many
teachers, particularly experienced ones. While some teachers have
been able to effectively utilize and integrate technology, for
many others simply contending with the day-to-day data and information
about students and what they do or do not learn can be overwhelming
(Brandt, 1995, p.5). Additionally, as noted technology scholar
Alvin Toffler has pointed out, the pace at which technology progresses
continues to increase at an explosive rate, a fact that makes
it easy for even the best teachers to get left behind (Toffler,
1970). To make matters worse, in the over twenty-five years since
Toffler first made this observation, t he pace of technology has
The daily schedules of most public school teachers
simply do not allow them to receive technology training on their
own, let alone collaborate and learn from other teachers. This
lack of time at school means that already overworked teachers
often have to be willing to invest extra time during evenings
or weekends to acquire the needed computer training. As O'Neil
has pointed out, "the biggest barrier to technology is the
use of time: time for training, time for teachers to try out technology
in their classrooms, time to talk to other teachers about technology"
(1995, p. 11).
Most teachers rely heavily on their peers, or students,
for information about technology. While many teachers are willing
to share technological skills, others are a bit reluctant (Gibbons&
Butler). Again, conflicting teacher schedules and isolating school
environments can also help contribute to work against teachers
training other teachers.
Teachers that are technologically skilled are often
faced with facilities, computers or software that are out-dated,
antiquated, or even non-existent (Hoffman, 1996).
This can create additional barriers for teachers to overcome in
order to integrate technology into their curriculum, barriers
that are often nearly impossible to overcome.
Nearly all of the problems listed above have been identified in a number of recent, mostly government-sponsored studies and publications concerning teachers and technology in the classroom. For example, a recent survey of America's teachers supported the picture that at least demographically some teachers could be ill-prepared to deal with the coming flood of technology. The study contends that of the slightly more than 2.6 million public school teachers in the country, 64% for differences of them had at least 10 years of experience. In addition, 20% of teachers were found to be 50 years of age or older (Glennan and Melmed, 1996). Combining these two statistics, it is possible to hypothesize that there are currently a significant number of experienced teachers in the workforce, teachers who do not fit the demographic model established for typical Internet users. Does this mean we can assume that a good number of older teachers could well be content to retain comfortable teaching methods, ones that do not incorporate any form of new information technology? A large assumption perhaps, but one that could possibly apply to some teachers.
More concretely, a study sponsored by the Congressional
Office of Technology Assessment also concluded that most teachers
are poorly prepared to handle the coming influx of technology
in the classroom. For instance, in traditional school district
budgets, the vast majority of funds for technology have been spent
on equipment, leaving teachers to fend for themselves when it
comes to training. School districts allocated less than 15% of
their technology budgets to teacher training and support. While
some states expressed a desire to raise this figure to nearly
30% of the technology budgets, few actually followed through.
Further, the study reported that not only did a majority of teachers
describe themselves as inadequately supported or prepared to effectively
utilize computer-based technology, but that many of them were
not even fully aware of some of the advantages that new information
technologies could offer. Finally, a recent survey of 500 K-12
teachers, sponsored by Sun Microsystems, found that 72% of those
surveyed rated their technology knowledge as either average ("C")
or below average (McGillian, 1997). While the relatively small
sample size prevents us from drawing too many conclusions from
this result, it does serve to support the likelihood that many
teachers are not comfortable with their own technology use and
Where is the issue going?
The U.S. Department of Education has recognized the
difficulty of incorporating teachers into the expansion of information
technology. In May, 1996, Education Secretary Richard Riley announced
a volunteer-based plan to
train half a million teachers in the use of computer technology.
Riley helped organize 11 of the largest professional teacher organizations
in the country, including the National Education Association (NEA),
the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the national Parent-Teacher
Association (PTA), to coordinate teacher training. All told, these
eleven groups have promised to raise a combined total of 100,000
teachers who will volunteer to become technologically proficient
and serve as a teaching corps. In turn, these teachers will then
commit to training five co-workers or fellow teachers, bringing
the total number of trained teachers to the desired goal of half
a million. The plan not only sounds simple, but it appears to
actually be simple as well. When asked for details of the plan,
specifically when teachers were going to find the time to receive
this additional training, Riley replied, "that's kind of
up to them. It's a volunteer program. These organizations are
volunteering to do that. And how they do it is really up to them"
(Department of Education, 1996).
While some might applaud the federal government for
adopting a hands-off approach to teacher training, there appear
to be both potential advantages and disadvantages to this strategy.
On the positive side, the teachers training teachers method proposed
by Riley recognizes the unique situations that often exist within
school communities, and allows teachers the freedom and flexibility
to address technology training by using a method that is best-suited
to their own needs. However, by leaving teachers on their own,
the breadth and depth of the needed technological training could
well suffer. Gibbons& Butler (1996),
suggested that educators are often reluctant to share technology
information with peers, a notion that could severely hamper the
ultimate success of Riley's plan for teacher training. According
to Gibbons & Butler, this failure to share information about
technology seems to be traceable to the hierarchical structures,
both formal and informal, that exist within a school. Teachers
or administrators who are technologically capable possess a skill
that often serves to increase their relative utility or value
within a school building. In short, Gibbons & Butler's results
seem to suggest that people in a position of relative power based
on their technological skills are often reluctant to share these
skills with other teachers or administrators, a move that could
ultimately diminish their status within the school community.
Whether teachers are willing to share technological
knowledge or not, the continued support and funding of the Clinton
Administration should ensure that the spread of Internet technology
into schools will only continue to grow. The government is not
the only source of funding either. A grass-roots volunteer group
known as NetDay
was founded with backing from Sun Microsystems, PBS and a number
of other corporate sponsors in 1995. The goal of NetDay is work
in conjunction with the government to help bring the Internet
to each of the over 130,000 public and private K-12 schools in
America. The organization supervised a number of state-wide "Net
Days" in 1996 in states such as California, New Jersey and
Maine. These Net Day events used volunteer labor to help physically
install the proper wiring and cables needed to allow schools to
network their computers and connect them to the Internet. By the
close of 1996, NetDay estimates that it had wired more than 50,000
classrooms in more than 40 states around the country (see NetDay)While
these are impressive numbers, a recent Sun Microsystems survey
estimates that only 11 percent of the nation's classrooms currently
enjoy Internet access (McGillian, 1997), a figure that demonstrates
that there is still a great deal of work to do. With that in mind,
NetDay has declared April 19, 1997 to be NetDay National Wiring
Day in an attempt to conduct an all-out, nation-wide wiring effort
in an attempt to create at least one Internet link in every K-12
school in the country.
What are the implications of this issue for public education in the United States?
It is argued that teaching both with and about technology,
teachers implicate their students in the larger problem of social
justice, in the sense that technologically trained students are
likely to be among the privileged as they move through life (Soukup,
1996). While there are some that may take issue with this line
of reasoning, it is clear that the need to improve teacher training
in the area of information technology will comprise a crucial
part of any future educational policy planning. When equipped
with the proper training, a teacher has an almost limitless range
of ways in which technology can be integrated into the curriculum.
Elementary school students can use word processing programs to
"publish" their own stories; secondary school teachers
in virtually every subject can utilize the researching and problem-solving
capabilities of the Internet and other computer software programs
to create higher levels of student interest, participation and
learning. Studies have demonstrated that using information technology
as part of the learning process can indeed result in greater understanding
and higher levels of achievement for many students (Getting America's
Students Ready for the 21st Century: Meeting the Technology Literacy
Challenge, June 1996).
Obviously, students play a vital role in the improvement
process, but teachers play a key role as well. Especially when
confronted with an unfamiliar computer, or with new software,
students turn to teachers in search of guidance and instruction.
If the teachers are not properly trained, there is no way for
student performance levels to improve on a consistent basis. Therefore,
in order to both maintain and cultivate student achievement through
computer-assisted learning, continuing technology training for
teachers will remain a crucial issue.
Others have highlighted the classroom benefits that
accompany technologically proficient teachers. For example, Dusen
and Worthen point out that technology offers the opportunity for
educators to use a "constructivist view of learning by providing
a rich learning environment" (1995, p.29). While the traditional
teacher-student relationship is often based around the premise
of one individual instructing a large group, the involvement of
technology can serve to change that relationship. Once a level
of comfort and skill have been acquired on the part of both the
instructor and the students, the teacher is better able to interact
successfully with individuals or small groups. Technology frees
the teacher to customize the lesson to the specific needs of the
student, to guide students as they learn to process information
and make choices. In some cases technology also allows students
to customize a lesson for themselves, to pursue a subject or a
path to an answer that is most logical and understandable to them.
This may be particularly applicable to exercises involving the
Web, where students can employ the hypertext system of exploration
to find information in any number of ways.
Schools that allow dedicated, motivated and technologically-trained
teachers to incorporate technology into the classroom often meet
with success. Resourceful and creative teachers have proven time
and time again that they can overcome technological deficiencies
or funding problems, evidence that teachers are still the most
important part of the technology equation. Some of the more recent
examples of teachers integrating technology into the classroom
were profiled in the December 2, 1996, issue of U.S. News & World Report.
The thread that connects all of the schools highlighted in this
article is the fact that teachers were able to incorporate computers
and/or the Internet in a variety of creative ways, and the students
benefited every time.
Finally, when viewed as part of the overall issue
of using technology in education, teacher training plays a central
role in the larger question of equality of access. Students that
have access to the Internet, be it at home or at school, are already
gaining skills and experience that will better prepare them for
a future as part of the "information age." Students
without this access are in danger of being left behind the technological
curve, a factor that can only hurt them in the long run. It has
been suggested that in the near future technology has the potential
to become "a wedge" that will hasten and solidify the
gap between rich and poor, and serve as a new form of literacy
(Martinez, 1994). Faced with this possible scenario, teachers
trained in technology will be able to provide their students with
vital skills to help prepare them for their futures. Both now
and in the future, teachers will do a disservice to their students
if they are unable to help them learn at least basic Internet
What should educational leaders do now to prepare
for the issue?
Educational leaders must be prepared to deal with the issue of training teachers for technology on two fronts. On the national level, more uniform standards for teacher training are in order, while on a state or local level it is vital to continue to encourage existing teacher support programs. Obviously, these two fronts are closely related, and the interests and goals of leaders at both levels should mesh as much as possible.
On the local level, teachers need to be given every
opportunity and incentive to pursue technological training. Educational
leaders within an individual school can take a number of steps
to help foster training and innovation when it comes to utilizing
information technology. Perhaps the most important steps can come
in the area of time. Schools that are able to should make every
effort to hire a computer support staff person, thus freeing up
teachers from having to deal with time-consuming set-up or software
problems that can often plague computers that are heavily used
by a variety of students and staff members. If a school is networked
to the Internet (as part of NetDay for example), teacher staff
rooms should be included in the networking process, and as many
computers as possible installed in these staff areas. This way,
teachers will have access to computers during open periods or
before or after school.
Once teachers are able to gain greater physical access,
access to a world of information technology teaching strategies
are waiting to be discovered. Via email, the Internet will allow
teachers to communicate with other educators with little regard
for geographic barriers, a factor that can help combat the isolation
and lack of peer support that plagues many current teachers. Teachers
can subscribe to mailing lists, a tactic that will automatically
bring a variety of information and issues to their email inboxes,
and will allow them to contribute their own ideas and experiences
as well. Perhaps more importantly, the Web is home to a myriad
of resource links for teachers, including pages that serve as
sources to aid teachers with professional development and support
(two examples are Focus on Education and
21st Century Teachers ).
Using Web pages such as these, teachers will be able to see what
their colleagues are doing in other schools or other states. This
exposure can serve as a valuable educating tool for teachers,
allowing them to see the variety of options and uses that information
technology can provide for educators.
These Web resources will continue to play a key role
on the national level as well. Strong support and funding from
the federal government should not and can not supplant the many
of the grass-roots programs (such as NetDay) that are currently
in place around the country. These programs should be promoted
whenever possible, and local educational leaders encouraged to
participate in NetDay type events. In many ways, these local and
regional partnerships and coalitions are at the core of information
technology and the advantages it can bring; ideally each community
will be able to adapt the available technology to best suit their
That said, the time has come for the creation of
some minimum national standards for educational use of information
technology. Some sense of national cohesion and coordination is
needed in order to ensure that students and teachers across the
nation are exposed to a technology that is fast becoming a vital
part of the workplace. Examples of cohesive efforts are already
available in some places on a state-wide level (for example Learn North Carolina ),
but the quality, consistency and scope of these programs vary
greatly. Programs that have attempted to integrate national resources,
such as KickStart ,
have also met with limited success to date.
Minimum national standards will benefit both teachers
and students alike. Students will gain exposure to skills that
will become increasingly valuable in today's increasingly technological
society. Teachers will have a clear understanding of what options
are available, and what skills and information retrieval techniques
they should focus on. With that in mind, some of the most important
skills a student should be taught are:
In order to re-enforce the importance of these skills,
the national testing systems currently in place can be revised
to include a section that specifically highlights computer and
information technology related knowledge. In this way, teachers,
administrators and students will all be forced to regard the integration
of information technology as a component of education that should
not be ignored.
As explored above, steps are being taken to help
teachers overcome some of the obstacles that technology in the
classroom can present . Organizations such as NetDay are beginning
to address the lack of facilities and infrastructure, and there
are a growing number of Web sites that can assist teachers in
wading through the information overload and in combating the physical
isolation from their peers. Time, perhaps, remains the biggest
obstacle that confronts teachers, and a fact that will likely
persist. On a day-to-day basis teachers are often strapped for
time by the demands of teaching and interacting with students
and peers. In these situations, sitting down in front of a computer
and learning new skills is often a luxury that teachers simply
cannot afford. Schools that are able to provide technical or computer
support staff will help alleviate these time constraints, but
not eliminate them. To combat this problem, teachers and students
will often have to learn together. If teachers are able to admit
that they do not always know the answers, a realization that most
good teachers come to grips with, then joint learning will benefit
both teachers and students, helping to ensure that both parties
have are actively engaged in the learning process (Rose, 1996).
Thus, while teachers and students alike face a number of challenges
as they move into the information age, none of them are insurmountable,
especially when teachers and students are willing to learn together.
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