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It's Not What You Have But How You Use It!

Public schools are spending huge sums of money for computers, but without training teachers to use this technology could the investment prove to be a costly failure?

With the recent infusion of money for school technology, American school systems are now discovering they have state-of-the-art computer equipment but lack the know-how to effectively use it.

"In a lot of districts, the primary focus has been to wire the schools, buy the equipment, and buy software," says Rob Ramsdell, founder of FreshPond Education, a company that trains teachers and administrators to use computer technology. "Now most districts want to know how to use them to improve student learning."

The goal must be to teach educators how to use the computers effectively and integrate them into studies.

The problems attributable to the lack of quality teacher training in the use of computers are coming to light. For example, a 1997 Maryland Department of Education survey uncovered that in their state only 53 percent of their teachers can use the Internet or E-mail independently (see "For Teachers, Lessons in Taking Technology Into the Classroom," Washington Post, 8/5/98).

The results of another survey were reported in NEA Focus (see "Teachers Hit a Detour On Information Superhighway"). That survey of teachers in 400 public schools nationwide conducted by Quality Education Data, a Denver-based research group, found that only 35 percent of the teachers queried felt well prepared to use the Internet in their teaching, and just 20 percent said they had received in-service training in its use. Forty-four percent of the teachers said they had been self-taught, and only 15 percent of them received as much as nine hours of training in educational technology. Of the money American schools spent on technology last year only 5 percent was devoted to teacher training, and then the primary focus was on how to operate the equipment, rather than on selecting appropriate software and integrating technology into the curriculum.


To address this problem, businesses and professional organizations have begun to get involved. This March a California-based computer-chip manufacturer, National Semiconductor, began Global Connections, a three-year program to provide technology training for 6,000 Maine, Texas, and California K-12 teachers. In a two-day program teachers learn how to integrate the Internet with the subjects they teach, how to do online research, and how to publish projects. It is hoped they will then go back and show their peers what they have learned.

The NEA is also getting involved in teacher training. They are taking part in a campaign to recruit teachers who know how to use computers, and pair them up as mentors for teachers who don't. Their program, 21st Century Teachers, which is just two years old, has already identified more than 6,000 teachers willing and capable of training their peers.

School systems are scrambling to develop teacher-training programs, too, but there are no easy answers about how best to teach teachers to use technology to aid student learning. Rarely can one find statewide guidelines for technology integration, so each school district decides its own technology plan. Different schools' curriculum, style-of-teaching, and demographics are so different that what works in one place does not necessarily work in another.

In some cases schools are beginning to provide avenues through which teachers can learn. In some school systems teachers have the option of participating in summer institutes, graduate courses, in-house instruction, interacting with district technology experts, and/or interacting with computer consultants who come into the classroom and demonstrate different techniques. But in other school systems the training provided is very limited and poorly conducted.


Most teachers completed their education before computer technology was linked to classroom learning, and so without quality training they often are not prepared to use the technology they might have in their classrooms but not at home. One cannot expect teachers to buy their own computers and then teach themselves how to use them at home in their spare time. Nor can our society afford to wait until a new generation of teachers more familiar with information technologies enters the schools. But until we address the issue of how best to educate our teachers to use the technology, students are the ultimate losers.

Students can use computers in a variety of ways. They can use them to go over math problems or vocabulary words, in word processing, and for drills and exercises. Students can use computers to do simulations, move notes around a staff to understand the way different chords sound, and create environments where they can change the weather and see the effects. Students can use the Internet to collaborate on projects with others in the state or country, interacting with peers or asking questions from experts. They can communicate with pen pals in Australia or England, learning about that culture from someone their own age. Students can take virtual tours of historical places, access poetry databases, place their original poetry and art on the Web, create multimedia presentations, and use the computer as a research tool, finding material on the web and analyzing and evaluating it -- but only in those classrooms in which the teacher is well prepared and comfortable using the technology with students.

Teacher training is often hit and miss. To be most effective, training needs to be on site, individualized, and teacher-oriented, but it frequently isn't. Teachers in some schools are not as lucky as teachers in others in the quality or quantity of instruction available to them.

The professional development of teachers has often been an afterthought in American schools. When budgets get tight, staff development is often one of the first areas to be cut. Computer hardware and software investments are tangible and easily counted, while benefits from staff development efforts are more difficult to measure. But simply providing computers in the classroom does not mean teachers will use them in day-to-day instruction. If teachers are to become comfortable with the technologies that will reshape schools,

  • They must receive both pre-service training during their college years and in-service training during their careers.
  • They need time to attend technology courses and meetings and to experiment with new technologies.
  • They need access to technology in their classrooms and sufficient time to practice the new skills before they are forgotten.
  • They need to be able to observe their colleagues integrate technology into their curriculum and talk with them so that they can unlearn old practices and build new ones.
In the long run, for technology to succeed, as much time and money must be invested in teachers as is invested in the actual hardware and software.


  • Technology @ Your Fingertips: A Guide to Implementing Technology Solutions for Education Agencies & Institutions Decisions about technology can be daunting for a school, particularly if no one there has experience with hardware, software, or networking. That's why the Department Of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released in October a 100-page publication that tells how to define your needs and technical requirements; develop a "needs assessment;" determine what resources you have and what resources you will need; implement, support, and maintain your technology solution; provide effective training, and more.
  • MultiMedia Schools Magazine Offers discussions of practical ways to use the computer effectively in the classroom.
  • Multimedia Teaching Strategies Guidebook A guide to help teachers integrate technology into their classrooms, offering resources, concepts, and models that teachers might adapt to their own educational settings.
  • Integrating Technology in the Classroom This site offers K-2 teachers suggestions on lesson plans in different curriculum areas and how to set up learning centers that include computer use.
  • webTeacher Tutorial Created by teachers and developed by the National Cable Television Association and TECH Corps, a national non-profit organization dedicated to improving K-12 education, this site is a comprehensive, interactive, 80-hour, self-guided and self-paced tutorial available free to teachers on the Internet.

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Article by Glori Chaika
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