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Computers in the High School Classroom

High school teachers face enormous pressure to prepare students for state standardized tests, college admissions tests, and AP exams. Do computers "get in the way" of teaching in such an environment or can technology improve achievement without taking time away from the curriculum? Education World's Tech Team offers opinions on the reality and possibilities of "teching" in high school. Included: Nine easy ways to integrate technology in high school.

AP admissions tests....the dreaded state standardized matter where you are in America, if you teach high school, you're probably teaching to a test. Almost everything you do in the high school classroom seems to revolve around test success, and much of that means cramming students with equations, dates, concepts, vocabulary, and more.

Is there room for computers in this quest for test success? Are the benefits of technology-infused lessons worth the risks of time away from a traditionally taught curriculum? Education World asked members of its Tech Team, many of whom are high school teachers themselves, what's really happening in high school technology -- and what could be happening with a little knowledge and planning.


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John Tiffany, a high school science teacher at Wauseon (Ohio) High School confesses, "So much is demanded of us, with the curriculum being test driven, that there is too much real information to cover." In some ways, Tiffany argues, teaching technology in elective classes is easier, since the curriculum can allow for greater flexibility.

At college preparatory schools, the pressure might be even greater, according to Judy Rutledge, coordinator of educational technology at Tennessee's Memphis University School. She says, "Whether they like to admit it or not, college prep schools often are greatly affected by AP exam scores, SAT test scores, and the number of students they can place in prestigious universities."

That very real pressure is echoed by Fred Bartels, director of information technology at Rye Country Day School in New York. Bartels argues that, in many ways, laptop programs in particular -- in which students and teachers have 24/7 access to technology -- are easier to implement in middle school than in high school. Middle school classes, he argues, have more curricular flexibility than classes in grades 9-12, where the push to prepare for AP and other tests is paramount. "Effective integration is possible in the upper grades but it is harder and takes longer," he notes.

It might be, however, that some high school teachers view technology differently than others. Brenda Dyck, technology integration coach at Master's Academy and College in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, says, "Many high school teachers view technology as a tack-on for an already packed full program and they don't think they have time for it. That's because they can't envision technology being a conduit to delivering and enhancing the curriculum they teach."


In addition to the curricular pressures in high school, Tech Team members report a shortage of computer access. In schools where laptops are present, but not required, for all students, Fred Bartels worries that "changes in upper-school pedagogical practices might be delayed a long time--some teachers use that as an excuse for not making better use of computers."

As at any level of K-12 education, teachers' technology skills and interest also play a major role in how much computers are used in the high school classroom. Fred Holmes, high school LanManager/Webmaster at Osceola (Nebraska) High School has found that new teachers integrate technology more, perhaps due to more experience with integration during their preservice training.


When technology is used in high school classrooms, Tech Team members report that many teachers give the same lectures and assign the same reports as they have in the past, only using technology when it's obvious and convenient. Holmes, for example, sees teachers who use projectors to share notes and maps. PowerPoint presentations or using whiteboards to highlight relevant Web sites are ways Judy Rutledge has seen technology used by high school teachers.

When students get access to computers, it's usually for research and word processing, according to Brenda Dyck, Judy Rutledge, and Jane Maness, technology integration coordinator for Harding Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.


There's no time, little training, and few computers. So, why bother using technology for more than note-taking and researching in high school classrooms? First, many high school students demand it. The skill and interest level in technology, as well as access to handhelds, laptops, and tablet computers, means students can -- and want to -- use technology. Melanie Northcutt, Latin teacher at Girls Preparatory School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, finds that many students "want to use their laptops for everything."

Another rationale for using technology in high school is that it can, in fact, improve the skills needed for success on standardized tests. As Brenda Dyck notes, "Technology is especially effective for facilitating the development of critical thinking skills in students. Technology helps move students from restating information to creating new information; facilitating innovative thinking in students. That is why the use of technology is especially useful in AP classes, in which teachers should be taking students beyond the regular curriculum."

Finally, technology's strength is its ability to break down classroom walls, figuratively speaking. Real time learning, in which students can remotely control microscopes at laboratories thousands of miles away or speak to experts in almost any field, for example, means that students are more engaged to learn. Technology, according to Elizabeth Sky-McIlvain, Literacy 8 teacher at Freeport (Maine) Middle School, "is, at the very least, a tool that facilitates learning in a now time and an any place."


If and when a high school teacher is interested in moving technology integration beyond PowerPoint lectures and Internet research, what's next? Our Tech Team shared the following practical and innovative approaches to using technology in grades 9-12.

  • Online quizzes: Tom Haynes, master instructor in Math at Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana, and Melanie Northcutt have students test online. Melanie says that students enjoy seeing what they got right and wrong just as soon as they finish the test, and they like having copies of quizzes to study later on.
  • Online databases: Judy Rutledge sees students opting for more scholarly resources at some of the online databases subscribed to by her school, rather than the often questionable quality of some Internet sources.
  • Microsoft OneNote software: Melanie Northcutt uses this note-taking software as a fast way to go over translations, combine many students' work into one file, and compare answers quickly.
  • Online classes: Fred Holmes says that Osceola High School is just beginning to move toward "e-learning," a vital component of the National Educational Technology Plan.
  • Primary sources: Elizabeth Sky-McIlvain notes that both online primary sources and public domain texts are valuable resources not available to students until just recently.
  • Student-created portfolios: Tom Haynes publishes his students' portfolios on the Web.
  • Probeware: Judy Rutledge says that at her school, students in both AP Biology and AP Chemistry use probes to collect real world data. Elizabeth Sky-McIlvain agrees, adding that students also can use portable image collecting field microscopes.
  • Technology-infused electives: Convinced technology can't fit in the main subject areas? Paul Aldridge, upper school teacher at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, created a freshman elective -- based on an old speech class -- in which students create substantive, cross-curricular projects. The class is entirely paperless, with laptops, e-mail, and Blackboard (a course management program) providing the tools needed to develop and present the projects.
  • Blogging: Elizabeth Sky-McIlvain sees journaling online as a powerful tool in current events lessons in particular. She adds that blogs or online peer editing can be invaluable when teaching students how to write AP level essays.

So, the pressure is real and the resources might be scant. Still, whether a teacher wishes to start with small steps or make huge leaps into the technology-infused classroom, options are available.

Who Are They?

The Education World Tech Team includes more than 50 dedicated and knowledgeable educational-technology professionals who have volunteered to contribute to occasional articles that draw on their varied expertise and experience. The following Tech Team members contributed to this article:

Article by Lorrie Jackson
Education World®
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Updated 03/05/2012