Skip to content
ascd logo

October 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 2

In Canada / How Computers Live in Schools

The voices of all teachers, not just the technophiles, must inform the debate about effective use of technology in the classroom.

One of the most common assumptions about technology in school is that it will act as a change agent, steering curriculum in bold new directions. In School's Out, Perlman (1992) claims that not only will technology close the door on traditional schools, but it will also render obsolete schools, students, and teachers as we think of them today. Are these notions borne out in the classroom? We think not. Much of the hyperbole about computers and education is founded on two main sources: lighthouse projects and visionary theory.
Who can deny the allure of reports of children in Nova Scotia talking to peers in Australia via the Internet, or of worldwide global warming projects in which pupils around the world take samples and compare data. Theorists also provide fuel for the imaginations of the technologically minded. Teaching and learning in a post-typographic world will be different from the education today, we are told, and such a point makes sense. But lighthouses and visions may mislead us.
Our research in Canada, over the past decade, has taken a different track. To be sure, we have developed software and tried it out in lighthouse projects, and we have offered views about the potential of technology from a theoretical perspective (Olson 1992). We also have attempted to assess the effectiveness of learning through technology (Miller et al. 1994). The bulk of our research, however, has focused on a seemingly neglected issue: how competent, but nontechnologically minded, teachers use computers. We decided to focus on “normal” teachers because, first, their voice is neglected. And, second, if technology truly is to enhance teaching and learning, the effects must be widespread. Such a general impact can be achieved only if large numbers of teachers are involved in its use.
Consider Lynda, a grade 3 teacher participating in our latest study, supported by the Spencer Foundation (Miller et al., in progress). Lynda, a teacher of eight years, is considered successful by peers, administrators, and parents. In her classroom, children are surrounded by traditional forms of learning such as books and manipulative materials. Lynda is a warm teacher who has the respect and love of her students. Although she has one Apple GS computer and a dot-matrix printer in her room, as well as an accessible computer lab, Lynda admits that “technology is not one of my strengths.”
We gave Lynda two Macintosh computers equipped with CD-ROM drives and approximately 60 CD-ROM talking books. Lynda learned with us about the various features of the technology, but she decided how to use it. Indeed, how she chose to use the technology was the focus of our study. This current investigation is typical of our work in that we frequently select able teachers and provide them with a technologically rich environment, much in the manner one sees in lighthouse projects. Unlike typical lighthouse projects, however, our teachers, for the most part, are computer novices. In other studies, we observe able teachers who are using the computers and software provided by their school boards to see how they cope with technology.
There are other distinct facets to our research. Typically, we study both teachers and the children in their classrooms. Second, most of our studies last for an extended period, some for as long as three years. Teachers need time to grow in their use of technology, and how they use computers during an initial period may not be indicative of long-term application.

Issues Arising from the Classroom

  1. Does technology steer curriculum? We have found that teachers' prior practices are more influential in determining how technology will be used than the technology itself (Miller and Olson 1994). For example, if the writer's workshop is not a natural component of the curriculum, introducing a sophisticated word processing package will not automatically foster a writing process approach in the language arts classroom. When teachers do use software in imaginative ways, we have learned to look seriously at prior practice for clues as to how they adapted programs to their curriculum.For example, after observing a grade 1 teacher using a database in a sophisticated manner, we thought a sound case could be made for technology leading the way to her teaching higher-level thinking skills. Upon examining the teacher's prior practice, however, we discovered her frequent use of matrix charts, where children categorized and sorted information in a complex fashion. The type of thinking, fostered routinely by this teacher, turned out to be similar to that required to build and use a computer database (Miller and Olson 1994).
  2. What are the trade-offs in using new information technology? Our work shows that teachers who use technology perhaps trade a valuable activity for learning at the computer. For example, a teacher who uses a simulation program for a science experiment may see little value in carrying out the experiment in real life. Clearly something is gained by doing the experiment in simulation—for example, precision in control of variables—but what is lost is the opportunity to observe how variables behave in the real world. We have seen children who—when astounded to see the differences in the results of plant experiments where light, water, and soil conditions are controlled in a simulation—conclude that the computer results rather than their own real-world experiments were correct.
  3. When is the computer an icon or personality? Teachers sometimes ascribe power to the computer that we believe it rightfully should not possess. For example, we have seen fine teachers who regularly call all students together before lunch for sharing or story time tell children working at the computer to remain there. Those children reading books come to the circle, as do those who are writing or working at learning centers. Only the children working on the computer stay at their task (DeJean et al. 1995). Why? We are uncertain. Teachers sometimes respond that computer time is valuable. Is it the cost of technology that modifies the teacher's routines, however; or is the computer given a special classroom place in terms of its power (Olson 1989)?
  4. Why set it and forget it? Many claims are made about the computer's ability to teach. One of the more insidious claims is that technology will free the teacher to engage in other, supposedly more useful, activities. Many otherwise competent teachers seem to accept this notion without question, and thus we see children working at a program for 30 or 40 minutes with little or no interaction from the teacher. Conversely, Lynda, the teacher in our study, frequently interacts with the children at the computer. She questions them about what they are doing, discusses problems, offers direction, and asks children to read passages on the screen. Moreover, she tracks their progress much as she does for noncomputer activities.
  5. Are teachers' views children's views? Teachers' views of software may or may not mirror those of children in the classroom. In one of our studies, the children were enamored with a piece of software that simulated a fishing trawler expedition off the Grand Banks of Canada. The teacher allowed the children to use the software only during free choice time, ignoring those students who used it. Upon closer examination, we discovered the children making sophisticated hypotheses about which nets to use, how to locate fish, and the use of such instruments as sonar. Because of the mismatch between the children's view and the teacher's perception of the software, however, no formal use was made of it in the classroom setting.In another instance, a teacher ignored one type of CD-ROM talking book because it stressed animation and music instead of focusing on children's reading needs through text. While we concurred with the teacher's evaluation, we also noted that the children clearly preferred the highly animated versions (DeJean et al. 1995).
  6. What are the unintended results? In one of the grade 3 classrooms we are currently studying, we noted consistent patterns of cooperative learning (DeJean et al. 1995). Children worked well together, and this cooperation extended to all types of groupings. Interestingly, when the children worked in pairs at the computer, reading CD-ROM talking books, the atmosphere was anything but harmonious. We came to term these sessions “the battle for the mouse.” While each program offered myriad assistance features, only one person at a time could control the mouse; therefore, only one reader's needs could be met. Most often, the stronger reader or the dominant personality took charge, but we observed numerous squabbles in an otherwise tranquil classroom. Surprisingly, the teacher took little note of the mouse wars because her previous experience demonstrated that the children could and did work harmoniously.

Where Do These Issues Lead?

Our research is not designed to find the one way to integrate technology into the classroom. We are interested in the issues that arise when able professionals attempt to make sense of technology. We believe that administrators, consultants, and teachers charged with the task of implementing technology into the schools must resist the siren call of futurists who purport to know what is best for everyone.
When the question “Who is in charge here?” is asked, we believe the answer should be the teachers who use the technology. We first must discover all we can about the enterprise of teachers. Only then should we call in the technologically minded, whose expertise can be molded to meet the teachers' needs rather than to present an ideal, abstract vision of computer use. If a teacher routinely asks children to write book reports, learning how to create electronic book reports might enhance the activity; however, if this type of learning is not part of the normal curriculum, technology will not likely steer the teacher in that direction.
Schools should be challenged by new ideas, but not by getting on the technology bandwagon. Teachers should look carefully at the software they use or plan to use. What trade-offs will they have to make in selecting a certain type of technology? Are the trade-offs worth it? Is the computer being given power and place not ascribed to other tools in the classroom? Are the children using the technology in the manner envisioned? If not, who should make the adjustment, and what should be the nature of this modification (Olson 1992)?
Teachers are busy professionals, and modifying an existing curriculum is not an easy task. In one of the examples described here, the teacher realistically decided that the CD-ROM books would not drive her curriculum; instead, they would be a natural aspect of teaching and learning. In some cases, this desire was fulfilled. In other instances, this desire took on the appearance of being fulfilled, but in our opinion was not (DeJean et al. 1995). That is, sometimes the technology indeed drove teaching and learning. In these instances, however, the teacher appeared to accede more to the curriculum provided in the technology than deliberately modify her own teaching based on suggestions within the software.
Teachers may plan to use technology in one manner, but, as we saw, children modify these plans through their actions. Cooperative learning didn't occur in the example we cited not because of the children's nature, but because the pairing patterns were discordant with the structure of the software. Educators who believe that technology automatically fosters effective learning styles and instructional patterns need to think seriously about such issues and others raised here. We think the real progress computers can stimulate comes from a healthy debate about what we really care about in classrooms and whether that is happening.
The issues we raise do not yield easy answers. However, we believe the difficult questions are the most interesting; further, they have the potential to help teachers in their quest to enhance learning. During one of our early studies, the first question a grade 1 teacher asked was, “If I have all these computers in my room, where am I going to put my plants?” A laugh and a wave of the hand by the computer specialist spoke to the value of her inquiry. At the time, we chuckled along with the rest. If we were back in that setting today, we would demand an answer.

DeJean, J., L. Miller, and J. Olson. (June 1995). “CD-ROM Talking Books: A Case Study of Promise and Practice.” Paper presented at the Canadian Society for Study in Education, Montreal, PQ.

Miller, L., J. Blackstock, and R. Miller. (1994). “An Exploratory Study Into the Use of CD-ROM Storybooks.” Computers and Education 22: 187–204.

Miller, L., J. DeJean, and J. Olson. (In progress). “A Case Study of One Grade 3 Teacher's Use of CD-ROM Technology.”

Miller, L., and J. Olson. (1994). “Putting the Computer in Its Place: A Study of Teaching With Technology.” The Journal of Curriculum Studies 26: 121–141.

Olson, J. (1989). “Surviving Innovation: Reflection on the Pitfalls of Practice.” Journal of Curriculum Studies 2: 503–508.

Olson, J. (1992). Understanding Teaching: Beyond Expertise. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Perlman, L. J. (1992). School's Out: Hyperlearning, the New Technology, and the End of Education. New York: William Morrow.

Larry Miller has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 195218.jpg
How Technology Is Transforming Teaching
Go To Publication