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October 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 2

Teachers and Technology: Potential and Pitfalls

Schools are steadily increasing their access to new technologies, a comprehensive federal study finds. But an enormous gap exists between present practice and what technology enthusiasts envision.

Schools are steadily increasing their access to new technologies, a comprehensive federal study finds. But an enormous gap exists between present practice and what technology enthusiasts envision.
Technophiles and skeptics alike can find plenty of ammunition for their views in a new report from the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). Teachers and Technology: Making the Connection is a comprehensive study of the presence and impact of technology in U.S. schools.
First, the good news. Schools' access to various technologies is rising at a steady clip. For example, OTA estimates that U.S. schools have about 5.8 million computers for instruction—about one for every nine students. That's an increase of about 700,000 computers per year for the past three years. Thirty-five percent of schools now have access to some kind of computer network, and nearly every school has TVs and VCRs. Almost 30 percent of schools now have CD-ROMs, a fourfold increase since 1991.
Better still, some schools are capitalizing upon this access by offering richer, more varied, and more engaging learning opportunities to students. OTA's report is bursting with examples of teachers and students' taking advantage of new technologies in exciting and productive ways. In scattered schools around the nation, students are participating in international research projects via computer and modem, sending e-mail to scientists, preparing multimedia research papers, or videotaping one another for a class project. Teachers are communicating online with colleagues, scanning CD-ROM databases for lesson resources, or using software to effortlessly calculate grades. But such practices, OTA says, remain the exception, not the norm—at least for now.

Modest Applications

For a variety of reasons, most teachers today who use technologies use them in traditional ways. OTA found that the most common uses of technology today are the uses of video for presenting information, the use of computers for basic skills practice at the elementary and middle school levels, and the use of word processing and other generic programs for developing computer-specific skills in middle and high schools.Other uses of technologies—such as desktop publishing, developing mathematical and scientific reasoning with computer simulations, information-gathering from databases on CD-ROM or networks, or communicating by electronic mail—are much rarer in the classroom. Technologies are not used widely in traditional academic subjects in secondary schools. In fact, only 9 percent of secondary students report using computers for English class, 6–7 percent for math class, and 3 percent for social studies. Why aren't more schools tapping into the power of new technologies to reshape curriculum and instruction? The list of barriers identified by OTA is long and disheartening.
Despite increases in access to new technologies, schools are not sufficiently stocked, powered, or wired. About one-half of the computers in schools are older 8-bit models incapable of supporting advanced applications, such as CD-ROM or network integration. Further, computers and peripherals often are located in a computer lab, where teachers don't have the access to them that would support their use as an everyday tool. About one-half of the computers used for instruction in 1992 were placed in computer labs, while about 35 percent were in teachers' classrooms, OTA found. About one-third of U.S. schools have access to the Internet, but only 3 percent of classrooms do.
Moreover, most teachers have not had adequate training in how to use various technologies in their classrooms. And the training they receive usually focuses on the mechanics of operating new machines, with less attention given to how technology can be helpful in studying specific subjects. The picture in preservice programs is not much brighter. “Overall, teacher education programs in the United States do not prepare graduates to use technology as a teaching tool,” OTA found.
A third explanation for the somewhat disappointing status of technology use is an overall lack of vision and clarity of goals with regard to technology's role in the school. Technologies are changing rapidly, and so are the ways schools are expected to use them. Schools were first urged to teach students computer programming, for example; a few years later, they were prodded to focus on applications such as word processing and spreadsheets. Add in the fact that “getting the technology” sometimes overshadows the question of how teachers want to change their instruction, and what role technology can play in assisting that. “It is small wonder that teachers have become confused, and administrators frustrated, with many educators unclear where they should be headed in technology use,” OTA says.
Perhaps the biggest barrier to technology use is time: time for training, time for teachers to try out technologies in their classrooms, time to talk to other teachers about technology. If teachers aren't given more time to explore the uses of various technologies, and if the help they need in terms of training and support isn't available, progress toward the vision held by proponents will be slow indeed.
End Notes

1 OTA's report, Teachers and Technology: Making the Connection, is available for $19 from the U.S. Government Printing Office. Call (202) 512-1800 for more information.

John O'Neil has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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