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Technology and Schooling

    Technology has always been an important part of schooling in America, but until recently the technology employed was rather simple and changed slowly. No one reading this article can remember when there were no textbooks, but the kind of textbooks we have today are largely products of the 20th century. Nor did teachers always have their primary tools – the blackboard and chalk. Slate blackboards did not appear in urban schools until the 1830s.
    When I was a young boy, one of the rituals at the start of the school year was a trip to the local department store to purchase school supplies: a “Big Chief” tablet, pencils, rubber erasers, pens with removable points (they became dull quickly), and a bottle of ink. Sometimes a pencil box would be added so that I could keep track of my personal supplies. Parents and students today go through similar shopping rituals each year. The technology has changed somewhat (ball-point pens have replaced ink and straight pens, pencil boxes have given way to backpacks), but it is essentially the same.
    There have been many attempts to change the technology of schooling. They have each appeared with great fanfare and expressions of optimism by advocates. In the 1920s, radio was expected to have a major impact on schools; in the 1930s, it was to be film; in the 1950s, television; and in the 1960s, teaching machines. The one piece of new technology from those bygone years that truly found a place was the overhead projector. Introduced in the 1940s by the military, it gradually found its way into the schools. The overhead projector is easy to use and relatively inexpensive, it permits the teacher to prepare notes in advance of class and to project them onto the screen for all to see, and it can be used without darkening the room or turning one’s back to the students. In many ways it is the perfect technology for supporting the kind of instruction that takes place in most classrooms today.
    More advanced technology has hit the schools at about the same time as have ideas for school restructuring and findings from the cognitive sciences. According to Karen Sheingold, “The successful transformation of student learning and accomplish-ment in the next decade requires effectively bringing together three agendas – an emerging consensus about learning and teaching, well-integrated uses of technology, and restructuring. Each agenda alone presents possibilities for educational redesign of a very powerful sort. Yet none has realized or is likely to realize its potential in the absence of the other two.” I agree.
    Skeptics will argue that we are merely going through another cycle of reform. School reforms come almost every decade; the schools absorb as many of the new ideas as they want and reject the rest. The result is that schools change very little where it truly counts – in the classroom. But the synergy of school restructuring, new forms of learning and teaching, and new technology will make the difference this time.
    The forces driving the Information Age seem irresistible. It is impossible both to participate fully in the culture and yet resist its defining features. Thus, if the schools are an “immovable object” (and I don’t believe they are), they are beginning to meet the “irresistible force” – Information Age technology.
    The analogy I carry in my head is that of a volcano erupting in Hawaii, spewing forth ash and lava. We have all seen pictures of such eruptions and what follows. The lava slowly oozes its way down the mountain toward the sea. No device or structure raised by human beings can block it. It either consumes all obstacles in fire or rolls over them. Finally, the lava reaches the sea – nature’s immovable object. Throughout the process there is a lot of noise, smoke, and steam that can distract one’s attention from the fundamental process that is taking place: the transformation of the landscape. In the most dramatic cases, entirely new islands appear. A volcanic eruption changes the environment in unpredictable ways; it is also irresistible.
    Information Age technology is like that volcano. It is changing the landscape of American culture in ways we either take for granted or scarcely notice. There are holdouts. Many of us see no need for placing telephones in our cars or buying mobile telephones. Some believe that television is a corrupting influence and refuse to have a set in their homes. I know such people; I am largely sympathetic to their views. But most people who think television can be corrosive buy one anyway and try to control its use.
    I cannot predict how schools will accommodate themselves to the force of computers and other electronic technologies. Some schools will move more quickly than others; some teachers will not change at all. The process may be slow enough that many teachers will be able to retire before they are forced to change. Some will quit teaching, and it is likely that some will remain anachronisms in a greatly altered school environment – antiques of a sort, surrounded by modernity but refusing even to use the telephones in their classrooms.
    But schools will change! I don’t know whether teachers will use the new technologies in the ways constructivists anticipate; other reformers have urged teachers to adopt similar progressive ideas in the past with mostly negative results. Perhaps technology will support constructivist approaches and make learner-centered instruction a practice as well as a theory this time. I don’t know whether schools will have site-based management or some other kind of organizational structure. Other theories of learning and school organization will certainly appear. The exact shape of future schools is unclear, but of this I am certain; schools will be unable to resist the new technology. The new technology will be used in schools because it appeals to students and may enhance learning and because the schools can offer no reasonable defense for rejecting it.
    The use of the new technologies will have a profound effect on schools. The very relationship between students and teachers will be challenged because the technologies enable learners to gain control of their own learning. In the past, schools have been places where people in authority decided what would be taught (and possibly learned), at what age, and in what sequence. They also decided what would not be taught – what would not be approved knowledge. The new technologies provide students access to information that was once under the control of teachers.
    Years ago, as a high school teacher, I received a note from a colleague who was teaching a course in American history for the first time. He had given students reading assignments from one set of books while he turned to other books as sources for his lectures. The note said, “The game is up. The students know where I am getting my information.” That is happening everywhere today, and the game is truly up. No teacher can compete with the power and the capability of the new technology as a presenter of information. If teachers and schools try to sustain that role, they will be whipped. On the other hand, no teachers will be replaced by a machine unless they attempt to do only what the machine can do better.
    It may be that the technology will be used most extensively first by privately financed schools, such as Sylvan Learning Systems, Kaplan Educational Centers, or the schools of the Edison Project. Privately financed schools that successfully demonstrate the value of technology may provide the incentive to persuade public institutions of the instructional value of technology. Perhaps public schools that employ the new technologies successfully in restructured environments will begin as magnet schools or even charter schools; if they succeed, then the use of technology may spread to the remainder of the schools in a district. Possibly the technological challenge to public education will come from home schooling, when parents discover that through technology they not only retain the current advantage of home schooling but also gain access to the academic resources of the public schools and of the world.
    The genie is out of the bottle. It is no longer necessary to learn about the American War of Independence by sitting in Mrs. Smith’s classroom and hearing her version of it. There are more powerful and efficient ways to learn about the Revolutionary War, and they are all potentially under the control of the learner. Either schools will come to terms with this fact, or schools will be ignored.
    It has never been easy for schools to change, and it is not going to be easy now. The current reform effort has been compared to changing a tire on a car that is continuing to speed down the highway. The job is actually much harder than that, because it is not repair but transformation that is required. It is more akin to changing a car into an airplane while continuing to drive the car. We are asking schools to become something different, without a clear picture of what the new institution should look like, even as we continue to satisfy the public that the old purposes of schooling are being served as well as or better than in the past.
    Availability and Use of Technology in Schools Today
    No one knows for certain what kind of technology exists in schools, how it is used, how much it is used, whether what exists is actually available to teachers, and whether what exists is broken, worn-out, or still in unopened boxes. It is hard enough to maintain an up-to-date inventory within a given school district without trying to do the same for the nation. Various individuals and organizations have conducted surveys on technology use, and these provide some clues as to the situation generally.
    Computers. We know that the number of computers in schools has grown enormously since 1983. At that time it was estimated that there were fewer than 50,000 computers in the nation’s schools; by 1994 the estimate was revised to 5.5 million. In 1981 only about 18% of schools had one or more computers for instructional use; by 1994 this figure had risen to 98%. There is hardly a school in America today without at least one computer.
    These figures tell us very little about student access to computers, however. In 1985 the median number of computers in K-6 elementary schools that used computers was three; that number rose to about 18 in 1989. In high schools for the same two years the numbers were 16 and 39 respectively. By 1994 the ratio of students to computers across all grades was 14 to 1. Thus, while there has been rapid growth in the number of computers in each school, the opportunity for a typical student to have access to a computer is still limited. For example, as late as 1989 a student might have had access to a computer for one hour per week – about 4% of instructional time.
    A second issue concerns the location of computers and how they are used. The most common pattern in schools is to cluster 20 or so machines in a single laboratory and then to schedule classes for time in the lab once a week. A decade ago computers were used mainly to teach programming, to teach about computers (computer literacy), and to run drill-and-practice exercises. More recently, computers have been used for enrichment, as work tools, and – less frequently – for purposes of computer literacy. However, computers in elementary schools continue to be used heavily to teach basic skills, and this pattern is growing in high schools. Federal funds for at-risk children have been a major source of school funding for computers, so it is hardly surprising that schools rely on them primarily for teaching basic skills and for remedial instruction. The use of computers to support instruction in the academic areas or to allow students independent exploration is sharply limited. Indeed, many American students have more access to a computer at home than at school.
    Video. Video use in schools seems to be growing and taking different forms. Instructional television, in which a program is broadcast to schools at scheduled times during the day from a state-operated or district-run studio, continues to exist, but it is not as significant as in the past. Many of these broadcasts were developed nationally through a consortium led by the Agency for Instructional Technology. The programs were designed to fit the school curriculum as determined by the state departments of education that were the most prominent consortium members.
    As a result of federal financing through the Star Schools program, many schools are able to use courses delivered nationwide by satellite and originating from a single source at a predetermined time. These programs typically feature courses that are difficult for small schools to offer on their own, e.g., courses in German or Japanese or advanced courses in mathematics and the sciences. Rural schools in particular have taken advantage of these offerings; about one-third of all rural schools have the capability of receiving satellite broadcasts.
    The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is developing new programming for schools, and the Learning Channel and the Discovery Channel both provide programs that offer useful information for schools.
    As a result of this proliferation of educational programming, the VCR has become a nearly ubiquitous piece of school technology. Virtually every school in the United States has at least one, and many teachers routinely collect tapes to use with their classes. Because it is more flexible and user friendly, the videotape has taken the place of film for instruction.
    CD-ROM and videodiscs offer other ways for schools to employ video. The use of these media, while still limited, is growing rapidly. According to Quality Education Data, Inc., 26% of all school districts had videodisc technology in 1994, as compared to 18% in 1992-93.
    Results. It would be wonderful if we could point to specific data that would demonstrate conclusively that the use of one technology or approach produced better results than the use of some other technology or approach. Alas, the problem is not so simple.
    First, the existence of a particular technology does not prescribe the way in which it will be used. Yet how a technology is actually used is critically important. One English teacher might use computers mainly for drill on grammar and spelling, while another English teacher might allow students to use the computers for word processing.
    Much of the evaluation research on media use is based on a specific intervention and focuses on short-term results. It seeks to determine, for example, whether the students receiving computer-assisted instruction (CAI) perform better than do those in a control group. In studies of this kind, the experimental group nearly always wins, but seldom does the investigator study the two groups a year or two later to find out if the gain has survived. Studies of short-term results, though interesting, are of marginal value to policy makers.
    What we need are studies of an altogether different order. When students and teachers are immersed in technology over time, will we detect changes in how students learn and how teachers teach? While it may be important to see some gain on a particular test, those who are trying to reform schools have larger goals in mind. Before we spend billions of dollars to equip every student with a computer at home and one at school and before we spend millions to equip teachers and to provide them with the necessary training, we need to know whether such a colossal investment of public funds makes sense.

    The Future of Technology in the Schools

    Thus far I have focused on the technology available to schools today. What about the future? We are only at the threshold of the Information Age. Tools we now treat as technical marvels will seem primitive in five years. Commodore Pets, IBM PC jrs, and the first Apple machines are throwaway items today. We can predict with certainty that technology will become faster, cheaper, more powerful, and easier to use. We can also predict that new devices that we can scarcely imagine today will be on the market before the end of this decade. Schools that expect to invest in a single computer system and then forget about technology purchases for several years will be surprised and disappointed. Schools must make decisions regarding additions and/or upgrades to their technology every year, in line with their own strategic plans.
    Without going into detail regarding specific pieces of hardware, I can say with confidence that schools should expect more integration, interaction, and intelligence from future technology. In their early days in school, computers and video were regarded as separate entities, and it was assumed they stay that way. In fact, we can expect a continuing integration of these technologies. Voice, data and images will be brought together into one package. One current example of this process is desk-top video. In a single, relatively inexpensive unit, one has telephone (voice), computer (data storage and manipulation), and video (sending and receiving moving images) capabilities. Those who use the machine can talk to people at a distance, exchange documents, work collaboratively, and even see their collaborators on screen.
    Technology will also become more interactive. In the field of distance learning, rather than rely strictly on one-way video and two-way audio communication, teachers and students will see one another simultaneously, thereby making distance learning more like face-to-face classroom interaction. Computer-based instruction will also be designed to respond to learners’ interests and abilities, giving them greater control over what they need to learn and the pace at which they learn it. And computer searches, which can now be bewildering to the casual user, will become easier and more responsive to what a user needs. Greater interactivity will make instructional programs even more powerful than they are today.

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