COMPUTERS IN TEACHING
By Norma Scagnoli - ELI S60 - August, 1998
"The speed with which technology has developed since the invention of the computer has been extraordinary and surprisingly sustained. For educators, the rapid and continuing introduction of new technology into education, has outpaced the ability of teachers and developers to evaluate it properly, " says Levy, (1997:1). And he continues, that as soon as teachers have become acquainted with one kind of software and hardware and have developed some ability to use it for educational purposes, "better" machines appear to displace it.
According to Ahmad et al (1985), computers bring to education what all new technical devices have brought about: skepticism and fear, or "euphoria followed by frustration," because teachers, who in the past were demanded to master the use of a textbook, chalk and blackboard have lately been exerted to become experts in the use of a whole range of new technologies, such as slide projectors, cassette recorders, overhead projectors, language laboratories, video recorders, and now – computers. This disappointment may be due to a failure in the focus of teacher training, which for years has pointed to the techniques and the advantages in using new technologies but not to classroom strategies, "where teachers are struggling is at the application level: how to integrate it into the classroom" (Leonard, J in Cwiklick, R: 1997)
Though, as Levy says, it would be irresponsible to go after each technological discovery, teachers must try and understand what is happening despite the pace of change, and think of positive and productive techniques for managing innovation.
Ahmad (1985) also affirms that teachers do not want to become computer scientists. Rather they want to know how they computer can help in their everyday business of teaching.
The question that arises is how teachers should deal with computers at school. They’d better train students in computes skills in a specific area like IT , or they must consider computers as part of the class as the pencil, pen, chalk and blackboard. (Classe, 1998)
"In our schools, every classroom in America must be connected to the information superhighway with computers and good software and well-trained teachers" (Clinton, B: 1996, in Bush et al: 1997)
Teacher training has been supported by different sources, as mentioned by Cwiklik (1997). Federal funds have been used in programs such as the Technology Innovation Challenge Grant Program, which provides funds for schools developing projects that encourage the good use of technology in education. And the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund set up last year for state education agencies to distribute to school-technology initiatives.
Schools, districts or teachers’ certified agencies also sustain programs to develop teacher training, such as the Community School District One in New York, the New York Public Schools with the "Project Smart", or the Olympia, WA, School district which devised the original "Generation Why." All mentioned by Cwiklik in Wall Street Journal (1997).
Teacher training is also left up to teachers who want to initiate participation by themselves, and enroll in some of the multiple courses offered by colleges all over the USA.
Graphic #1: Source: Wall Street Journal, Nov.17, 1997
In any case, as Katie Hickox (1997) says, teacher training will be an urgent priority. She quotes Geof Fletcher (Texas Assistant State Education Commission) who stated that it is hard to document in a budget, the results of a quality professional development program.
Especially when these results show that in spite of all economic efforts, the job of training teachers is nowhere near finished. Only 31% of schools (as shown in Graphic #1) offer incentive for teachers to get technology training, according to an Education Department study in Cwiklik’s article.
Governments in many countries as well as in the US, have understood the importance of teacher training and many states are doing as Florida, where every district is required to devote one third of its technology funding to teacher training. (Hickox: 1997)
Universities have developed programs that include teacher training as part of their curriculum. For example the University of Illinois in Urbana appointed a Technology Research and Task Force which is in charge of developing a plan for technology research in college aiming to stream technology issues throughout elementary and secondary teacher education programs. (On-line information: http://www.ed.uiuc.edu/oet/people.html). The Oregon State University is developing an interesting on line issue through the English Language Institute (ELI) by which a "Technology Tips of the Month" document appears every month with instructions and ideas to improve the use of the computer in the classroom. (On line: http://www.orst.edu/Dept/eli/prevtips.html)
As Hickox states teachers’ and administrators’ attitudes about technology are shifting, and quotes Sue Bastion –director of Teaching Matters in UK- who reports that the jump has been from 30% in 1995 to 80% now, of technology-interested trainees.
Though not all projects for teacher training have been successful. In some cases, Cwiklin explains, timing has been a problem, as teacher receive training but, as they do not have computers at home or at the schools where they work, when they have got the opportunity to apply what they have learn they have lost part of the training. Usually they attend courses in a college or another institution different from where they work, and when they want to use their recently acquired ability they realize that the hardware or software they had used in training is different from the one they have at schools so they feel disappointed because they have to start again, by themselves.
According to Cwiklik, the projects carried out also faced difficulties in their developments. Such is the case of Project Smart in New York, which was a very expensive project that included the provision of laptops for attending teachers to "prevent skill erosion." This project was not completed developed by lack of specialists. Another ambitious project is the 21st Century Project, later called Mc Guffey, which was developed by a non profit organization in Washington. This one encouraged peer-to-peer training in a net system by which 100,000 teachers with certain knowledge in technology would mentor 5 others, creating "a half-million system pool". This project is stuck by lack of money, and actions are being carried on to have the program re-launched.
Another difficulty that may arise in the application of technology and the use of computers in schools, is parents’ attitudes towards the use of computers in class. According to Alice Classe (1998) in her article "Some cons and pros of IT in schools", some prejudices are shown in expressions such as say "we don’t want our children playing computer games all day – they go to school to learn," or, "we want our children to be taught by a human not a machine," or, "our children won’t learn to spell and count if they have computers to do it for them." Or, finally, " we think it’s bad for children to sit in front of a computer all day."
Colleges have also devoted some research and projects toward changing people’s opinions about technology. Professors from the Northwestern University, in their research in a document called Using the WWW to Build Learning Communities in K-12, suggest that parents can provide a vitally needed source of mentoring for students and a source of support for teachers. They can become an audience interested in students’ work, helping to the teacher in the responsibility of being an audience for too many students. When students have access to Internet their work is widely available by a greatly expanded audience. (1998)
These professors provide a notable example as the Hillside Elementary School (1994) in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, where students create their own personal WWW pages, in effect giving the students a personalized presence on the Internet. In an analogous attempt to allow parents access to school life many schools, especially in urban areas, have begun using "voice mail" systems. These systems allow parents to phone the school, and through a series of touch-tone commands, learn about their child’s attendance record or daily assignments. These systems have been very successful in alerting parents to the work their students should be doing, and aids parents in monitoring homework and academic progress. If a school is able to make student work available on-line, a leap is made from showing parents what students should be doing to what students are doing. Beyond seeing their own child’s work, parents would be able to view the work of other students. This allows parents to see how their child compares to others, so that they can make a self-determination of academic progress that is based upon quality of output, not on grades or class rankings. Furthermore, through the addition of a forms-based interface, parents could provide feedback on or critique their child’s work, adding another dimension to its evaluation. (On line: http://www.ascusc.org)
A third matter of concern, also pointed out by Alice Classe (1998), is the worry of many teacher who are afraid that computers will automate tasks that a child need to learn to do, as they also worry that the premature use of calculators will stop children from bothering to learn the tables.
The fear that computers may be dangerous for reasoning development in children is refuted by Margaret Cox (senior lecturer in educational computing and chairwoman in the Association of Coordination of Teachers of IT) cited in the article by Alice Classe. Ms Cox has conducted research that shows positive gains from the use of Instructional Technology in learning math and English. She says "the misunderstanding is that people see computers as peripheral to the acquisition of these basic skills. In fact, there’s ample research evidence to show that using computers to promote a basic skill, such as literacy, has significant positive effects. You can write then review and improve what you have written without being held back by any difficulties that you may have when manipulating a pencil."
This point is also well depicted by Peter Coffee (1998:66) in his column in PC Week, where he states that "Classroom observers reported the most dramatic improvements in students’ interest when the students realized that their teachers were also trying to figure out why a given program wasn’t working. Students were galvanized by the idea that there was not an answer in the back of the book – that the student was creating something genuinely new."
As Cwiklin reports in his article, students enthusiasm for computers is such a potent force that the Olympia School District launched the Generation Why program in which students get the computer training, because they "pick the technology faster." Then they serve as mentors for their teachers. This program has shown great improvement in tests scores and is enriched by the participation of parents, workers of Microsoft and Intel.
The worry that computer may be the device that will take teachers away from their places in front of the students, is showed in the resistance to computer training by some teachers who judge this as boring, irrelevant, insulting and condescending. (Cwiklin: 1997)
Daniel Kinnaman in Familiar themes (1997) makes many teachers breathe easily, as they were holding their breath when technology burst into the educational fields, expressing the idea that "modern technology comprises the richest sets of educational tools in the history of the world, but the art of teaching is still safely and surely the province of human teachers only"(34).
Though this also means that, teachers should keep up with technology, because as he states in the final paragraph of his article, it is not replacing the teacher that technology is best used, but it is the skillful teacher who "orchestrates" the computer role, balancing between stimulation and excitement, investigation and provision, observation and action. He remarks that it is the "human" teacher the one who possesses the philosophy of education and the ability to cultivate in students a desire for academic and intellectual independence.
All these changes in programs, attitudes and concepts in education point to technology as unavoidable subject for research and training.
Katya Hickox foresees a positive future in this matter as most training institutions may "fall into line" at least afraid of losing their "clientele." She paraphrases McClintock from Teacher’s College, in his saying that the fact that colleges require undergraduates to own or use a computer, educational schools will be dealing with an increasing sophisticated individuals, and students will pass from college into the profession with skills already in place.
Teacher Tom Layton from Eugene, OR, also quoted in Hackox article, says that schools will say to have two kind of teachers: "those who want to bring all of education opportunities out there in the world and those who can’t."
The fear for the unknown is part of human nature and has largely been demonstrated in all fields, even in education. Our task as teachers is to try to be a step ahead of our students, if not we are not achieving our goal. In these times it may be difficult to acquire more technological skills than our students, as the opportunities to develop them are open to both. But as Kinnaman says "it is teachers who can best help us to avoid the great mistake of wasting new technologies on the same old way of doing business. They are the ones best prepared to shape its role, to create a better way of doing things."(34)
We observe that the world is changing around us and education remains immutable. Teachers teach and students learn pretty much the way things were done hundreds of years ago. Given the role that education plays in preparing students go into the world it seems clear that there should be a connection between the world and the classroom. Unless education reflects the world in which it exists, it has no relevance for the students.