Articles on Professional Development

Electronic Frontier

Education and the Electronic Frontier:
If Telecomputing is So Good,
Why Aren't More Educators Using It?

written by Yvonne Marie Andres
Copyright 1991 (updated 8/96)

I'm frustrated! Thanks to fax machines, inexpensive information networks like Prodigy and visionary authors like Alvin Toffler, telecommunications is gradually becoming a household word. Yet, very few American schools are on-line and those educators that are "connected" have still several serious obstacles to overcome.

Why AREN'T More Schools Using Electronic Communications?

Basically, the problem lies in attitude, awareness, application, access, and accomplishments. The electronic frontier is not something that education has embraced with open arms.

ATTITUDE: There is a natural tendency to resist new ways of doing things

Several variations of the "attitude of resistance" are responsible for the slow acceptance of instructional telecomputing in the educational environment. Through surveys, interviews, and research, I found educators demonstrated five different types of resistance.

  1. The first group felt that it was less effort to keep on doing things the way they have always been done than to learn new ways of doing those things. Most of these people held the belief that the textbook should be focal point of instruction and the primary learning tool.
  2. Those in the second group were not exactly excited by challenge or motivated by the concept of "possibility." They had the let's wait, and wait, and wait, and see attitude.
  3. The third group was simply overly cautious and skeptical. They wanted "proof" and lots of statistics to prove that instructional telecomputing is "worth the time and money necessary to implement it."
  4. The fourth group simply felt overburdened and stated that most teachers were hard pressed to teach what is mandated without adding something new, no matter how promising the "new" thing was.
  5. The fifth group were simply fearful of technology.

AWARENESS: Educators don't know what telecomputing is

Luckily, attitudes like those expressed above are gradually changing and the number of sessions devoted to instructional applications of telecommunications, at local and national educational technology conferences, has continued to increase over the past five years. Yet, only a small percentage of technology using educators have even the most basic understanding of what telecomputing is. When ALL non-technology using teachers are added to the equation, the percentage of telecomputing "aware" educators becomes minuscule.

Words like modem, email, upload, bps, ASCII, Internet, and file attaching are foreign and meaningless to these teachers. They don't know there are "no cost," information rich networks like the FrEdMail Network (Free Educational Mail) and TRIE Network (Technology Resources in Education) that are available to them for the asking. They are unaware that using electronic communications as a tool in the classroom can be very motivational to students as well as a medium for developing effective oral and written language skills, and geographical, cultural, and socio-political understanding on a global scale. Finally, educators who are not on-line are missing the opportunity to exchange ideas and collaborate with colleagues all over the world.

My favorite story to illustrate how unfamiliar the concept of electronic communications is in education took place in 1985. My assignment was teaching gifted students language arts and social studies at a junior high school. I went to my principal and asked if I could use some Gifted Program funds to set up an electronic bulletin board. He was curiously silent for a few moments, and then with a very perplexed look on his face, he asked, "Why do we need an electronic bulletin board when we don't even play football at this school?" Gently I explained that it wasn't an electronic scoreboard I wanted to install, but an electronic information service for students and teachers. He approved my request and my odyssey began!

That was six years ago, but as recently as the Spring of 1991 I had to discourage a school that wanted to become involved in telecomputing from purchasing 30 modems (one for each computer in their lab), when they only had one phone line!

In my opinion a very important step is to establish a level of awareness. At the very least, educators must be able to describe what telecomputing is and how it can be used.

APPLICATION: Educators know what telecomputing is, but they don't know how to use it in their classrooms.

A small number of educators are becoming familiar with electronic information networks, but they do not know how to integrate the technology into their classrooms. They see the potential of long distance collaborative projects, but they do not know how to orchestrate them.

Using telecomputing as a writing, surveying, and data collecting tool requires an understanding of working collaboratively and an appreciation of timely responses. There is an entire on-line etiquette that has been developed to ensure successful participation in projects. (For details, read Telecommunications In The Classroom: Keys to Successful Telecomputing (May 1990).

Classroom teachers often do not know how to manage the individual components of a telecomputing activity. Who does the writing, word processing, file merging, uploading, downloading and message monitoring? (see Collaboration in the Classroom and Over the Internet, for suggestions).

Telecomputing is the perfect vehicle for collaborative learning, but many teachers do not have the expertise to teach students the social skills necessary for successful interactive learning projects. Attitude and awareness are important, but without the proper applications telecomputing is just another add-on to the curriculum.

ACCESS: Educators know how to use it in their classroom, but they don't have access

Access to modems and phoneline connections can be the most difficult obstacle to overcome. Only a handful of schools have modems set-up in the media centers or staff rooms for instructional purposes and even fewer teachers have communications access from their own classrooms. Teachers who believe in the power of this technology are often forced to telecompute from their homes using their own equipment. The biggest problem with this method is the lack of equal access and equity of opportunity.

Therefore, forward thinking schools and districts have written telecomputing into their School Master Plans or their Technology Usage Plans (TUPs), so that the acquisition of equipment is easier to justify and the availability to all student groups is more equitable. One teacher, in Oceanside who wanted to make telecomputing part of the science curriculum, had the insight to requisition one phoneline connection, with extension outlets in each classroom of the science wing. His thinking was that since teachers often get moved around, he wanted to ensure they would have access to telecomputing as a tool, just as they had access to chalk boards and pencil sharpeners.

Lack of access is often cited as the reason teachers are not using this technology with their students. (see Levels of Connectivity).

ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Those educators who have successfully integrated telecomputing are not documenting and sharing there successes with the rest of the educational community

There are dozens of examples of collaborative projects using telecomputing to enhance the curriculum. (for examples read TeleSensations: The Educators' Guide to Instructional Telecomputing). Yet, aside from the occasional article now and then, very little is written about these successes. How many educators, who are not presently using telecommunications, have heard about Letters to Santa, Let the Games Begin, the Global Grocery List Project, the "Say It" Survey, the Global Authors' Literary Anthology, Newsday, or the Zero-g Project? These are only a few examples of academically sound, interactive telecomputing projects. Educational networks including FrEdMail, AT&T Learning Network, and National Geographic's Kidsnet offer many well planned, curriculum aligned, telecomputing experiences.

Because telecomputing is a fairly new instructional medium, it is important that teachers who are successfully using telecomputing in their classrooms share their insights, management strategies, and project ideas with the rest of the academic community, as well as parents. This sharing and publicizing of successes can be done at the school site through staff meetings, newsletters and the PTA; in the community through the local media and Chamber of Commerce; and nationally through professional journals and publications.

In addition, an assessment component should be built in to telecomputing activities, just as assessment should be part of any instructional endeavor.

Existing models of successful and productive telecomputing applications need to be more widely disseminated; and funding must be made available to develop additional models.

In summary, I offer the following six "actions as answers" to increasing the number of schools interactively using electronic communications and establishing a foothold on the electronic frontier.

Believe me, this technology CAN make a difference in education!

Actions as Answers to Getting Connected

  1. Attitude - Accept that there are new and better ways of doing "old" things.
  2. Awareness - find out what's out there.
  3. Application - Learn how to integrate it into your classroom.
  4. Access - Acquire the necessary components and make them accessible.
  5. Accomplishments - Document and share your successes with others.
  6. Assessment - Measure the learning that has occurred.

If you have additional insights,
please write me at:

Copyright Yvonne Marie Andres
(Article originally published in FrEdNews, a publication of the Global Schoolhouse)