Articles on Professional Development

The Failure and the Promise of Technology in Education

Al Rogers, Global SchoolNet Foundation

If we consider their impact on the normal life of the average American classroom, without question computers have failed to deliver the transformation in learning that has been promised and promoted over the past fifteen years. Walk into most any classroom in most any school in America today and you'll walk into a time warp where the basic tools of learning have not changed in decades.

While it is true that students in countless schools have computer experiences of varying degrees, the fact is that those experiences are usually not wed to the "normal" academic life of the rest of the school. Teachers simply have not embraced the computer as a basic tool of learning.

It is no secret, of course, that one of the biggest failures is the lack of appropriate staff development (see the Office of Technology Assessment report, Teachers & Technology: making the connection, April, 1995). And of course, when one talks about technology and staff development, the focus is often on "training" teachers how to use the technology and what is known as "how to integrate it into the curriculum."

However, I suspect an important failure of computers and related technology may have as much to do with how schools actually operate, and our assumptions about how they should operate.

The educational industry is largely a delivery mechanism. It "delivers" information, instruction, and learning. Within this traditional paradigm, technology has been harnessed to deliver more, deliver it faster and cheaper, and do it more "efficiently," than traditional methods. However, in the average K-12 environment, harnessing technology to this paradigm has not had any notable effect on improving learning. As a "deliverer" and "teacher" technology certainly seems wanting.

What is technology good for, then? Computers are great analytical tools. Large segments of our society use them to collect, produce, manipulate, analyze, synthesize, transform, and report information in a vast variety of contexts and formats. With the advent of the Internet in the academic and research community, we now add the ability to collaborate, communicate, share, and exchange... in ways that are truly now transforming our economy and, increasingly, our culture.

Unfortunately, these tasks are exactly what most schools... and most teachers... are not equipped to accomplish, since the educational industry today requires teachers to "deliver" a prescribed body and sequence of information.

Today, we find ourselves in the best of times, and in the worst of times. The convergence of several technologies... computers, multimedia, telecommunications on the Internet and the World Wide Web bring us quantum leaps closer to being able to deliver on the promise of technology to re-shape our entire culture. Never before have teachers had so much real potential to fully exploit the "tool" capabilities of the new technologies. We see real evidence around us every day that the World Wide Web is actually beginning to change our lives.

However, the schools are still stuck in an outdated paradigm more akin to the 19th Century than to the 21st. Teachers who are good at answering questions are not so good at asking, "What if?" Teachers who have a body of "expertise" or "knowledge" to deliver are not good at helping students to discover new ideas and information and then transforming this into knowledge.

Today, more than ever, we need teachers who are able and willing to become side-by-side learners with their students. Teachers who are not afraid to acknowledge, "I don't know," and then can turn around and say, "Let's find out together." These teachers need to know how to use various technologies to shape and process and manage information, to look for relationships, trends, anomolies, and details, which can not only answer questions, but create questions as well. We need teachers who understand that learning in today's world is not just a matter of mastering a static body of knowledge, but also being able to discover the rapidly changing ideas about that knowledge itself.

In my fifteen years of teaching teachers "about" technology, I have found it far more effective to show teachers how to teach writing using a word processor, rather than teaching them how to use a word processor, how to use a spreadsheet or database to collect and plot census data as part of a social science unit, rather than how to use the tool; or how to use the World Wide Web to develop incredibly rich professional dialogs between students as Web authors and their audiences around the World.

When teachers are given (or take) the freedom to change how they teach... to move from "instructional deliverers" to "side-by-side learners," we see technology employed in drastically different ways... more akin to the ways other segments of our society using them.

In the former paradigm, computers are just one more delivery system... no better than traditional systems. However, in the new paradigm that is cropping up spontaneously in Web-connected classrooms around the world, teachers quickly discover that computers and related technology are imperative to the process. And they quickly discover that "necessity is the mother of invention." When they finally understand the task, they quickly master the tool to help them accomplish that task.

Fortunately, teachers who have ready access to the World Wide Web are discovering, inventing, and sharing the kinds of practices and programs in their own classrooms that illustrate these principles. And because the Internet and the Web are incredibly effective communications tools, these teachers are finding one another, sharing with one another, and are organizing collegially in a new way that K-12 has never before seen. Today, through such grass-roots movements as the Online Internet Institute, teachers are taking charge of their own professional development. They are inventing and creating new approaches, defining philosophies and pedagogies, and exercising an incredible amount of power as professionals in their own profession.

Thus, while we all have waited, Godot-style, for government and the educational establishment to fix the problems associated with integrating technology into the classroom, it may turn out that the technology itself will empower and enable us to "fix" the problems ourselves.... classroom by classroom, school by school.

Now that's a new paradigm!