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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Log on Education: Teachers and Technology: Easing the Way

Asking K12 teachers to integrate networked computers into the classroom is the biggest challenge we have given them in the last 200 years. Stridently admonishing them to change in the media isn't the way to help them make the transition. It is our responsibility to create the workplace conditions that enable, complement, and support teachers.

Technology's disruptiveness is not unique to education; it has caused all manner of stress in professionals from accountants to zoologists. But non-teaching professions have generally been interacting with technology for upwards of 20 years, first automating, and now infomating1 their activities. They have had time to amortize the pain of adjusting their work practices to take advantage of technological advances.

It is only now that teachers are hitting the technology wall, which was avoidable in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 1980s, technology was segregated from the curriculum, and computer literacy courses were taught by "computer teachers." In the 1990s, technology became supplemental to the curriculum. Textbook lesson plans had annotations at the bottom of the page instructing teachers to have children play, say, the simulation program called "Oregon Trail" if time permitted. Well, there is never time in the school day for extra things! Thus, teachers avoided dealing with technology for another decade.

But today we are asking teachers to integrate technology into the classroom. Schools are creating technology skills requirements for students, and standards bodies such as the National Council for the Teaching of Mathematics and the American Association for the Advancement of Science are identifying technologies that need to be incorporated into subject areas and activities (such as the use of computer-based probes to measure the quality of water in a local stream or lake).

We can't place the burden of change solely on the backs of teachers. We must try to identify and understand the conditions that enhance the use of computers in the classroom, and develop strategies to create those conditions in our schools.

Towards that end, this column covers a broad range of topics, from examining technology teaching practices to describing school district policies that lead to effective use of technology, from analyzing teacher technology preparation programs to business strategies for delivering technology-based products to the classroom. Our intent is to provide the Communications reader with concrete suggestions on how to improve technology use in your local schools.

Henry Becker of the University of California, Irvine, summarizes a recent national survey of U.S. teachers and instructional practices with technology. Becker and colleagues have been faithfully documenting the changes affecting teachers and schools for the past 15 years with regards to computational and information technologies. Next, Cathleen Norris, Neal Topp, and I describe a finding from our recent teacher snapshot survey that complements Becker's observations.
Elliot Soloway

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Access to Classroom Computers

Henry J. Becker

When computer professionals imagine a well-equipped elementary and secondary school, many picture a room full of students, or pairs of students, each working independently on a computer. This image stems from how they view the typical adult computer experience. (My image is of a large office divided into semi-private cubiclesa white collar factory.) Magazine articles have supported such views, with illustrations of computer labs full of students looking at their individual screens. Also, schools have invested heavily in shared spaces, where teachers can purportedly maximize use of the space by having students use the equipment for an assigned hour each week.

Yet, is this the most sensible way to organize school computer use? Is this how students best exploit computer technology to learn difficult conceptual ideasby having each student work independently at a computer for one or two preselected hours that are designated as weekly computer time?

A substantial body of evidence suggests that students don't develop a deep understanding of a subject in such a piecemeal fashion. Instead, competency develops (in the use of technology tools or any other resource) when tools can be called upon as they become relevant; that is, in the context of doing work. The ideal structure for using computers in pursuit of academic learning may not be a computer lab of 15 to 30 computers, but instead an environment in which each classroom has a modest number of shared computers, say five to eight, that service a portion of the intellectual activity going on in that classroom.

In our survey, Teaching, Learning, and Computing (TLC), a team of researchers from the University of California, Irvine and the University of Minnesota investigated the instructional uses of computers at more than 1,000 schools (see www.crito.uci. edu/TLC for complete information about the survey methodology and reports released of its findings to date.)

Among our investigations was an examination of the extent to which teachers took advantage of classroom and laboratory-based computer facilities. We found that teachers generally have access to shared computer laboratories or general resource areas such as a library or media center, which tend to be set up to accommodate many students. (The typical lab has 21 computers, while the typical classroom has only two.)

The problem with having computers sequestered in labs is that teachers don't appear to make use of them as frequently. We found that teachers with five or more classroom computers are more likely to give frequent computer assignments than are teachers with access to computer labs with 15 or more computers.

Among the secondary school teachers we surveyed, 62% of those with at least five classroom computers gave students a reasonably frequent opportunity to use computers (more than 20 occasions during most of a year). Only 18% of teachers who lacked classroom computers, but who had access to computer labs with at least 15 computers, gave students this substantial computer experience. Those with 14 classroom computers, as one would expect, were in between: 32% gave students frequent opportunities to use computers.

Thus, secondary teachers with just five or six classroom computers are more likely to use them on a regular basis than are teachers with access to computer labs containing substantially more computers, but who have few, or no, classroom computers. Thus, although labs with a dozen or more computers may appear to be the more valuable resource, computers may actually benefit secondary classes most as an in-class resource used by groups of students when needed to find, analyze, or communicate information.

This analysis does not take into account the economies that centralized placement of computers involve. If several dozen teachers each had five classroom computers instead of sharing 30 computers in a computer lab, for example, four times as many computers would be required. But if centralized placement of computers does not result in students getting a substantial computer experience to pursue academic goals, such aggregation may not be efficient. We found that, particularly in secondary schools with their short-duration class periods, students are much more likely to have a frequent computer experience classrooms with at least a 1:4 ratio of computers to students.

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Access to Computers at Home

Cathleen Norris, Neal Topp, Elliot Soloway

While Becker's research explored the impact of teachers' access to computers in school, here we explore the impact of teachers' access to computers in their own home.

There is a bit of folk wisdom that goes like this: teachers who use technology for their own work, and thus see the value of the technology in their own lives, will be more likely to have their students use the technology. Here, we present evidence consistent with this aphorism. The evidence involves responses to a "snapshot survey" that we administered to teachers over the past year in schools, at conferences, and most recently, online ( Our short questionnaire examines teachers' computing activities, their beliefs about the roles of technology in education, and the resources they feel they need to develop more effective instructional practices.

Table 1 summarizes the responses from our snapshot survey of teachers with contrasting levels of technology experience. The first column abstracts key findings from a survey of approximately 70 grade school teachers who competed and won between $5,000$10,000 grants (from the State of Michigan) for educational technology projects. The second column abstracts findings from a survey of approximately 140 grade school teachers from a rural school district in Michigan, who were attending a conference to kick off their first educational technology initiative in the district.

The more technologically sophisticated teachers used email at home, and the Internet in their classrooms. They felt their teaching was improved through the use of technology, and needed more time to integrate the technology into the curriculum. In contrast, the rural school district teachers, who were just beginning an initiative to include technology, were much less technologically sophisticated: far fewer used email at home or the Internet in the classroom, and far fewer were convinced their teaching was improved by technology.

A similar picture emerged across all the sites we surveyed (approximately 1,200 educational professionals). Teachers with more technology experience, as indicated by the use of email at home for example, appeared more comfortable with technology in the classroom than those who reported low email use at home.

While one cannot draw a causal inference from this data, our findings suggest that home use of computers by teachers does correlate with school use of computers by their students.

bullet.gif What To Do Now?

What professional who makes at least $30,000 a year is not issuedon day one of his or her joba phone and a computer? Teachers. Thus, while our study findings are not particularly surprising, school principals and school boards need this data to justify expending funds and reshuffling building space. So Communications readers are now armed with hard evidence: Go forth and use these numbers to get teachers access, at home and at school, to networked computers! The teachers will thank youand your children will thank you.

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1. In the Age of the Smart Machine: The future of work and power, September 1989, Basic Books, NY.

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Elliot Soloway ( is a professor in the College of Engineering, School of Information, and School of Education at the University of Michigan.

Henry Jay (Hank) Becker ( is a professor of Education, University of California, Irvine.

Cathleen Norris ( is President of the National Educational Computer Association that has sponsored the premier K-12 technology in education conference, NECC, for the past 20 years. She is a professor in the Department of Cognition and Technology in the College of Education at the University of North Texas.

Neal Topp ( is an associate professor in the College of Education, Office of Internet Studies, at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.

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1In Shoshana Zuboff's book, In the Age of the Smart Machine, she introduces the term "infomate" to represent uses of technology that go beyond the automation of paper-and-pencil practices and truly leverage computational capabilities.

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T1Table 1. Comparing More- and Less-Technologically Sophisticated Teachers.

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