Here's a puzzle for both cheerleaders and critics of using computers in classrooms: Fewer than two of every 10 teachers are serious users of computers in their classrooms (several times a week). Three to four are occasional users (about once a month). The rest--four to five teachers of every 10 teachers--never use the machines. When type of use is examined, these powerful technologies most often perform word processing and low-end applications. This after hundreds of millions of dollars have increased access to computers, the Internet and software in the last decade. In other organizations--hospitals, major corporations, supermarkets--computer use is ubiquitous. Not so in schools.
Why? For hard-core techno-enthusiasts, the answer is simple: Look no further than the teachers themselves. They lack training, don't have time to learn, too many are too old or are technophobic, etc. Some of these reasons help explain teachers' infrequent use of computers in the classroom. But they ignore a few seldom-noted facts. About seven of 10 teachers have computers at home and use them to prepare lessons, communicate with colleagues and friends, search the Internet and conduct personal business. There are few technophobes here.
These facts should puzzle taxpayers, educators and parents confronting limited classroom use of new machines amid technology money spilling over schools. They also point to other reasons to explain this phenomenon: Experts offer contradictory advice; schools have intractable working conditions; external groups make constant demands upon teachers; the technology is inherently unreliable; and policymakers don't respect teachers' views. Combined, these reasons help account for why teachers use computers at home but far less in classrooms.
For almost two decades, academic and corporate experts have exhorted teachers to use new technologies in their classrooms so their students will learn more, faster and better. Exactly what have these self-appointed gurus told teachers about using computers in schools?
When desktop computers began appearing in schools in the early 1980s, corporate leaders urged teachers to get their students to learn BASIC programs. Experts said that learning to program would prepare students to think clearly and get jobs. By the late '80s, however, BASIC had disappeared. Now, different experts prodded teachers to teach computer applications--word processing, spreadsheets, using databases--because knowing these applications would pay off in college and at the workplace. Districts invested in more labs, more teachers were trained and students learned software applications.
In the mid-1990s, the prevailing wisdom among experts shifted again. Teachers were asked to integrate new technologies into their daily classroom routines. Four to six new machines were put in each teacher's classroom, and students were no longer sent to computer labs. Teachers were urged to learn and teach hypertext programming (HTML) to help their students create multimedia products. Experts and their allies wanted students to do Internet searches, communicate via e-mail and create their own Web pages.
Let's imagine an average high school math teacher in either the heart of the Silicon Valley or L.A. Unified who has been around for these years of shifting advice. She has taken courses on software applications that the district offered. She bought a computer and uses it at home to prepare lessons, record grades and search the Internet for lessons that she can use in her classes. She is enthusiastic about using computers with students. She has listened to the experts, but since the advice keeps changing, she has largely ignored the bumper-sticker wisdom of the moment. What gives her pause is not the experts' contradictions but other factors.
Although information technologies have transformed most corporate workplaces, our teacher's schedule and working conditions have changed very little. She teaches five classes a day, each 50 minutes long. Her five classes contain at least three different preparations. She has two classes of introductory algebra, two of geometry, and one calculus class. In those five classes, she sees between 125 and 175 students a day, depending on how affluent the district is and how determined the school board and superintendent are to keep class sizes down. High school teachers do have at least one period a day set aside for planning lessons, seeing students, marking papers, making phone calls to parents or vendors, previewing videos, securing a VCR or other equipment and using the school's copy machines for producing student materials.
High school teachers are expected to know their subjects inside and out; maintain order in their classrooms; be both friendly toward and demanding of each and every student; be accountable for their students doing well on tests at a time when taking tests can spell the difference between graduating high school or staying in school longer; and be infinitely patient. Furthermore, ask even the most dedicated users of computers how often their machines and their software break down. Most schools can't afford on-site technical support. When they do have coordinators and students who trouble-shoot problems and do repairs, there are still software glitches and servers that crash repeatedly, torpedoing lessons. New and upgraded software requires more memory and speed from machines that are sorely limited in their capacity. More breakdowns.
Teachers have seldom been consulted on which technologies make the most sense for them to use with their students, what configuration of machines and software work best in their classrooms. Instead, classroom space disappears in place of labs fully stocked with donated or purchased equipment. Machines pop up on teachers' desks. Administrators exhort teachers to take courses on technology that the district just made available. Few teachers ever get asked what they think.
So the obvious but seldom asked question is: Why should busy teachers who are enthusiastic about using computers listen to experts' changing advice on technologies when they daily have to face unyielding work conditions, internal and external demands, unreliable machines and software and disrespect?
Corporate cheerleaders, policymakers and vendors prefer to put teachers under a microscope rather than examine the role they play in selling unfriendly technologies to schools, while ignoring the conditions under which teachers work and disrespecting teachers' views. By doing so, they avoid the hard and expensive remedy to teachers' infrequent use of computers: lower teaching loads, smaller classes and on-site technical assistance.*