The vision for technology-supported reform-oriented classrooms is one in which student groups work on long-term, multidisciplinary projects involving challenging content that is interesting and important to them with the support of technology tools for collecting, analyzing, displaying, and communicating information. Making this vision a reality poses many challenges. Below are four major challenges:
Technology cannot become a meaningful support for students' work if they have access to it for only a few minutes a week. The kind of technology-supported project-based instruction we have described requires a high level of access to the sorts of technology tools that researchers and other professionals use on a daily basis to support their work. Data from national surveys suggest that although American schools have more microcomputers than those of any other country, the level of access is still insufficient to fulfill this vision. American students report using computers an average of 40 minutes a week (Becker, 1994). Schools are faced with the reality of a limited budget for equipment and software (and an even more limited inventory of the most powerful equipment) and must make hard choices about how to get the most out of what they have.
A wide range of strategies for allocating computers were observed.
A corollary to the challenge of providing adequate access to technology generally is the concern with making sure that different kinds of students get equal access. Data from national surveys suggest that students from low-income homes and ethnic minorities are less likely to have computers in their homes (Becker & Sterling, 1987). Although the differences are smaller than those for ethnicity and socioeconomic statues, there is also a gender difference in technology access to computers, with boys having more home access than girls (Sutton, 1991). Even when students from low-income homes or girls are in classrooms with technology, there are many anecdotal reports of their having less time with the technology than do boys from more affluent homes (Sutton, 1991). Some reports focus on the more assertive behavior of boys in "claiming" computer time or control of the mouse; others describe girls and low-SES students opting out of activities in which they do not expect to excel.
Our case study sites were quite sensitive to issues of equal access. In fact, the need for schools to be active in giving high-quality technology experiences to students who would have less access to technology in their homes was a motivating factor in setting up a number of the programs. In some cases classes instituted explicit policies to insure that all students had equal access to technology that was in limited supply.
Here is a sound clip (~400K) in which some Sharenet students discuss gender and computing.
Placing technology in classrooms does not insure that it will get used appropriately, or even that it will get used at all. Most of us have visited classrooms with one or two computers in the back covered with a plastic cover that is rarely removed. The reformer's vision of a project-centered classroom with students using technology tools makes extensive demands on teachers. (For examples of project-based classrooms, see the Multicultural Heroes Project or City Building Project.) Teachers are expected to orchestrate a classroom in which students pursue different questions, work at different speeds, use different materials, and work in flexible groups. Students will be working with original data sources, often pushing beyond the limits of the teacher's knowledge, and learning to work together to produce products that demonstrate what they have learned. All of this must be carefully planned and supported by a teacher in such a way that the students take ownership of their projects and feel responsible for their own learning, while at the same time ensuring that the essential content in local, state, or national curriculum standards in multiple areas are met and that students will perform well on whatever high-stakes assessments are to be given.
There is no doubt that the reform agenda calls for fundamental changes in teaching practices on the part of most teachers. In some ways the introduction of technology only adds another level of compilation to what is already a daunting task. How does a school get all or almost all of its teachers on board, particularly when many of those teachers have little experience with technology?
Our case studies provide some interesting insights. In general, program designers did not try to force teachers to use technology. Rather, there was a recognition that teachers could not be forced and that they would come along at different speeds. There were a number of specific strategies for achieving teacher buy-in.
Even after teachers' initial fear of getting involved with technology has been overcome, serious challenges remain in terms of providing enough technical support that teachers will not be discouraged by equipment failures or software behavior they do not understand.
There appears to be general agreement among observers that, at least in the foreseeable future, schools that are attempting to implement technology on a wide scale need to have on-site technical assistance. Although some sites have attempted to make do with help from a knowledgeable teacher volunteer or with part-time services from a district technology coordinator, such arrangements are often unsatisfactory. Like all of us, teachers trying to use technology in their classrooms want technical help on demand. Controlling a classroom full of students in the midst of some activity that requires technology when the system goes down requires flexibility and skill. If technical problems arise frequently and teachers have to wait hours, days, or weeks to get them resolved, they will abandon their efforts to incorporate technology.
Quite a bit of technical support is needed in schools where all or most teachers are using technology, particularly if new or experimental systems are involved or extensive use is made of computer networks. At least five kinds of technical assistance are necessary:
The relative importance of these functions shifts over time; as projects mature, there tends to be less need for teacher "hand-holding" to get over initial anxieties and lack of knowledge about how to use functioning equipment, but the need for maintenance increases as hardware ages. Further, there is a continuing need for planning and for figuring out an appropriate way to allocate resources and to make reasonable use of the less-powerful equipment in the school's inventory. Further, as projects mature and wide-area network resources for education increase, schools are likely to want to get more active in the use of local and wide-area networks, creating requirements for specialized knowledge in these areas.
Our case study sites varied in the level of resources available for on-site technical assistance and in the arrangements that were made. Several sites had multiple technical assistance positions, with each resource person focusing on some combination of the functions enumerated above. Some sites had a single technology coordinator position who attempted to fill all of these roles. Others had no funding for on-site technical assistance and attempted to make do by developing teacher skills in these areas. At several of the sites, teachers or the technology coordinator took courses in order to obtain computer maintenance licenses so that they could work on equipment still under warranty.
It is difficult to interrupt another teacher's work when need for assistance arises, however, and those schools without a dedicated technical assistance person for all or part of the period of their technology innovation felt the lack.
Not all technology coordinators are equally successful at working with teachers, however. While the technology coordinator at one school was cited by teacher after teacher as being instrumental in helping her design and implement technology-using activities, the technology coordinator at another school was mentioned by no one until asked whether such a position existed. The latter coordinator felt isolated within the school and frustrated because several attempted in-service training sessions did not attract participants. While the overall differences between the two schools in terms of climate were quite large, the different way in which the technology coordinator's job was perceived seemed important also. The active coordinator appeared to think about his job in relationship to teachers. He repeatedly stressed the idea that the teachers were the "stars" and that he was a source of support for what they wanted to do. Nevertheless, he was actively involved in conversations about instructional uses of different kinds of software as well as in helping teachers develop applications for specific purposes. In a very friendly, deferential manner, he sought out teachers to find out what they would like to do that he could help them with. He expressed sincere admiration for their teaching skills and encouraged them to contact him for assistance after hours as well as during school. We observed him actively working with students in classrooms when new uses of technology were tried out. Despite the fact that he was the only male staff member in this very close-knit school, he was clearly accepted into the social fabric of the school and someone the teachers felt very comfortable working with.
The other technology coordinator, on the other hand, seemed to have a role defined in relation to the equipment. Indeed, when we observed him he spent his time at the back of the computer labs. His role was perceived more as one of keeping the network running, and teachers did not appear to think about him as a potential resource when thinking about what they might do with technology within their course curricula.