Several critics argue that today's instructional technologies are simply the latest in a long line of innovations that have been touted as the instrument for transforming schools. What happens instead is that the technology is either adapted to traditional school structures and teaching styles, if it is sufficiently flexible, or discarded if it cannot be so adapted (Cohen 1988; Cuban 1986). Cohen contends that the dominant use of distance-learning is wider dissemination of a traditional mode of teaching: the lecture. Similarly, microcomputers provide an on-line version of the drill- and-practice "seatwork" that has long been a staple of the elementary school classroom. Piele (1989) asserts that although microcomputers have found their way into schools in large numbers, they have failed to transform schools because they are typically set off in a computer "lab", usually supervised by someone other than the classroom teacher. Thus, most teachers can and do "ignore them altogether" (p. 95). Cohen concludes that uses of instructional technology that break the mold of conventional instruction are most likely to be adopted at the margins, that is, in advanced placement courses, special education, or vocational training. The central instructional program remains much as it was 50 years ago, untouched by the technological revolution going on around it.
Why hasn't technology made a real difference in the teaching and learning that go on in more schools? The greatest part of the explanation resides in the imperviousness of the education system to any kind of fundamental change; the barriers that are specific to technology-based changes are very real, but a lesser impediment. As Sheingold (1991b) puts it:
It is now well understood that the challenge of integrating technology into schools and classrooms is much more human than it is technological. What's more, it is not fundamentally about helping people to operate machines. Rather, it is about helping people, primarily teachers, integrate these technologies into their teaching as tools of a profession that is being redefined through the incorporation process. (p. 1)
Smith and O'Day (1990) have argued that current calls for education reform seek a fundamental change in both the content and pedagogy of the classroom. This reform agenda confronts a fragmented, complicated system of education decision-making that involves many different agencies and levels within agencies and provides few incentives for lasting change. While various agents push one new approach or the other, teachers "close their classroom doors and teach as they were taught"(p. 238). The dominant curricula and commercially produced materials, stressing breadth of "coverage" over analytic problem solving, the high- stakes assessment system consisting predominantly of multiple-choice tests stressing basic skills or unconnected facts, and the training of teachers all support conventional schooling.
Nevertheless, technology can be used in ways that support reform goals for education, as illustrated in many of the projects described here in earlier chapters. When technology is used in these ways, it exerts pressure on the system for change. Salomon (1991) describes how this happened in an eighth-grade class studying the U.S. Constitution. The research team introduced the notion that this topic could be approached by having students set up an electronic database on the Constitution. According to Salomon, the database became a "Trojan horse" bringing with it radical changes in everything else about the class (p. 12). Students split into teams representing the different factions at the time the Constitution was drafted. The teams prepared for a reenactment of the Constitutional Convention at which each faction argued for wording changes that would benefit their own group. A new role emerged for the teacher, who "hovered around, directing, guiding, suggesting, and advising, more like an orchestra conductor than a music composer" (p. 12).
Newman (1990a) describes how technology can begin to soften the rigid boundaries between traditional class periods, subject areas, and years of school. Students involved in the Earth Lab project were able to use the workspace provided on the network to continue working on assignments after shifting physical locations, simply logging onto the system from a different computer. Small work groups that were set up and assigned a computer workspace in science classes started to be used by teachers in other courses. Students started using weather data that had been collected by the class the previous year. Thus, the usually rigid boundaries between subject areas, physical locations, and school year were being chipped away as new social structures and work habits emerged.
Sheingold and Hadley (1990) conducted a survey of teachers noted for incorporating technology into their practice. These teachers reported that they are able to present more complex material, that students proceed more independently, and that their role as teachers has shifted from providing information to coaching. In addition, computer software can affect teachers practice by providing them with models for the kinds of complex, interdisciplinary tasks they could be teaching (Sheingold 1990). The new math instructional programs described in Chapter II had their most lasting impact on the teachers, who internalized the content presented on the videos and began teaching it themselves.
This page was last updated December 27, 2001 (jca)