Online Lesson




It's been 20 years since the arrival of the first computer in our nation's classrooms. Schools have spent billions of dollars on technology since then. What's the role of technology and does it make a difference?

This module examines various perspectives on technology. It presents a range of thinking on the subject from people who think that technology is vitally important to others who think it's a total waste of money.


  • Students will be able to describe at least two different school settings where technology is effectively used as a classroom tool.
  • Students will understand different perspectives concerning the roles of technology in K-12 education.
  • Students will articulate a vision statement concerning the role of technology in classroom learning.


  1. Read materials in this online lesson and follow links to other World Wide Web sites.
  2. Take the self test for Module 2 in the Interactive Self Test Area.
  3. Respond to the following question in the Class Discussion Forum for Module 2:

    Based on the materials you've read from this section, what is your opinion on the roles of technology in education? How should technology be used to support learning?

  4. Read at least 15 postings from others in the class. Respond to at least two classmates about their postings.

Go to Part 2- Teachers, Students and Technology

Go to Lesson Contents



Part 2: Teachers, Students and Technology

How is technology supporting learners in doing things they couldn't do in any other way?


It seems obvious that teachers are key to any efforts related to school improvement. There is however an unquestioned assumption present in many California schools that technology, in and of itself, will make schools better. One recognizes this when looking at school technology budgets.

General practice focuses on hardware acquisition neglecting planning and staff development. Relentless change and improvement in technology has created a dysfunctional cycle wherein schools don't plan or work with staff. Most efforts with technology are aimed at keeping "one's head above water" and not getting behind.

Futurist and educator David Thornburg refers to this practice as, "ready-fire-aim" thinking. Schools figure out what they are going to do with technology after they've bought it. A more desirable strategy is to plan and train first. Buying happens after schools know what they want to do.

Some important questions about the role of technology in learning include:

  • How is technology supporting learners in doing things they couldn't do in any other way?
  • How does technology make learning more efficient?
  • How does technology make learning experiences more memorable?
  • How does technology improve access to ideas and information?
  • How does technology enhance and extend an individual's abilities to express themselves?

Exploring the role of technology in learning further, visit the George Lucas Educational Foundation's Web site featuring articles and information about teaching in the digital age. Some interesting vignettes describing model schools include:

Technology Isn't Enough

On the Frontier of Technology


Browse other articles that explore issues on the role of technology in education at GLEF's Innovative Classrooms: Technology Integration.

Go to Part 3- Voices of Concern

Go to Lesson Contents



Part 3: Voices of Concern

Little or no data exists on how computers effect the brains of young learners and whether we are teaching students to be better thinkers because they have access to technology.


It would be overly simplistic to finish our examination of the roles of technology in K-12 education here. A number of people have come forward in recent years to voice concerns about the roles of technology in learning. Clifford Stoll wrote a book titled, Silicon Snake Oil, in 1996. The book articulated concerns about the depersonalization of education and the substitution of "real people" with technology. Stoll argues passionately that students need to be interacting more frequently with teachers and other students- not technology.

The July 1997 issue of The Atlantic Magazine featured an article titled, "The Computer Delusion," by Todd Oppenheimer. This article presents a strong condemnation of computers in K-12 schools with some excellent points. Here is a brief excerpt from the beginning of Oppenheimer's writing:

Some people view technology as the tool of our children's day, despite the fact that little data exists regarding the outcome of its use in classrooms. Opinions range from computers as expensive drill and kill flash cards, to the view that achievement gains are irrelevant when compared to the need for techno-literacy. Little or no data exists on how computers effect the brains of young learners and whether we are teaching students to be better thinkers because they have access to technology. In other words, no clear method of "best practices" is evident. In lieu of this, it appears that schools are forced to make subjective decisions which affect the future of education on a massive scale.

Complete text of the article is available at the following URL:

The Computer Delusion by Todd Oppenheimer
The Atlantic Magazine July 1997

Another important perspective urging caution with technology comes from Jane M. Healy. Healy is an educational psychologist with more than 35 years experience as a classroom teacher and principal, college professor, and learning specialist. She is also the author of a book titled, Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds And What We Can Do About It. Healy shares some of her thoughts in a Winter 1999 iinterview with Technos Magazine located at the following URL:

Other people have expressed concern about computers and the "digital divide." The National Telecommunications and Information Administration states that: " just about every country, a certain percentage of people has the best information technology that society has to offer. These people have the most powerful computers, the best telephone service and fastest Internet service, as well as a wealth of content and training relevent to their lives. There is another group of people. They are the people who for one reason or another don't have access to the newest or best computers, the most reliable telephone service or the fastest or most convenient Internet services. The difference between these two groups of people is the digital divide."

Being on the less fortunate side of the "digital divide" means that there is less opportunity to take part in our new information-based economy, in which many more jobs will be related to computers. It also means that there is less opportunity to take part in the education, training, shopping, entertainment and communications opportunities that are available on line. In general, those who are poor and live in rural areas are about 20 times more in danger of being left behind than wealthier residents of suburban areas.

Schools frequently reflect the technological differences of the digital divide: communities with greater economic resources tend to have schools with better technological infrastructures; conversely communities with less economic power tend to have fewer technological resources.

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) has explored another area of concern: the divide between males and females in the use of computers. In a report titled, "Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age," the AAUW found that girls have reservations about the computer culture. In its inquiries into gender issues in computers and education, the AAUW found that girls are concerned about the passivity of their interactions with the computer as a "tool." They reject the violence, redundancy, and tedium of computer games. They dislike narrowly and technically focused programming classes. Addressing these concerns the AAUW report makes the following recommendations to schools:

  • computers should be integrated across the curriculum into such subjects areas and disciplines as art, music and literature, as well as engineering and science
  • communicate to students that all jobs of the future will involve more computing, and that technology careers will increasingly draw on the humanities, social science, and "people skills"
  • create and support computer clubs and summer school classes for girls, mentoring programs, science fairs, and programs that encourage girls to see themselves as capable of careers in technology
  • set a higher standard for gender equity in computer access, knowledge and use that emphasizes computer fluency and mastery of skills


The complete AAUW report is available at the following website:

Still more perspectives on the digital divide are shared in a PBS documentary series narrated by Queen Latifah. The series asks the question: is everyone participating equally, if at all, in the "digital revolution?" And are "wired" kids being taught how to use computers in ways that enhance instead of replace traditional learning skills? Through interviews with innovators around the country who are bridging the digital divide in the classroom and in the streets, the series explores some of the best practices for using technology effectively at school and in the home. Check out the Digital Divide documentary web site at:

Go to Part 4- Seven Lessons About Technology

Go to Lesson Contents



Part 4: Seven Lessons About Technology








Computers can improve education, but not without serious planning from schools and teachers.


An article appeared in both The Wall Street Journal and The Press Democrat in November 1997, titled "Mixed Grades for Computers in School." The author, William M. Bulkeley, seeks to answer one of the essential questions of this online lesson: What are the roles of computers and other technologies in today's classrooms? Bulkeley responds with seven important points.


Mixed Grades for Computers in School

by William M. Bulkeley


What have we learned?

After a decade of computers in the school, after billions of dollars spent on the promise of reinventing education, the glib answer these days is: very little. The great promise of high-tech learning too often seems unfulfilled, and growing numbers of taxpayers who have footed the bill to wire schools are asking where the payoff is.

But things aren't as gloomy as they look. Amid all the dissatisfaction and rancor, educators have picked up some concrete lessons about high tech. Chief among them: Computers can improve education, but not without serious planning from schools and teachers.

"The backlash is coming from people who thought simplistically about how technology could revamp the schools and are disappointed," says Martha Stone Wiske, co-director of the Educational Technology Center at Harvard University.

But it's a long road between having machines and seeing results. What is the difference between a program that works and one that doesn't?

For starters, we offer seven lessons from educators in the trenches.

Lesson 1- Computer labs are a lousy location for computers

Most schools start out in computing with a single room where kids pile in once a week or so to try their hands at the keyboards. Often, it's a waste of time.

"What we've learned is that 30 minutes a week doesn't have any impact," says Linda Roberts, director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology. "The lab concept was to introduce kids to computers. We've come to understand that you don't want to introduce kids to computers. You want them to use computers."

Many teachers say even a single computer in the classroom has more value than occasional access to a lab.

Alan Haught a physics teacher at Weaver High School in Hartford, Conn., says, "I'm uncomfortable going to the computer lab in the middle of a physics experiment. It's like having to go next door to use the phone. It may be cost effective, but it tends to inhibit you." So Haught makes do with $80 graphing calculators that can be handed out to each student daily, and an aging Macintosh computer and laser printer that kids use to type up reports.


Lesson 2- Struggling students often get more out of computers than average or above-average performers

Study after study has shown that it's the slower kids who benefit the most when using computers. No doubt that's partly because they have so much more room for improvement. But it's also because computers are effective at drilling basic skills like reading writing and math. "People say drill-and-practice isn't interesting, but (computers have) been interesting to these kids as a way to reinforce basic elements," says Roberts.

In Orlando, Fla., the Orange County Public School District applied technology to one of its biggest problems: middle-schoolers who were functionally illiterate and were doomed to drop out as soon as they became old enough.

Orlando developed a program, which has been used on 2,000 children since 1993, to take children out of regular classes for two-hour blocks each day and put them in half-size classes. There they spend a quarter of the time reading and answering questions on a computer that includes video, animation and text; the rest of the time they read from books.

The program, developed by researchers at Vanderbilt University, employs tougher vocabulary words and more-complex stories than normal elementary reading programs. It corrects student mistakes and gives personal feedback via headphones.

On average, the children have gained more than a year of literacy for each year in the program giving them a better shot at "reaching a level great enough to graduate, to read the newspapers and function in society," Taylor says.

Lesson 3- Most teachers still don't know how to use computers in class

Computer extremists once thought machines might replace teachers. But it turns out that today's computers are pretty much useless unless a teacher intervenes, scripting careful lesson plans and guiding students along the way.

The trouble is, most teachers a woefully unprepared. McKinsey Co., a New York management consulting firm, estimates that nearly half the teachers in America have little computer training or experience. Nationally, only 13 percent of school systems mandate computer training for teachers, and more than half don't provide stipends or other incentives to encourage them, according to the Education Department. So it's little surprise that only 20 percent of teachers use computers regularly to teach classes, according to the agency.

Part of the problem is that even teachers who know how to use computers have never been taught how to teach with them.

Lesson 4- School systems must plan their computer use carefully

In the past few years, schools have installed computers willy-nilly, without any thought on how integrate them into the curriculum. Now many states have learned their lesson, requiring school districts to have comprehensive technology plans with budgets for training and support, and corporate-style "mission statements."

Mandating that all students produce something on the computer is a start. The Boston school system now requires all fourth-graders to produce a travel brochure about Boston, retrieving information from computerized encyclopedia and the Internet.

"You need to get clear what your goals are," says Harvard's Wiske. With proper planning by teacher she says, computers can help students memorize facts, develop basic skills in teamwork and problem analysis, and help understand fundamental concepts in math or social science.

Lesson 5- Computers are a tool, not a subject

Most students develop computer skills best if they learn them in regular classes, such as math, where computers can demonstrate difficult concepts like algebra and probability, and English, where the machines make rewriting easy.

Anthony Amato, superintendent of New York City's District Six says that in one class studying the environment students watched the effects of pouring various amounts of water across a tilted table of sand, then fed the results into a computer. "They were putting Information into the computer and seeing it on graphs," he says. By using the PCs to get an abstract representation of the results, the kids "captured the essence of predictive models."

Thomas Wesner, a humanities teacher at Renaissance Charter School in Boston, says the computer is especially useful in teaching writing. "In one class I said, This is a really nice sentence, but it doesn't belong in this paragraph." The students decided where to move it by cutting and pasting in the word-processing program.

"The most difficult thing for a kid to do is to rewrite a composition," adds Roberts of the Education Department. "If you give them good word-processing software, you take away the drudgery and let them focus on the substance of the composition not mechanics."

Lesson 6- Kids flourish when everyone has a computer -- but schools aren't spending enough to guarantee that

Adults don't share computers in offices if companies want maximum productivity. Similarly, kids with computers of their own are likely to benefit the most. In places where computer makers have fully equipped classrooms with computers, students and teachers are enthusiastic.

Janice Gordon, a fifth grade teacher in the Mott-Hall public school in Near York, whose class was entirely equipped with laptops in a program co-sponsored by Microsoft Corp. and Toshiba Corp. says "kids wrote a huge amount more" with the machines.

Since every child has his or her own computer, there weren't any fights over keyboard access, and many weaker students blossomed using the computer, Gordon says. "None of the other classes made such substantial progress" during the year, she adds.

Superintendent Amato says the success of Gordon's class persuaded him to develop a plan to get every student a laptop. He says he has arranged a leasing plan under which the schools can pay $35 a month for each child's computer, and their parents can put up matching donations. In three years, the families will own the laptops.

Such special deals may be the only way schools can get every student a computer. In the 1995 school year, the nation spent $3.3 billion on computer hardware, networks, teacher training and infrastructure, estimates McKinsey & Co. That isn't nearly enough to give all children frequent access to computers. And the amount that is needed is staggering: McKinsey says even getting one computer for every five children would require spending $47 billion by 2005 - 20 percent of it on improved electrical wiring and air conditioning plus a $14 billion annual bill for operations and maintenance. That would amount to almost 4 percent of the nation's total K-12 education budget in 2005, or triple the 1.3 percent proportion spent today.

Lesson 7- Computers don't diminish traditional skills

Some teachers say that kids with spell-checkers actually become better spellers than kids with dictionaries, apparently because they always get instant correction and reinforcement when they misspell a word. Computer math programs also can reduce the drudgery of practicing multiplication tables, for both teachers and students.

Wright of Trotter School says that her student teachers "were amazed how fast" second graders learned to tell time by using computer programs -- "and not just on digital clocks," she adds, "they use an IBM program calls Measuring, Time and Money that shows students the digital 8:30, and then prompts them to move the hands on an analog clock on the screen using a mouse.

What about fears that computers in the classroom would breed antisocial behavior? Educators report that in many classroom computers actually foster teamwork, as small groups of students jointly discuss what's on the screen. This even occurs in schools where most children have the own computers, teachers say.

And, contrary to popular belief, many students who use computers to improve their reading skills still embrace books. "Books are better," says Scotland Willis, a Boston second-grader who practices with a Macintosh phonics program.


Go to Lesson Contents