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Using Alternative Lenses to Examine Effective Teachers’ Use of Technology with Low-Performing Students

by Julie A. Edmunds - 2008

Background: Much of the literature on the use of technology with low-performing students can be seen as contradictory and limited, primarily because it examines technology use through a single lens: the technology itself.

Purpose: This study used two lenses—teachers’ instructional practices and the research on effective technology use—to examine the use of technology by effective teachers.

Population: Short interviews were conducted with 20 teachers (in 13 elementary schools) nominated by their principals as effective at improving the achievement of their low-performing students and as considering technology an important part of their instruction. Three of those teachers were chosen for a more in-depth examination.

Research Design: The study used a collective case study approach to examine the ways effective teachers used technology with their low-performing students.

Data Collection and Analysis: Data sources included screening interviews with 20 teachers; extended interviews with three teachers chosen for the case study; five days of observations in three case study classrooms; and interviews with seven students and their parents. Analysis used the constant comparative approach to develop themes that cut across the classrooms and interviews.

Findings: The teachers in this study used technology in a balanced way that was continuous with their general instructional practices. Their use of technology reflected nine primary roles: to target instruction more effectively; to incorporate a variety of strategies; to support teacher-guided instruction; to increase student involvement in instruction; to facilitate remediation and reinforcement; to promote advanced thinking strategies; to increase access to resources; to motivate students; and to meet the needs of the whole child.

Conclusion: Examining the use of technology in the context of teachers’ instructional practices provides a fuller picture of the different roles technology can play to support the learning of low-performing students.

Too many students have difficulty in school, performing poorly on academic measures. Both teachers and researchers have struggled with the most effective way to meet the instructional needs of these low-performing students. Often these students are targeted for remedial classes and receive instruction based on drill and practice. Many researchers have argued, however, that low-performing students do not need remediation; they need acceleration (Levin, 1996) or a combination of both basic skills and accelerated practice (U.S. Department of Education, 2001).

This debate replicates itself in the literature on the use of computer-based technology in schools.1 Computer-based technology has been shown to be an effective way of improving student achievement, particularly for low-performing students. For example, in summarizing meta-analyses of over 500 studies on the impact of the instructional use of computers and in doing a new meta-analysis of his own of 90 studies, Kulik (1994) found that the use of computers was effective in improving the achievement of low-performing students, with the largest effects in the studies for computer-assisted instruction (skill-based learning). Bangert-Drowns (1993) found in a meta-analysis of 32 studies of word-processing programs, that word processing was most beneficial when it was used in a context to support remedial writing instruction. The use of computer-based instruction has also been positively associated with some reading outcomes, with clearest results for discrete skills, including improved phonological and word identification (MacArthur, Ferretti, Okolo, & Cavalier, 2001). Another study found that at-risk students increased their social studies knowledge more when developing multimedia products than when receiving an additional week of instruction on the same content (Woodul, Vitale & Scott, 1999-2000).

As noted in this brief description of the empirical literature, technology can be effective with low-performing students and is generally, although not always, shown to be effective when it is used with programs focused on drill and practice or remediation. This result is consistent with what research says about how teachers use technology with low- performing students. These students use technology in very different ways than high-performing students, resulting in a technology instructional gap. The gap is not one of access in school (although access at home is still problematic); low-performing students actually use technology in school more frequently than high-performing students (Office of Technology Assessment, 1987; Wenglinsky, 1998). Instead, the gap is in how the technology is used. Studies have shown that low-performing students are much more likely to be provided with opportunities to use computer-based technology for skill-building and drill and practice type activities. High-performing students, on the other hand, use technology for higher-order thinking activities such as data analysis and multimedia presentation (Center for Research on Information Technology and Organizations (CRITO), 2000; Wenglinsky, 1998).

The way in which technology is generally used for low-performing students runs counter to the instructional approach supported by current researchers in educational technology. These researchers have called for instructional use that is aligned with recent research in teaching and learning. Thus, they have advocated the use of computers for integrated, thematic projects, problems depending on complex problem-solving skills; cooperative projects; information-gathering; data analysis; and presentation. The use of computers for drill and practice and skill-building has been generally seen as a less effective use (Dwyer, Ringstaff & Sandholz, 1990; Office of Technology Assessment, 1995; Ravitz, Becker, & Wong, 2000). Studies have also highlighted that technology can help students take more control over their learning (Swan, van’t Hooft, Kratcoski, & Unger, 2005).

Research on the use of educational technology with low-performing students is thus somewhat contradictory and limited. It is contradictory because, on the one hand, a very large number of studies have shown that drill and practice type programs have the largest impact on the achievement of low-performing students (e.g., Kulik, 1994; Bangert-Drowns, 1993). On the other hand, current proponents of educational technology have argued for the use of technology to foster higher-order thinking skills. These contradictions might be explained partly by the fact that research on educational technology is an emerging field and the vast majority of these studies were done in the 1980s and early 1990s when many of the computer-based programs were skills-based. In addition, the contradictions might also be explained by another limitation in the research: the fact that the vast majority of studies focus on the implementation or use of specific educational software packages, with the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow study (Apple Computers, 1995) as a notable exception. Studies of educational software have often shown significant gains in achievement, because the programs they are evaluating provide students with the basic skills that are measured by the standardized tests used as assessment measures of these programs (Koretz, 1996). Because it is much more difficult to look at how teachers integrate different software or computer-based technology, or as Zhao, Pugh, Sheldon & Byers (2002) call it, “the complex and messy process of technology integration in real classrooms” (p. 484), much less research has focused on the integration of technology into instructional practice to create an educational environment that supports low-performing students. Research on educational technology in the classroom thus has primarily been examined through a single lens, the lens of the equipment or software itself.

An appropriate analogy might be the older technology of optics. Looking through the single lens in a telescope may bring a specific object into sharp focus, but it is a focus that is one-dimensional and that ignores the complexity of the other objects surrounding it. There is a time when this single focus may be appropriate and beneficial, but there is also a time when the focus needs to be expanded.

Extending the optical metaphor, the time has come to examine teachers’ use of technology with multiple lenses, something along the lines of a stereoscope, perhaps.  Popular starting in the mid 1800s, stereoscopes overlapped images to create a three-dimensional effect, similar to the popular Viewmaster children’s toy today. Looking at the effective use of technology with more than a single lens should provide a more complex three-dimensional image. The first of my proposed lenses is the lens of the research on educational technology. This lens focuses on the use of technology in the classroom within the context of the research on effective uses of technology. A second lens is suggested by a limitation identified in the literature. Research on the effective use of technology with low-performing students must move beyond looking at specific programs and move to examining the multitude of uses to which technology can be put in the classroom. The research also must look beyond the technology itself and consider it through the lens of teachers’ general instructional and classroom practice, a move supplementing current work that looks at the connection between teachers’ pedagogical beliefs and their use of technology (Ertmer, 2005) and work that situates technology use in the broader policy context (Sandholz & Reilly, 2004; Zhao & Frank, 2003). The study described in this article examines the “complexities and intricacies of how classroom teachers actually incorporate technology into their teaching” (Zhao et al., 2002, p. 483) through two primary lenses: the lens of teachers’ general instructional practices and the lens of the research on technology use. The study was designed to answer two questions:


How do effective teachers of low-performing students use technology in their instruction to enhance the achievement of these students?


To what extent are effective teachers' instructional practices with technology consistent with the research on effective instructional use of technology?


The approach used was a collective case study, “when a researcher may jointly study a number of cases in order to investigate a phenomenon, population, or general condition” (Stake, 2000, p. 437). In this study, I examined three teachers who demonstrated effectiveness in working with low-performing students and described their use of technology within their instructional practices. This approach, observing and learning from effective teachers, drew on a growing body of research that recognizes the power and autonomy of teachers and their role as valuable sources of information about what works and what does not work in the classroom (Ladson-Billings, 1994; Kagan, 1993; Squire, MaKinster, Barnett, Luehmann, & Barab, 2003). The research thus began with the assumption that effective teachers who use technology have developed a way of integrating technology into their instruction and that others could learn from these teachers.

The most critical aspect of the study was the selection of “effective” teachers for the sample. Although an “effective” teacher can be seen in many different ways, I chose to identify “effective” teachers as those teachers with an ability to show increased student achievement as measured on state assessments. Using improved test scores as the primary indicator of effectiveness could have biased the study toward specific teaching approaches. This possibility and its implications appear during the discussion of the study limitations.

The sample came from a nomination and screening interview process that also provided data for the study. From a list of low-performing and/or high poverty elementary schools in a southeastern state, I talked to principals at 13 schools and asked for nominations of teachers who met the following criteria: a) their low-performing students had shown significant gains in achievement; and b) they considered technology as an important part of their instruction.

The principals nominated a total of 20 teachers. I conducted screening interviews with each of these, asking them to confirm their success with student achievement, to account for their success, to describe their use of technology, and to tell me anything they liked about their classroom and their use of technology.  The responses to these questions were included in the data analysis for this study.

For the more in-depth case, I chose a total of three teachers who were on the higher end of technology use, who used technology in a variety of ways with their students, and who varied along a range of background factors.

Data Sources and Collection

Each case included the following components: teacher interviews, student and parent interviews, and classroom observations. Each teacher participated in one formal interview about their success with low-performing students; specific instructional approaches they utilized with low-performing students; and their use of technology.  In addition, I engaged in informal interviews and discussions during the classroom observations. I also interviewed a total of seven students in the three case study classes as well as their parents to obtain the students’ and parents’ perspectives on the use of technology.

I observed each teacher’s classroom for a total of five full days over two academic years. The focus of the observations was two-fold: first, to develop an overall understanding of the instructional environment established by the teachers to support achievement by low-performing students; and, second, to examine the role that technology played in that environment.

Analysis of Data

Data analysis was iterative, permitting the examination of information with the different lenses: general instructional practices and research on effective technology use. The first phase in data analysis was a case study description of each individual classroom. Examining each case study and the screening interviews, using a constant comparative approach (Creswell, 1998), I developed codes for teachers’ general instructional practices and their use of technology. To test out the codes, another educational technology researcher examined the codes and the examples.2 After discussion, we refined the coding system.  In the final phase of the analysis, I considered the data in light of the research on effective use of technology and also used the data to evaluate the research on effective technology use.


Investigating how effective teachers use technology with their low-performing students requires looking at the myriad uses to which technology is put in the classroom. As presented in the introduction, however, technology use cannot be isolated from the general instructional and classroom practices during which they occur. Indeed, this attempt to isolate the use of technology in terms of specific pieces of hardware or software—to look at it through a single lens—is exactly what has limited much of the research. To counteract this limitation, I situate the use of technology in the context of teachers’ broader instructional practices and their specific classrooms.

The case study teacher who was most comfortable with technology was Karen,3 a White female in her sixth year of teaching, who said, “I don’t know what I’d do without (technology), I really don’t.” She taught a class whose student body was one-third African-American, one-third Hispanic and one-third White. During the first year of observations, her class started with approximately 40% of the students achieving below grade level, including 5 students who had repeated a grade once and 1 student who had repeated two grades. Out of her class of 24 students plus 2 who were mainstreamed in her classroom for part of the day, all but the one educably mentally handicapped child passed the state tests at the end of the year. Karen had generally average access to technology with three computers in the classroom; although she had also claimed ownership of one of the school’s data projectors and its SmartBoard. The class also had access to a school computer lab.

The second case study teacher was Roberta, a fifth-grade African-American teacher with 27 years of experience who taught in a rural setting. In the first year of observations, Roberta had 21 students; 11 were African-American, 7 were White, 1 was American-Indian and 2 were Hispanic. She started the year with 7 students (one-third of her class) below grade level in at least one area and ended the year with only 1 student who did not pass the reading test and needed to attend summer school. Roberta’s case was unusual in that she had participated in a model program that gave her a laptop for every child in her class.

The final teacher was Miranda, a first- and second-grade teacher with three years of experience who taught in a more urban setting. During the first year of the study, she had 9 Hispanic students, all of whom were identified as English as Second Language (ESL) students, three African-American students, one African student, and seven White students. In her screening interview, she highlighted in particular two ESL children, one who had started her class at a level equivalent to beginning first grade and was reading at a third-grade level six months later. Another student had increased four reading levels in a month. Miranda had typical access to technology with 3 computers in her class and access to a school computer lab.

The data from these three case studies, coupled with the data from screening interviews, provide key information about how effective teachers use technology in their classrooms. Learning from what these effective teachers have done with technology in their classrooms can help us understand the role or roles that technology can play in supporting student achievement. In addition, looking at technology use through the lens of these effective teachers’ instructional practices can help us move beyond the classical perspective on more or less effective technology programs to help us understand the different roles and functions technology can play in a classroom.

Themes from Data

In examining the data through the lens of teachers’ instructional practices, it became clear that technology played different roles in the classroom. For purposes of my analysis, I have chosen the term “role” to describe the purpose underlying the use of technology, the function that it performs in the classroom. The actual use of the technology is thus an articulation of the role in practice. These roles were identified as I coded and identified themes in teachers’ general instructional practices and in their use of technology. Table 1 summarizes the roles of technology in the effective teachers’ classes. Included in the table is the number of teachers whose interviews or observations indicated that technology played a particular role in the classroom, as well as the number of students or parents who mentioned the role in their interviews.

Table 1: Roles of Technology in Effective Teachers’ Instruction


Broad Definition

Technology Use

Targeting instructional needs




Teachers used data to identify students’ needs and differentiate instruction accordingly.

Teachers used technology to diagnose student needs and differentiate instruction. Technology was also seen as inherently able to facilitate differentiation.

Variety of strategies




Teachers recognized that students learn differently and used a variety of strategies to meet those learning styles or approaches.

Technology was seen as another way to reach students. This was particularly relevant for students seen as more visual learners.

Student involvement in instruction




Teachers involved students in their instruction through group work or through letting students guide instruction in some way.

Technology often provided a forum for students to learn collaboratively from each other. Technology was also seen as increasing student participation in the learning process.

Teacher-guided instruction




The teacher had an active role in providing content or structuring experiences for students.

Technology facilitated teachers’ presentation of information, in some cases increasing the level of student interaction during this time.

Advanced thinking strategies




Teachers used questioning strategies, metacognitive approaches, and self-reflection and evaluation to help students learn.

Teachers used technology to foster advanced thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, and communication of information.

Reinforcement and remediation




Teachers reviewed and reinforced concepts throughout the year.

Technology provided an opportunity to practice problematic skills.

Incentives and motivation




Teachers used rewards and other approaches to motivate students to pay attention or to do activities.

Technology was seen as a strong motivator for students.

Whole child




Teachers paid attention to the social, emotional, and physical needs of their students.

Technology was seen as meeting non-academic needs, by increasing self-esteem and by providing students with increased options. It was also seen as facilitating home-school communication.

Access to other resources




Teachers ensured that students worked with other teachers if needed.

Technology provided access to information and resources not available in the classroom.

Technology skills




Teachers focused periodically on specific technical skills.

Technology did require specific technology skills to maximize its use. In addition, the actual attainment of technical skills was seen as valuable for the future.

T=teachers; 20 teachers were included in the total.

S=students; 7 students were included

P=parents; 7 parents were included

All of the case study teachers used general instructional practices and technology to meet these roles, as did many of the teachers in the screening interviews. The roles, their articulation in practice, and their discussion in the research, are described in more detail below.

Targeting instructional needs

All of the case study teachers highlighted the importance of identifying where students were and building instruction from there. As Roberta said in her interview, “. . . you have to sort of meet them at their needs and work with them there. I find it more effective than anything else." Karen said something almost identical: “I think it's really important to meet the child where they're at and pull them up.” Miranda used pre-assessment to diagnose students’ needs and developed seven reading groups based on those needs. In the screening interviews, another teacher talked about the importance of ". . . meeting the children where they are."

Teachers found that technology played an important role in identifying students’ instructional needs and helping them differentiate instruction to meet those needs. This showed up primarily in two ways: the open-ended nature of technology productivity software; and the ability of some technology programs to diagnose problems and provide targeted instruction in those areas. Two of the case study teachers, Karen and Miranda, saw technology as inherently able to assist in the differentiation of instruction. In both cases, such assistance resulted from the use of technology in open-ended and creative ways. For Karen, who differentiated instruction to ensure that all of her students were taught the same main concepts but in ways they could understand, the open-ended nature of productivity software ensured that students could accomplish the same overall goals at different levels. “Well, that gets back to the open-ended. They’re all using thinking maps but they’re taking it as far as they can go. So one of their thinking maps is never going to be the same. One of my LD kids is never going to be the same as AIG kids but they’re doing the same thing; they’re learning the same stuff.”  Miranda came to an almost identical conclusion in her interview:  “. . . it helps us differentiate instruction; it helps every child work at their own level with the same objective in mind.” As indicated in the literature review at the beginning, these open-ended uses of technology are consistent with the constructivist uses of technology supported by many proponents of educational technology (Dwyer, Ringstaff & Sandholz, 1990; Office of Technology Assessment, 1995; Ravitz, Becker & Wong, 2000).

Meeting students’ needs also took the form of using technology to diagnose learning problems and then providing remediation and reinforcement for those problems either through the technology or through other non-technology-based approaches. In many cases, this occurred with the use of programs such as Accelerated Reader (AR) and Accelerated Math (AM), programs that have students take quizzes based on questions about books they read or about certain math skills. Students’ scores on these quizzes were used to identify the level at which they are working. In the case of Accelerated Reader, students earned points based on their scores on the tests and on the difficulty of these books. These points were often tied into incentives of some sort. For example, Roberta’s school PTO had set up a school store where students could redeem their AR points for prizes.

Both Accelerated Reader, which was ubiquitous in the schools studied, and Accelerated Math are opposed by many researchers in educational technology (e.g., Krashen, 2003; Pavonetti, Brimmer & Cipielewski, 2003). Nevertheless, many teachers saw these or similar programs as providing a critical service in their instruction. During a screening interview, one teacher talked about using a computer-based assessment program. “ This permits them to read at the level at which they are reading. They can move up based on their progress.” Another teacher commented, “If students have a problem with one skill, it (Accelerated Reader and Accelerated Math) will show it. It is terrific as far as meeting their needs.” It should be made clear that none of the case study teachers used AR or AM as their entire reading or math program. Instead, they saw it as having a diagnostic or supplemental role within a broader reading or math curriculum.

Effective teachers thus focused on targeting instruction to students’ needs and used technology to support that approach. Researchers have agreed that this is an important role for technology, arguing that computer-based instruction “individualizes the educational process to accommodate . . . the student” (Schacter & Fagnano, 1999, p. 330)

Variety of strategies

Coupled with the idea of identifying students’ learning needs was the concept that all students learn differently and that instruction should be geared to particular learning needs. Karen highlighted this in her interview, saying that students learn in “many, many different ways. Each child is an individual . . . every child is different so you have to try and hit on all the different learning styles, be it with computers, tactile learning, manipulatives, reading, and writing.” Roberta also focused on the idea of learning styles during her interview, while Miranda said she was successful because of “using a variety of strategies, not relying on one strategy or one prescription for the entire class.”

Common among the teachers was the view that technology was another way to reach their students. During the first site visit, Karen described how she was modifying instruction to reach her class with its high number of low-performing students. When asked how she has modified her instruction to accommodate these students, she responded that she tried to be a lot more visual. She has to do anything to engage them because "sitting and reading and answering questions won't do it" (Field notes, April 10, 2003).

During her interview, Roberta commented, “Like I said, it's another method of teaching. Another method of presenting and of getting them to focus and it helps.” Karen talked about the benefits derived from technology: “It gives them a different mode of learning, a different way.” Another teacher said that she succeeded with her students by "trying to reach their strengths, looking at their multiple intelligences. Some of your low-performing students do better on the computer.” Yet another teacher said, "Whatever we are studying, I try to tap into an aspect of every learning style. I try to appeal to my visual learners with technology."

Research is generally consistent in showing that technology can be particularly powerful because it can easily adapt to students’ different learning styles, partly because it incorporates such a strong visual element (Clements & Swaminathan, 1995).

Student involvement in instruction

Each of the case study teachers stressed the active involvement of students in the instructional process. They facilitated this involvement in two ways: first, they set up situations where students learned from their peers; second, they used student input to guide the teachers’ own instruction.

In all three case studies, the technology provided an opportunity for students to work collaboratively. For Roberta, such collaboration occurred because she saw technology as allowing her to step off the stage; it was “another method of learning besides just me and interaction with me. It gives me a break and it gives me a chance to see what they are learning.” Technology thus gave Roberta’s students an increased opportunity to teach each other. The opportunity for peer-to-peer interaction in Roberta’s classroom was actually much greater with the technology than in her regular instructional practice.

For both Karen and Miranda, technology use naturally included students’ learning from each other. As Karen pointed out, working in groups became almost a necessity with limited access to technology. “We do a lot of groups; we do a lot of cooperative groups, which is good with computers because I only have three.”  Karen also saw cooperative learning as a requirement in reaching her low-performing students, “She noticed that a lot of students have to talk to themselves as they work; as a result she has done a lot more cooperative learning this year.” (Field notes, April 24, 2003). In both Miranda’s and Karen’s classroom, students also worked individually on the computers to create a joint project, such as a class book or a class PowerPoint presentation. One teacher mentioned, "Sometimes, I let book buddies show my younger kids how to use software. They worked with each other on projects." Another commented that she had two or three of her kindergarten students work on a computer at the same time, "One can help the others."

In addition to having students learn from each other, teachers often incorporated student input into their classroom. This was particularly important for Miranda, who encouraged meaningful student input and modified her instruction to reflect that input. She believed students "need to have choices and be empowered with some of the learning and curriculum that occurs.”

Technology also had an empowering role, as Karen argued during her interview:

It’s so much more, they’re involved. I think that’s what it is . . . . But when we’re on the computer doing a flow map, they are the ones in charge, they’re the ones that are creating it and making it, they’re getting up in that higher level of Bloom’s. . .  . And it’s more theirs. Even when they’re playing with software in the lab, it’s, you know, what they do affects it. (Interview, September 17, 2003)

This role of increasing student involvement in instruction is consistent with much of the literature on educational technology that has argued that technology will change the respective role of students and teachers (Apple Computers, 1995; Office of Technology Assessment, 1995), giving students more authority over their own learning. This has been supported by some recent research (Swan, van’t Hooft, Kratcoski & Unger, 2005).

Teacher-guided instruction

The flip side of student involvement in instruction, and one that is often held up as a counterpoint, is teacher-centered instruction. In this case, I have chosen to use the term “teacher-guided instruction” because it is less fraught with already existing associations and it is also more indicative of the actual instructional practices of the teachers. Effective teachers recognized the importance of and incorporated teacher-guided instruction to provide students with content as well as structure the experiences in which the students engaged. Teachers did use technology to facilitate their teacher-guided instruction. For example, Roberta did a PowerPoint presentation on the order of operations in math. A teacher in the screening interview suggested that technology could help teacher presentations engage students, "I do a lot of PowerPoint presentations for instruction. I think kids today are more visual. Anything that looks like TV grabs their attention.”

Karen was the one, however, who used technology substantially to support her teacher-guided instruction. Interestingly, her frequent use of technology blurred the line between the teacher and the students. Karen used the SmartBoard or data projector almost every time she did whole class instruction. Her lessons on math resembled a traditional lesson on math with the teacher introducing the concept and students working independently, then coming up to do the problem on the board. Instead of a regular white board, however, she used the SmartBoard, which allowed the students to display more of their thinking in front of the entire class. In other instances, as students worked through test questions as a whole class, the students were able to interact with the information and demonstrate their thinking to the entire class. In this situation, the power of the tool came from the interaction of the students with the teacher’s lesson.

Using technology to support teacher-guided instruction is generally seen as a less effective use of technology (Roschelle, Pea, Hoadley, Gordin, & Means, 2001). For example, one study did find that technology generally supported existing teacher-centered practices with the authors arguing that this was not a good thing (Cuban, Kirkpatrick, & Peck, 2001). In this study, then, teachers’ use of technology to support the role of teacher-guided instruction was less consistent with the literature.

Advanced thinking skills

Another dichotomy that appears frequently in the literature on low-performing students is the one between reinforcement and remediation and more advanced thinking skills. The effective teachers in this study did both, although much of the case study teachers’ instruction and their use of technology revolved around the use of more advanced thinking skills, such as analysis, synthesis, and presentation of information. During observations, I saw low-performing students using technology to analyze numerical data (Roberta’s class), to make sense of written information (Karen’s class), to present information to others, including writing and multimedia presentations (all three classes). All teachers in the screening interviews used technology in such ways as well. One said her students published work on the computer. Many of the teachers used the computer for research. A low-performing student in Roberta’s class described the activities they did with computers: “Research, typing projects, doing bar graphs, and sometimes go on the Internet and play games.”

In addition to having the students use computers as described above, Karen incorporated explicit modeling of thinking and metacognitive strategies. She had each student use a model of a bug that included all of the levels of thinking represented in Bloom’s Taxonomy, for discussions about the types and levels of questions. Karen also encouraged students to think about the information with which they were working. One of her favorite strategies was the use of graphic organizers to organize students’ thoughts, or what they were reading, or even their math. In one lesson, for example, she used a tree map on the SmartBoard to organize “Rules for Factors.” In her interview, a Hispanic student commented on the use of circle maps and flow maps as some of her favorite activities in class.

The use of technology to support advanced thinking skills is supported throughout the literature and is often described as a role that technology can play well (Dwyer, Ringstaff & Sandholz, 1990; Office of Technology Assessment, 1995; Ravitz, Becker & Wong, 2000, Wenglinsky, 1998). In addition, the use of technology to make thinking visible and support meta-cognitive practices, much as Karen did, is being explored in current research (see e.g., Azvedo, 2005).

Reinforcement and remediation

In addition to the use of advanced thinking skills, reinforcement and remediation were also acknowledged as an important part of instruction. One teacher in the screening interview talked about “repetition, a lot of repetition.” Many of the teachers used technology for remediation and reinforcement, although this use was much less visible than advanced thinking skills. One teacher in the screening interview discussed how she loved Accelerated Math because it was instant reinforcement and remediation—there was constant review and constant intervention. Roberta appreciated Accelerated Math for the same reason. Another discussed how the students did assignments on the computer "any opportunity you get" to reinforce skills needed for testing. Miranda used structured reading programs only with her low-performing readers to provide them with practice in reading.

As described at the beginning of this article, the use of technology for drill-and-practice type programs has mixed support in the literature. Many proponents of educational technology argue that skill-reinforcing programs are less effective uses of technology, although research suggests that these are effective at improving achievement (Kulik, 1994).

Incentives and motivation

The teachers in this study tried different incentives to motivate their students to learn. One teacher in the screening interview believed the key was to make learning fun, “You just gotta make it fun. You have to make it a game. You almost have to be an actress." The motivational aspect of technology was seen as especially important by many teachers. As Karen pointed out in her interview, “It doesn’t matter what you’re doing. If there’s a computer involved, it’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done.” Miranda also saw motivation as a key role for technology.

It motivates students, it expands their experiences. I can’t think of anytime, when we’ve said we’re working on the computers that a child has said “ohhh” (groan), it’s always, ‘Yay!’ So, for them to be excited about something is a huge factor.  And they’re learning (Interview, November 14, 2003).

A teacher in the screening interview saw the use of technology as something really fun that captured students’ interest. Every student interviewed thought computers were fun and enjoyed working on them. A first-grade student from Miranda’s class said that computers made her feel “excited.” A parent of one of Karen’s students thought computers could help students learn reading and math because they were fun, “You know, if you have fun, that’s going to stay with you. She’s going to know, well that was fun and by being fun, you learn.”

Interestingly, none of the teachers used technology itself as a reward, an approach often used by beginning teachers (Ertmer, Addison, Lane, Ross & Woods, 1999). In none of my observations did I see the case study teachers use time on the computer as an incentive to get students to finish their other work. Neither did any of the screening interview teachers indicated they used the technology itself as a reward. Instead, the primary incentive was the use of technology to excite students about the content being learned.

The motivating factor of technology is well documented in the literature. In particular, meta-analyses of the research showed that using technology can have a positive impact on students’ attitudes toward their classes (Kulik, 1994; Sivin-Kachala, 1998).

Whole child

All of the case study teachers recognized the importance of going beyond academics and dealing with the whole child—the physical, emotional, and social needs of the child. This included recognizing and working with students’ backgrounds, having students believe they could succeed, and working with self-esteem. For some teachers, technology also built self-esteem by engendering feelings of success. One kindergarten teacher in the screening interview suggested that “using technology builds confidence with low-achieving students. They can practice their skills on the computer when they can't do it on paper.” Karen agreed, arguing that open-ended uses of technology promoted feelings of success among all students, “I think they need, they need to be able to see I can do the same thing he does even if I do it in a different way—it doesn’t mean I can’t do it.”

The use of technology to support the whole child is less well documented in the literature, although there are studies that suggest that computers can improve students’ self-perceptions. For example, a study of pre-school students with disabilities found that the use of technology increased students’ self-esteem (Hutinger & Johanson, 2000), a finding borne out by some of this study’s teachers, who believed that technology could improve students’ self-esteem.

Access to resources

The final theme that arose in teachers’ general instructional practices and technology was the idea that effective teachers provided access to additional resources for their students. This was actually an area stressed by parents more frequently than the teachers themselves. The parents were appreciative of instances when teachers set up opportunities for their children to receive extra help, generally from other adults.

Technology also helped the teachers provide students with access to different resources, such as information and experiences to which they might not otherwise be exposed. In her interview, Karen talked about one of the benefits of technology: “For a lot of these kids, when you’re talking about home life, the Internet especially, I love the Internet, its a way for them to see what they can’t, what they will never see because a lot of them will never leave (their town).” One of Roberta’s students talked about something similar in her interview. When asked about how computers made her feel, she responded by discussing how much she can learn from computers, even things the teacher didn’t know. “They make me feel very good because sometimes, a lot of times, we learn more about stuff on computers than we do more in the world.”

Several parents saw technology as providing access to experiences that would enable their children to have a better life than the one in which the parents lived. Technology was a “way out.” A Hispanic parent articulated this very clearly when talking about why it was important for a child to learn computers:

Student’s mother: I think it opens her mind to a new world.

Julie: Right. Gives her access to information?

Student’s mother: Information that she might have in the future or just something that she may even help me with. You see, I don’t want (my daughter) to be typical of our culture, grow up and get married and have kids. I don’t want that for her. I don’t. So maybe the computer might, even has to be . . . I’m not saying don’t forget who you are but I just don’t want her to grow up as typical, you know what I’m saying?

This role for technology is also supported by the literature. Researchers generally see one of the most powerful uses of technology as “providing exposure to ideas and experiences that would be inaccessible for most children any other way” (Roschelle et al., 2000, p. 84).

Technology skills

The final role listed in the table, “Technology Skills” is one specific to the use of technology. It recognizes that having explicit instruction in technical skills is important to maximize students’ use of technology. Many parents and some teachers also saw technical skills as having an intrinsic value. One parent said it was “wonderful” her daughter was using computers in class, “because once she gets out in the working world or when she goes to college, she’s going to have to know how to use them and what to expect from them.” Another said, “It needs to be used more often so they can get the hang of it . . . so they can learn to use it when they get older.” This role is included in the table because it is an activity in which teachers must engage; however, there do not appear to be too many broader instructional implications beyond this and so I do not consider this role further.


The teachers in this study have been successful at improving the achievement of their low-performing students through creating environments that foster achievement for all students; they can be described as “effective teachers.” As part of these environments, they have used technology to play the nine roles identified above. The case that effective teachers incorporate technology as part of a broader instructional environment is particularly strong, because these teachers exhibit a striking degree of similarity between their general instructional practices and their use of technology. They have identified ways in which technology can support, and perhaps even improve upon, regular instruction they have seen as effective. Since these effective teachers have been able to “get results,” I make the case that many of their practices—particularly those that appear in multiple classrooms, as do the nine roles identified above—can be seen as “effective” as well.

As indicated in the brief discussions in each role, most of the roles I have identified are supported in some way by the literature. Thus, looking at the practices of effective teachers through the lens of the research and literature validates much of what they are doing. When looking at the research through the lens of the teachers’ practices, something slightly different appears: teachers who incorporated the various positive aspects of technology into their instructional practice. They have identified some of the positive impacts of technology—its power to motivate students, its potential to provide access to a wide range of resources, its capacity to help diagnose and target needed instruction, its ability to increase students’ self-esteem—and made deliberate decisions to use technology in these positive ways.

Adding complexity to the issue, the effective teachers in this study also used technology in ways that the literature considers contradictory. They used technology to support teacher-guided instruction as well as increased student involvement in learning. They centered technology-related activities on advanced thinking strategies but also used it for remediation and reinforcement. Faced with teachers who do not do exactly what the research says they should, many educational researchers would argue that the teachers were simply wrong.  They were using technology as Cuban et al. (2001) argued to support their existing instructional practices and not to promote innovative practices.

Although the teachers in this study may not necessarily be using technology to its fullest potential, there is an alternative way of thinking about their contradictory approaches. Instead of thinking that the teachers are necessarily wrong because they do some things that may not agree with all of the literature, teachers may actually be “hybridizing” their use of technology, much as Tyack and Cuban (1995) have suggested about teachers’ role in reforms.

A different way of thinking about teachers’ use of technology therefore may be that effective teachers use technology as a resource in their classroom that permits them to accomplish their instructional goals. They use technology in a way that can be characterized as continuous and balanced. In this case, “continuous” means that the roles and purposes for the technology use are consistent with their broader instructional practices. The teachers in this study demonstrated remarkable continuity between their general instructional practices and their use of technology. This suggests that effective teachers place technology in an instructional context. It is not an isolated intervention but it plays specific roles.

Merging with continuity is the notion of balance. The effective teachers in this study used technology in a balanced way—balancing approaches that the literature too often sets in artificial opposition to each other. These teachers used technology for not only advanced work but also basic work. They used it to support and enhance their teacher-centered instruction while also increasing opportunities for student involvement. Effective teachers reconciled the dichotomies and stresses in the literature in a way that worked in their own classroom.

This study suggests that effective teachers use technology with their low-performing students within a balanced and continuous context to meet the needs of their students. These roles can be seen as characterizing good instruction as well as characterizing the use of technology.

Study Limitations

Most of the study’s limitations center around the issue of sample selection. A primary limitation is the criteria used to select teachers for participation: improved test scores. It is possible that using a multiple-choice test as the sole measure of success could unfairly bias my sample to teachers using more basic, skill-based strategies. In this study, however, the actual range of instructional practices used by teachers participating in the screening interview, and even among the case study teachers themselves, was actually quite broad, broad enough that it appeared to be representative of the many instructional approaches that occur in the educational community at large. In addition, as noted in the analysis, the case study teachers did do some work with remediation and reinforcement but also did substantial work on higher order thinking strategies. Therefore, the reliance on standardized achievement data as a key criterion for selection did not bias the sample as I had possibly feared.

An additional limitation to the study was the reliance on one nomination source (the principal’s). The screening interview provided another layer of evaluation of the nominations, permitting me to assess the quality of the principal’s nominations. Moving from the screening interview to the case study selection, however, my own biases came into play. I deliberately selected teachers who varied along a range of factors and who talked about using technology in a variety of ways. I did not consider for case studies teachers who perhaps used technology frequently but only in one or two ways. I made this decision with the assumption that individuals using technology in varied ways would be the most comfortable incorporating technology into their instruction and would therefore have the most to share. I stand by this decision, although it has had a significant impact on the conclusions I reached.  


The purpose of this study has been two-fold. The first was to examine effective teachers’ use of technology with their low-performing students. The study examined these teachers’ practices and determined that their use of technology is continuous with their instructional practice and that they use technology in a balanced way to meet the needs of their students. The roles that I identified provide more specific detail to help practitioners gain a firmer sense of the multiple benefits that technology can provide when it is used with low-performing students in the classroom.

The second purpose was to determine whether looking at the issue of technology use through multiple lenses can help us to understand technology use better. My answer would be an unequivocal “yes.” This study has shown that looking at the issue of technology use through multiple lenses is required to understand the complexity of technology use in the classroom. Educational technology use benefits from being considered through lenses outside of the literature of technology use. I have proposed and used the perspective of teachers’ general instructional practice. Other researchers are using lenses such as teachers’ pedagogical beliefs (Ertmer, 2005) and work that situates technology use in the broader policy context and district and school policy contexts (Sandholz & Reilly, 2004; Zhao & Frank, 2003). There are undoubtedly other lenses that could be used as well. The field of educational technology will only be richer as an increasing number of lenses are used.

Portions of the data collected for this study were part of an evaluation of the Centers for Quality Teaching and Learning professional development program. Many thanks to Chief Executive Officer Dave Boliek for his flexibility and support during this process.


1 Although the term technology encompasses many items, including a pencil or blackboard, it is used in this article to refer to computer-based technology exclusively.

2 Many thanks to Dr. Nita Matzen, then co-project director of the SouthEast Initiatives Regional Technology in Education Consortium.  

3 All names are pseudonyms.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 1, 2008, p. 195-217
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14568, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 2:54:56 AM

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About the Author
  • Julie Edmunds
    SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro
    E-mail Author
    JULIE A. EDMUNDS, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Specialist at SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her research interests include effective approaches to working with diverse student populations, program evaluation, and school reform.
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