Teachers' Use of the Internet
by Robin Love & Mary McVey - September 13, 2000
Since the implementation of California Assembly Bill AB1023 in January of 2000, there has been an increased emphasis in the state's pre-service teacher-training courses on the integration of computers with classroom instruction. This focus has led to the intensified use of technology in the pre-service courses, assignments requiring students to develop materials that demonstrate their competence with the use of computers, and additional attention to the computer-related practices they observe in the classrooms in which they are doing their pre-service training. As instructors in a program for pre-service teachers, we have many discussions with our students about the actual practices they see.
Although some of the experienced teachers with whom our students train are models of effective use of computer technology, many are not. Students are often surprised by the number of working computers at the school sites that sit unused by the children--in both computer labs and the classrooms. In particular, our students find many of the experienced teachers with whom they work do not use the Internet as a part of their classroom instruction. And, research findings indicate that what our students are seeing is not uncommon. While 89% of our public elementary schools have Internet access somewhere at the school, and 51% of classrooms are wired (NCES, 1999), far fewer teachers encourage student use of the Internet as part of their instruction. Becker (1999) in a national survey of teachers' use of the Internet found that the majority of teachers (68%) with Internet access have searched the web to find resources to help them with the planning and implementation of lessons. Twenty-eight percent of these teachers use the Internet as a source of information and instructional resources on a frequent basis (i.e., at least weekly). However, fewer teachers encourage the students' use of the Internet as part of their instruction. Less than half of the teachers with Internet access in their classroom had their students use the web as a research tool on at least three occasions during the academic year (Becker, 1999). Only 7% of these teachers had allowed students to use the computers to send e-mail as an instructional tool, and Becker reported, "even fewer involved the students in cross-classroom collaborative projects or in Web publishing" (1999, p. 4).
Therefore, it appears that relatively few teachers with Internet access are making full use of that resource. We propose three reasons for this situation. First, it may be due to a "fear of the unknown" (Peterson, 1999, p. 3). Many teachers do not have the technological skills to feel competent in the use of the computer, nor have they had the opportunity to plan how they could integrate the use of technology into instruction in a meaningful way. A mere 15% of American teachers report having had 9 hours of technology training (Kent & McNergney, 1999). Consequently, teachers tend to "fall back" on the use of instructional methods with which they are comfortable. With today's technology changing at such a rapid rate it is unrealistic to expect teachers to be able to utilize equipment and materials with which they are unfamiliar. In recognition of this, there has been an increased effort by many to create more demanding technology instruction in teacher training courses. At this time 32 states have a technology requirement as part of their teacher certification process (Kent & McNergney, 1999). However, additional requirements in teacher training programs do not help those teachers who are already in the field.
A second issue relates to teachers' views about children and technology. Many see technology as being too difficult or abstract for primary-grade children. Some of the teachers our students observed allowed children occasional access to software games in their free time and word processing programs for the final drafts of written work. However, most were committed to the idea that the Internet, in particular, was inappropriate for use with children in kindergarten through third grade. They felt that the more limited reading ability of this age group would make any effort at using the Internet as a research tool, an exercise in frustration. These teachers also stated that use of the Internet was not hands-on enough as an activity for young children and that the children should wait to use the Internet until they could understand what it is and how it works. Although we agree that older children may reap greater benefits from the use of the Internet, as they may be more accomplished readers and more independent learners, it is our belief that students of all ages can use the Internet as a meaningful tool for learning. Would we ever say that young children shouldn't have books, because they can't yet read them well or because written language is too abstract? But some teachers say exactly that about technology. Younger students just need more support and this is where teachers play an important role. With careful planning and instruction, children in the primary grades can have successful Internet experiences. These learning experiences may include some research, however there are many other highly interactive educational opportunities for younger children (i.e., visiting developmentally-appropriate web sites, emailing pen pals, asking questions of experts, posting their work on web sites, even creating their own class web site). This particular concern on the part of primary-grade teachers may be related, at least in part, to a lack of knowledge about technology--even though they may be competent in the use of the Internet themselves, they may not be aware of the range of opportunities available to children of all age groups.
The third reason that we feel teachers may not be utilizing available technology in their classroom instruction arises from the additional demands associated with current standardized testing practices. Clearly, there is a need to document student learning and to hold schools accountable. However, the often unreasonable pressure of preparing children for statewide tests has led to some instructional choices that may be of questionable worth in terms of the children's long term educational attainment. Many schools in our local area feel driven to "teach to the test" (Aratani, 1999, p. A1). Although this practice gives children more familiarity with the format of the tests that they will be required to take, it has led to a focus on testable content to the exclusion of other subjects or activities. Our pre-service teachers report seeing little, if any science, social studies, art, or music in many of the schools. At least one local elementary school district has gone so far as to discontinue all fieldtrips during the spring term in order to spend more time preparing the children for the statewide test (Aratani, 1999).
The focus on test preparation also appears to influence not only what is taught but even how material is presented. As teachers are required to do test preparation activities, more teachers are adopting a teacher-directed, whole-class format of instruction. Perhaps this may be the necessary mode for test administration, but it is not the most effective means for utilizing technology in instruction. Collaborative inquiry is often a vital component of Internet-driven learning (Serim & Koch, 1996). Technology use, particularly in classrooms where there are fewer computers than there are children, provides a wonderful opportunity for cooperative learning, guided discovery, and an integrated curriculum. Teachers are not using these strategies when the class operates on whole group instruction. Furthermore, a teacher who becomes accustomed to relying on this technique may not be able to envision a means of using a limited number of computers in his or her classroom for instruction.
Technology is a tool that can provide enriching and highly motivating educational opportunities when used in meaningful instruction. It is also vital preparation for children who are growing up in the 21st century. Many of us recognize the value of technology in the classroom, and as a nation, we support increased funding designated for school computers and Internet access (Kent & McNergney, 1999). However it is equally important that we not forget the need to provide all teachers with the knowledge and support necessary in order that they can better utilize technology in their classrooms.
Aratani, L. (2000, February 2). Teaching to the test. San Jose Mercury News, p. A1, A22.
Becker, H. J. (1999). Internet use by teachers: Conditions of professional use and teacher-directed student use. Irvine, CA: Center for Research on Information Technology & Organizations. Retrieved May 1, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentID=10477
Kent, T. W., & McNergney, R. F. (1999). Will technology really change education?: From blackboard to web. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
National Center for Education Statistics. (1999). Internet access in public schools and classrooms: 1994-98 (NCES Publication No. 99017). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved May 1, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.ed.gov/pubs99/1999017.html.
Peterson, S. L. (1999). Teachers and technology: Understanding the teacher's perspective of technology. San Francisco, CA: International Scholars Publications.
Serim, F. & Koch, M. (1996). Netlearning: Why teachers use the Internet. Sebastopol, CA: Songline Studios.