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Teachers, Not Technicians: Rethinking Technical Expectations for Teachers

by Judith Haymore Sandholtz & Brian Reilly - 2004

Despite many efforts at the national, state, and local levels to promote the use of computers in K-12 classrooms, over the past 20 years, the impact of the computer on teaching and learning has been minimal. In this article, we examine how one school district has advanced the use of computers in the classroom by focusing first on curriculum rather than on technology. While national and state technology standards for teachers, as well as educational technology textbooks, tend to start with computer hardware and how to troubleshoot it, teachers in the district described here spend very little time on hardware or troubleshooting. Instead, as a result of district choices with regard to technology, support, and training, teachers are able to bypass the hardware and troubleshooting and move quickly to more productive and inventive uses of technology in the classroom. Our research offers a paradox for furthering the use of computers in classroomsif we take away expectations for technical skills and allow teachers to focus on developing curriculum, evaluating learning materials, and thinking about how to provide better learning opportunities for their students, teachers are likely to use technology more effectively and creatively in their teaching.

Personal computers began to appear in classrooms more than 20 years ago, and despite many efforts at the national, state, and local levels to promote the use of computers, there has been minimal impact on teaching and learning in most classrooms. In this article, we examine the seemingly contradictory notion that reducing technical expectations for teachers can encourage technology use in classroom instruction. Drawing on a case study of a public school district, we analyze teachers’ use of technology and identify factors that enabled teachers in this setting to focus on instructional rather than technical issues.

Even researchers with opposing views on the compatibility of technology and teaching agree on a key issue: Computers have not transformed the instructional practices of a majority of teachers (Becker, 2000; Cuban, 1993, 2001). The ability of teachers to use technology in classroom instruction lags behind access to technology in schools. The numbers of computers and Internet connections in schools have steadily increased over the years (Anderson & Ronnkvist, 1999; National Center for Education Statistics, 2000a). For example, a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that 99% of full-time public school teachers reported having access to computers or the Internet somewhere in their schools, and 84% reported having at least one computer in their classrooms (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000b). Despite the increased access, only 20% of teachers report feeling well prepared to integrate technology into their teaching (National Center for Education Statistics, 1999).

Teachers and Technology: Making the Connection, a comprehensive study from the Office of Technology Assessment (1995), describes both opportunities and obstacles for technology use in U.S. schools. Technology offers richer, more varied, and more engaging learning opportunities for students, but these practices tend to be the exception rather than the norm. Simply increasing the number of computers available for instructional use is not likely to lead to significant changes in instructional methods. Cuban, Kirkpatrick, and Peck (2001) report that teachers who do use technology in instruction tend to use it to reinforce existing teaching practices. The report of the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (1997) admonishes that investments in hardware, software, and infrastructure will be wasted if teachers are not prepared and supported to integrate technology into classroom instruction. In addition to the availability of hardware and software, teachers’ preparation to use technology in the classroom is a key factor in whether or not technology is actually incorporated into curriculum and instruction.

Although the need for adequate training and support is well documented, professional development opportunities related to technology are lacking (Becker, 1999; Office of Technology Assessment, 1995; President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, 1997). In a 1999 survey, public school teachers cited independent learning more frequently than professional development activities as preparing them for technology use (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000c). In addition to a lack of training, the typical content of technology instruction for teachers is limited (Willis & Mehlinger, 1996). Much of the training emphasizes computer literacy, with a focus on fundamental computer operation and standard applications rather than preparation on how to use technology as a teaching tool. Moreover, in-service programs typically tend to be software application based rather than curriculum based (Gilmore, 1995). Indeed, teachers indicate that the most common topics for professional development activities are the use of computers, basic computer operation, and software applications (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000b).

The assumption behind these training approaches is that knowing the technology is the first step in the process of using it effectively. Logic, tradition, and the complex nature of the personal computer suggest that personal technical skills are a prerequisite to using technology as a teaching tool. In other words, it seems necessary to develop expertise with the technology before attempting to integrate it with teaching and learning. This reasoning is evident in the technology standards developed by states, groups, and organizations. Some of the first guidelines for teacher education programs, sponsored by the Association for Computing Machinery in 1983, proposed that all teacher education students should be required to complete an existing course in computer science that included specific topics, such as ‘‘What Computers Are and How They Work’’ and ‘‘An Introduction to Programming’’ (Willis & Mehlinger, 1996). Though more recent standards include more instructional applications of technology, the assumption that teachers need a foundation in computer operations is evident. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) educational technology standards for teachers includes, as its first category of standards, basic computer/technology operations and concepts. Similarly, the Technology Standard of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (1998) begins with the following list about required general knowledge and skills:

Each candidate demonstrates knowledge of current basic computer hardware and software terminology.

Each candidate demonstrates competency in the operation and care of computer related hardware (e.g., cleaning input devices, avoiding proximity to magnets, proper startup and shut down sequences, scanning for viruses, and formatting storage media).

Each candidate implements basic troubleshooting techniques for computer systems and related peripheral devices (e.g., checking the connections, isolating the problem components, distinguishing between software and hardware problems) before accessing the appropriate avenue of technical support. (p. 2)

Textbooks written for teachers learning to use technology in the classroom also emphasize knowing about the computer and related hardware as prerequisites to thinking about using the technology to support teaching and learning (Bitter & Pierson, 1999; Grabe & Grabe, 2001; Sharp, 2002). In some cases, such textbooks go into considerable detail related to vocabulary, history of computers, and troubleshooting.

Researchers also link teachers’ technical expertise with their abilities to use technology in classroom instruction. Data from the national Teaching, Learning, and Computing Survey suggest that teachers’ insufficient technical skills limit classroom use of technology and that computer-knowledgeable teachers use computers in broader and more sophisticated ways with students (Becker, 2000). A typical response to such findings is to emphasize the need to boost teachers’ technical expertise. Yet a perception or expectation that teachers must be technical experts may actually work against technology use in classroom instruction.

A common frustration for teachers who attempt to teach with technology is the amount of time spent on technical issues rather than instructional ones. In the early stages of implementing technology in classrooms, teachers’ concerns often center on the technology itself, and they are unable to focus on using technology in instruction until those technical needs are met (Mandinach & Cline, 1994; Sandholtz, Ringstaff, & Dwyer, 1997). With limited or no technical support, even teachers with well-developed plans for integrating technology into classroom instruction often reduce or abandon them (Sandholtz, 2001). Moreover, rapid changes in technology may exacerbate a sense that maintaining technical skills is futile and take teachers away from their main areas of expertise: curriculum and instruction. Though it appears counterintuitive, eliminating the initial emphasis on technical skills and reducing technical expectations for teachers may foster their abilities and inclination to integrate technology into their teaching.


Research from the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow (ACOT) project indicates that teachers move through a process of instructional evolution as they attempt to integrate technology into their classroom instruction. The process includes five stages: entry, adoption, adaptation, appropriation, and invention (see Figure 1; Sandholtz et al., 1997). In this model, existing instructional methods are first strengthened through the use of technology and then gradually replaced by far more dynamic learning experiences for students.

In the first stage, entry, ACOT teachers focused on addressing technical issues and establishing order in radically transformed physical environments. During this period, even experienced teachers found themselves facing problems typical of 1st-year teachers: discipline, resource management, and personal frustration. They expressed serious reservations about students’ access to computers and whether the new technology would ever fit in. Overwhelmed by technical and classroom management issues, the teachers showed little inclination to change instruction.

Teachers in the second stage, adoption, continued to deal with technology issues, but they began to show more concern about how technology could be integrated into daily instructional plans. They began to incorporate computer-based activities aimed primarily at teaching students


Learning the basics of using technology; technical issues dominate


Move beyond struggling with technology to successfully using technology on a basic level in ways consistent with existing teaching and learning practices


Move from basic use to using technology for increased productivity; More frequent and purposeful use of technology, but little change in existing teaching and learning practices


Use technology "effortlessly" as a tool to accomplish instructional and management goals


Use technology as a flexible tool in the classroom. Learning is more collaborative, interactive and customized; new teaching and learning practices emerge

Figure 1. Stages of Instructional Evolution in Technology-Rich Classrooms

how to use technology: keyboarding, word-processing, and saving, storing, and organizing work. Given their lack of experience with technology, they started using it to replicate traditional instructional strategies, such as lecture, recitations, and seatwork. They searched for software they could adapt to established curricular and pedagogical preferences.

In the third stage, adaptation, teachers integrated technology more thoroughly into traditional classroom practice. Lecture, recitation, and seatwork remained the dominant forms of student tasks, but students used word processors, databases, some graphic programs and many computer-assisted instructional (CAI) packages for approximately 30–40% of the school day. This more frequent and purposeful use of technology resulted in greater productivity by students. Teachers reported that students became increasingly more curious and assertive learners, taking on new challenges far beyond the normal assignments.

 Appropriation, the fourth stage, was characterized by teachers’ change in attitude toward technology. Teachers understood technology and used it effortlessly as a classroom tool. In the fifth stage, invention, teachers experimented with new instructional patterns and ways of relating to students and other teachers. As they came to view learning as an active, creative, and socially interactive process, they developed more innovative uses of technology for teaching and learning.

The entry stage is a critical point in determining a teacher’s subsequent use of technology in the classroom. If technical and classroom management issues become too daunting, teachers often opt not to use the technology but rather stick with traditional practices. Even when teachers leave teacher development programs with specific plans for using technology in their classrooms, they often abandon or alter these plans when they encounter technical constraints coupled with inadequate support (Sandholtz, 2001). Given an already heavy workload and an increased focus on accountability, teachers may see little point in contending with technical issues.

Some researchers who study technology acceptance describe this initial stage when technology is introduced to the classroom as the survival stage because teachers struggle in the midst of new and uncomfortable conditions and are vulnerable to two risks. The first is that teachers will simply give up and reject the technology; the second is that they will accept the technology on the surface but relegate it to a minor and insignificant role in instruction (Mandinach & Cline, 1994). In this initial stage, teachers may sense that they have little to lose by rejecting the technology.

In some settings, teachers don’t reject technology but rather become stuck in the entry or adoption stages. Instead of moving toward more powerful instructional uses of technology, they focus on technical expectations and their lack of technical skills. They are reticent to experiment with technology and continue to spend more time addressing hardware, maintenance, and management issues than instructional uses. With a perception that they must be technical experts and without adequate support, teachers may go for years using technology only in limited instructional ways.


This research is based on a case study of a K–8 public school district located 8 miles east of San Diego, California. We selected this district for three reasons: The technology program involves all full-time teachers, the district began implementing a technology plan before receiving outside funding, and the program design allowed for collection of longitudinal data. In this setting, we could examine technology implementation across the full range of teachers rather than those most inclined to use it. In addition, unlike other districts, all teachers would have equivalent access to equipment, training, and support.

With support from state and federal Technology Innovation Challenge Grants, the district provided classroom technology and training for every teacher over a 5-year period (1997–2002). The K–8 district, which employs approximately 260 teachers and enrolls approximately 4,600 students from primarily low-income families, has a diverse cultural and linguistic student population with more than 26 native languages represented. The teacher population is less diverse (84% White). The district’s central mission is to promote literacy and academic achievement, and technology is considered a means of accomplishing that mission. A primary aim of the technology teacher development program is to prepare district teachers to integrate technology into their classroom instruction. The district phased in the technology program by having approximately 20% of the district teachers participate in the training and receive their classroom equipment each year.

Data collection extended over 4 years and included data from five key sources: documents, surveys, teacher journals, interviews, and observations. Over the period of study, we collected relevant documents generated by the district, such as technology grant proposals, reports for funding agencies, memos to teachers, brochures for parents and community members, and agendas, handouts, and summaries from professional development sessions. Outside evaluators conducted surveys of participating teachers in the following areas: technology effectiveness, comfort level with technology applications, frequency of technology use, and student assignments involving technology use. Survey results were grouped by year in which teachers received initial training and classroom equipment, allowing comparisons based on years of participation in the project. In connection with their training, teachers kept electronic journals focusing on successes, concerns, observations about students, technology discoveries, and open-ended comments. Teachers also completed professional growth plans in which they analyzed their placement on the technology instructional evolution continuum, highlighted areas of focus for the coming year, and identified challenges and needed support.

We conducted both formal and informal interviews with the project director and the director of educational technology at multiple points over the 4-year period. In addition, we held focus group sessions with teachers and school principals and interviewed individual teachers following classroom observations. We audiotaped interviews to supplement field notes. We observed group meetings of principals and professional development sessions for teachers, talking informally with participants during breaks and after the meetings. Observations of classrooms took two forms: short visits to multiple classrooms to observe technology configurations and patterns of use and 1- to 2-hour visits to four classrooms at different grade levels to observe instruction over the course of a year. We compiled field notes to document observations and collected relevant classroom instructional materials.

Data analysis centered on case study analytic techniques, including pattern matching and explanation building (Yin, 1994). Data analysis occurred in three phases. In the initial phase, we analyzed teachers’ classroom use of technology, grouping teachers by years of participation and organizing the data accordingly. We examined the number of teachers using technology, frequency of technology use, ways in which they used it, and the pace of technology integration. Drawing on multiple data sources, we looked for patterns both within and across cohort groups. In the second phase, we sought to identify factors that supported or inhibited teachers’ classroom use of technology. Based on emergent patterns, we narrowed our focus in the third phase to identifying specific factors that influenced technical requirements and expectations for teachers. The use of multiple types and sources of data provided the basis for triangulation. Throughout these analyses, we continually looked across data sources for disconfirming and corroborating evidence in the process of identifying patterns and explanations.


The findings of this case study suggest that reducing technical expectations for teachers can enhance their instructional use of technology. In this section, we first examine the teachers’ classroom use of technology and ways in which they integrated technology into classroom instruction. Then, we identify and discuss factors that facilitated teachers’ focus on instruction rather than the technology itself. Finally, we question basic assumptions about the required technology base for teachers and propose a fundamental shift in the traditional approach to technology in education.


In analyzing technology use, we identified four key patterns that suggest teachers in this district are focusing on integrating technology into classroom instruction rather than struggling with technical problems and needs: All teachers use technology, teachers integrate technology more quickly, they steadily expand their use of technology, and their main uses of technology are closely related to curriculum.

All Teachers Use Technology

Following a rotation schedule of 20% of the total group each year, all full-time teachers participated in the technology professional development program and received their classroom equipment. After completing the program, virtually all of the teachers began to use technology in classroom instruction in some way. Even in specialty areas such as art and special education, teachers received the same classroom equipment as others and implemented technology into their instruction. The only difference in equipment was for the music resource specialist, who travels to different schools, and the physical education teachers, who received the teacher workstation equipment and classroom monitor, but no individual student computers. This arrangement allowed physical education teachers to provide tailored lessons through their Web sites for students who could not participate in the regular activities due to injury or illness. In contrast to reports indicating increased access to technology yet low rates of classroom use (Cuban et al., 2001), the key question in this district was not if but rather how teachers used technology. In addition to using technology for e-mail (the basic form of district communication) and classroom management tasks, teachers adopted instructional applications ranging from commercially developed software programs to individually developed Web pages. In subsequent sections, we explore more specifically the ways in which teachers incorporated technology into their instruction.

Teachers Integrate Technology More Quickly

Teachers in this district exhibited a faster pace of technology integration. They move through the five stages of instructional evolution in technology-rich classrooms in ways similar to teachers in the ACOT studies (Sandholtz et al., 1997). Although district teachers experience these stages, they spend less time addressing hardware, maintenance, and management issues than the ACOT teachers did. Consequently, they move more quickly toward stages where technology is integrated into teaching and learning. Few district teachers remain long at the entry level; the majority of them move to the adaptation, appropriation, and invention levels within 1 to 3 years after receiving their equipment and participating in the teacher development program. In their professional growth plans submitted in spring of 2001, 90% of teachers with 4 years of participation in the program reported that they had progressed to the fourth and fifth stages, appropriation and invention. Of the total group of teachers, ranging from 1 to 4 years of participation in the project, 43% had progressed to the appropriation and invention stages, and another 20% had attained the third stage, adaptation.


The district teachers’ accelerated integration, as compared with ACOT teachers, could simply reflect general changes in teachers’ exposure to and familiarity with technology over the previous 10 to 15 years. However, other research indicates that, despite increased access to technology and personal uses such as e-mail, teachers do not readily use technology in classroom instruction (Cuban, 2001; Cuban et al., 2001; Office of Technology Assessment, 1995). National surveys of teachers indicate only 20% report feeling well prepared to integrate technology into their teaching (National Center on Education Statistics, 1999), and only a fraction of teachers typically integrate technology into classroom instructional activities (Becker & Ravitz, 2001).

The district teachers’ professional growth plans for the 2001–2002 academic year confirm their focus on instructional rather than technical issues. When asked to identify their greatest challenges and the support needed to address these challenges, only 5 out of 128 teachers described technical problems, and 2 identified equipment issues. With respect to equipment, both teachers requested the hook-up that would allow them to use the television as a computer monitor for large group instruction. The technical problems centered on computer breakdowns, as illustrated by these two teachers’ comments:

When things break down, I am clueless; and I feel like things are always breaking down or having glitches. I have gotten better at trouble-shooting, but I would love more technical people to be available for consultation and help.

My greatest challenge is to know how to fix computers that frequently freeze up . . . Students lose their work─very frustrating for all.

In contrast to these teachers, the vast majority of teachers requested support and opportunities directly related to instructional uses of technology. In describing their plans, teachers identified a variety of areas that they planned to focus on during the upcoming year, ranging from creating a classroom intranet page to publishing student research to including a parent section on the class Web page. The resource most often requested was time─time to learn, to prepare, and to experiment. Some teachers wanted additional time to attend technology in-service sessions. Others requested more time to plan and prepare to integrate technology into their instruction. As one teacher put it, ‘‘I need time to use and practice the many things I am learning.’’ Another teacher wrote, ‘‘Time is the main factor preventing me from going further with what I would like to do. We need time during the year, other than after school and on Saturdays to focus on technology development.’’ One teacher, in requesting more time, specifically noted the availability of technical support: ‘‘Time to complete the intranet project is of greatest concern . . . All the necessary technical support is available now at my own school site and at other sites.’’ After time, teachers most frequently requested additional collaboration with colleagues. Though the particular form of collaboration varied, they similarly considered colleagues as important sources of knowledge and support:

I think the best support would be working with other second grade teachers to collaborate.

I hope to get out and do a lot more observations as well as making use of [teacher] resources to come into my class and help with selected areas.

I would like to have more workshops where I can learn from other teachers about what they use.

I will use my colleagues on campus that are currently using a classroom intranet as my support.

These types of requests demonstrate how district teachers are focused primarily on instructional issues. Rather than becoming stuck in the early stages of technology use, teachers are bypassing many technical concerns and moving to stages centered on integrating technology into their teaching.

Teachers Expand Their Use of Technology

The frequency of technology use and the ways in which technology is being adopted have steadily expanded. In the majority of district classrooms, teachers and students use computers every day. Teachers’ own use of technology in teaching broadened over time, and the range of ways in which students use technology increased. At the outset of the project, teachers used a variety of educational software, including applications and content tied to the curriculum, and they developed presentations for use in class. Teachers also spent time learning and teaching students to use software applications. In the subsequent years, technology use has focused more on teachers developing curricular content and working with a smaller set of software applications.

Similarly, the range of ways in which students use technology increased. Initially, students in many classrooms primarily used educational software application, particularly in schools in which teachers felt significant pressure to raise students’ scores on state standardized tests. As classroom use expanded, students became more involved in creating their own content as well as using source materials from the Internet. Students use Internet sites and electronic encyclopedias for research, collaborate with other students via e-mail, develop multimedia lab reports using digital cameras and post them online where classmates critique them, and create their own books using presentation software starting as early first grade. Students’ use of technology expanded as teachers launched class Web sites and incorporated Web-based resources into classroom instruction.

One fourth of the district’s teachers made the use of a class Web site the focal point of their technology use in the classroom. Although there is considerable variation in terms of how the Web site is used, and how often it is updated, it typically includes an agenda page where the teacher lists items of relevance to class activities along with links to learning materials on the World Wide Web and, in many cases, a section devoted to Web pages developed by students. Many of the teachers start their class Web site using a template created by other district teachers and often make use of links to sites already reviewed and used by colleagues. With the focus on content rather than applications, teachers are able to do what they have traditionally done─share materials with each other. This process helps teachers progress more quickly to technology integration, removing the emphasis on mastering applications.

Teachers use the agenda on their class Web pages to list announcements and assignments, as well as links to online material relevant to the day’s activities. In the following journal account, a teacher describes advantages of archiving daily agendas and homework assignments on the Web site:

Families that have a home connection can go back to any day or week in the school year and see what we did that day. They [the students] can catch up on work they missed. Some of my students have used it while sick to do an assignment that was linked into the agenda.

Student pages on the class site may include learning journals, class reports, presentations, digital photographs related to projects, as well as Web pages developed as part of class work. Some teachers update the agenda page daily and devote considerable time and effort to locating online resources for classroom use. In these cases, Web-based content plays a significant instructional role as a supplement to the textbooks, or in some cases, replaces the textbook by providing text, images, audio, or video unavailable in the book.

The teacher-developed course Web pages and all student work are stored on the district’s intranet, making them available only to those with access to the district’s network. Students and teachers still have access to the Internet, but outsiders cannot view their work. An example of how teachers and students use the intranet and Internet comes from observations of an eighth grade science class.

In Wendy Wilson’s class, students studying buoyancy first read about the concept using materials developed at Utah State University and made available on the World Wide Web. Ms. Wilson has provided a link to the Utah State site from her daily class agenda page for students to follow. They read the material on the computer screen, equivalent to approximately four printed pages, and once they’ve covered the basics of buoyancy, students work in groups to build small boats using aluminum foil and compete to see which design can hold the most metal washers without sinking. The boat building process is supported by visual, step-by-step instructions from the PBS–NOVA Web site. Ms. Wilson commonly uses online materials such as these, along with streaming video, as part of her daily curriculum. Later in her course, students will post the results of their work to the class intranet site, and critique each other’s work.

In a sixth grade classroom, the teacher selected images to accompany social studies units on Egypt, India, China, and Greece and put them into a continuous loop PowerPoint presentation in the class Web site. When the monitors were not being used, students could click on these displays as a type of customized screensaver. In writing about this discovery in a journal entry, the teacher reflected on instructional benefits:

The students loved them, and they became a new way to decorate the room with images from the cultures we were studying. It was also apparent that this was a way to not only enrich their ‘mental image’ of the culture, but to also extend beyond what we had time to cover in class . . . An unforeseen result was that a student would shoot up a hand and ask about something he/she had seen in a slide and then the other students would want to see it and want to know something about it. I could then give some clues about how or where to find the answer or I could pause and talk about it with them.

These examples illustrate the shift in how teachers use technology in the classroom, moving away from an emphasis on software and toward finding and connecting online materials to classroom learning activities. In this way, teachers are working in the familiar realm of curriculum and instruction rather than struggling with software applications.

Technology Use Is Closely Related to Curriculum

Teachers’ main uses of technology in teaching rapidly became teacher-developed materials rather than specific educational software programs. Teachers began developing content for instructional purposes and using software applications, such as word processors, presentation programs, and Web page editors. For example, the previously mentioned intranet Web sites developed by teachers became a focal point of their use of technology. Teachers use the Web sites to provide traditional materials to students─schedules, lessons, and assignments─and to link students to other Web sites relevant to particular lessons.

Teachers begin developing their own intranet sites for classroom use during the professional development program, building on the work of their colleagues, both through the use of common content and by starting with templates constructed by other teachers. This approach allows teachers to more quickly use technology to expand the curriculum rather than spending time learning to use particular kinds of educational software or worrying about mastering new applications. As teachers throughout the district tend to use similar applications, students don’t need to be introduced to the applications each year, and they maintain continuity from one grade to the next. With students introduced to searching the Internet, working with images, and using links on a course Web site as early as first grade, teachers are able to assume a relatively sophisticated level of computer use among students as they move from one grade to another. New students without this previous experience are often assisted by other students in the classroom, again helping teachers focus on curriculum rather than technology.

At the beginning of the project, teachers focused more on selecting and learning to use educational software than on building their own Web pages and locating appropriate content for students. Teachers now progress to a higher level of use more quickly and are not held back by the need to master software before moving ahead. They are able to focus almost immediately on curriculum, easing themselves into technology use in a comfortable manner. The following example comes from observations in a classroom where the teacher uses the Internet to link numerous online resources to the curriculum:

As students stream into Mr. Sorenson’s sixth grade classroom, he calls out, ‘‘Go ahead and log on, ladies and gentlemen. Why don’t you get on today’s agenda?’’ The agenda is a Web page Mr. Sorenson put together yesterday after school and revised early this morning to include a link to a Web page at the United States Geological Survey which tracks recent earthquakes in California and Nevada. The link on today’s agenda asks ‘‘Did you feel last night’s earthquake?’’ a question Mr. Sorenson uses to engage his students in a discussion about the earthquake many of them did feel, as well as the information provided by the USGS Web site. Mr. Sorenson spends several more minutes going over the agenda, which is displayed on 17 monitors around the room as well as on the teacher’s computer and large screen television at the front of the room. The agenda is updated daily, and it serves as the focal point for both online and offline activities in Mr. Sorenson’s classes.

In Mr. Sorenson’s case, his development of the class intranet site was the first step toward having students do a variety of Web-based work. His students now routinely publish their written reports online, supplementing them with graphics and photos that Mr. Sorenson has made available for each unit in his class. Students also create their own Web sites for projects about cultures they are studying and write weekly learning journals, stored as Web pages.

Throughout the district, teachers at all grade levels have built on the intranet Web site model, developed initially by Mr. Sorenson, to focus their work and the work of their students on creating and publishing their own content and using the Internet as a learning resource. Students as young as first grade get involved in building Web pages and publishing their work on the district intranet.

Although our study did not focus on the connection between pedagogical approaches and technology use, our findings support research suggesting that technology is most helpful and powerful in supporting constructivist-oriented teaching (Becker & Riel, 2000; Kelley & Ringstaff, 2002; Knapp & Glenn, 1996; Office of Technology Assessment, 1995; Penuel et al., 2000). Using national survey data, Riel and Becker (2000) found that teachers who are highly active computer users are more constructivist in philosophy and practice than teachers who use computers less. Researchers note that, under supportive conditions, teachers tend to shift toward student-centered instructional approaches as they increase their technology use (Becker & Ravitz, 1999; Knapp & Glenn, 1996; Penuel et al., 2000). However, it is not clear if using the technology leads teachers to shift their teaching philosophies or if teachers who have constructivist tendencies gravitate toward the potential of technology to support student-centered pedagogy.

Facilitating Teachers’ Focus on Instruction

Given the contrast between national surveys of technology use and the patterns we found in this district, we examined how this setting facilitated teachers’ focus on instruction. We discovered that the district, perhaps without fully realizing it, significantly reduced technical issues for teachers, helping them to move quickly past the entry stage of technology use. This shift away from the technology itself enabled teachers, even those just starting out with technology in their classrooms, to focus on areas in which they have the greatest expertise and interest: curriculum and instruction. We identified five main factors that facilitated this focus on instruction rather than technology.

District-owned network. The district owns and maintains its own network at the district office. A microwave tower serves a high-capacity wireless network linking most of the district’s schools to the district office, with others connected via cable. Fiber optic cable is used within the schools to connect classroom computers to the network. Students, teachers, and parents can access their work from any device connected to the district’s network, which currently includes all district schools, the local library, a Salvation Army facility, city hall, senior and teen recreation and community centers, and close to 300 homes. The number of homes connected to the network is expanding as the district has recently begun to offer computers to parents for purchase or lease, along with reduced-cost, high-speed Internet access made available by the local cable company through a special arrangement with the district. The district intranet limits access to only the students’ personal files through the use of student login names and passwords. This helps to increase security, and it allows students to safely store all of their work online. The district also filters Web access, so student access to noneducational materials is limited.

In addition to the school sites on the network, the district also leases network access to the local fire department, public works departments, and a sheriff’s substation. This provides a revenue stream for the district, which helps offset some of the costs associated with maintaining the network.

Centralized, server-based network. The district designed a centralized infrastructure that is maintained by skilled technicians at the district office, where all of the server hardware is located. The system greatly reduces the technical skills required of teachers in the classroom and their general need for technical support. By networking all of the classroom computers and maintaining all software on the district servers, the district eliminates the requirement for teachers to install programs, update software, and keep track of student files. With centralized storage of student work and applications, teachers and students can go to any computer in any classroom or anywhere on the network and access all of their files and any necessary applications needed to work with the files. If a computer fails, teachers or technicians can just swap machines without losing files or programs. Teachers feel comfortable working with this network system. The system is considered bulletproof by the district technicians because it can handle inexperienced teachers as well as students who might want to explore the system software and cause problems.

Choice of hardware. In developing its technology plan, the district first considered its educational goals and what kinds of technology could be employed to meet those goals. The first step was to put enough multimedia personal computers in classrooms to achieve a ratio of four students per computer (approximately eight computers per classroom in grades 3–8 and five computers in grades K–2). This approach is similar to the purchasing plans in many school districts─buy as many personal computers as the budget will allow. Rather than improve instructional use of technology, this setup had unintended consequences for classroom management and lesson planning. Teachers spent more time trying to integrate the technology and plan their lessons because of the need to cycle four groups of students on and off the technology each period to provide equitable access. In addition, maintaining the personal computers was intimidating for a majority of teachers.

The next step for the district was to revise its technology plan to achieve a 2:1 student to computer ratio in classrooms as a way of meeting curricular goals. This ratio had to be achieved without spending more money than was already available for technology, which meant that the existing practice of buying multimedia personal computers would not allow them to meet the new goals. The director of educational technology for the district describes the process:

We first looked at: What were our needs in instruction, in education, and what were we going to do as far as utilizing technology to fill those needs? There were some things where we needed to fill knowledge gaps and basic things such as reading and math, and then there were these other things where we wanted multimedia computers for higher-level skills. We wanted to make sure that we had met all the needs, and then we started looking at technology and what technology would fill those needs.

The district then created a hybrid technology setup in classrooms that included less-expensive, thin client computer systems. The thin client consists of only a monitor and a small device which provides access to the network; it has no storage─no hard drive or floppy drive. Along with the thin clients, the hybrid setup included two PCs and a teacher PC connected to a large screen television/monitor.

With only one button to operate─On/Off─the thin clients present few maintenance or technical problems for teachers to address, and if one breaks down, it can be replaced rather than repaired due to the low cost (approximately one third the cost of a PC). Lower purchase and maintenance costs also allow a lower ratio of students to computers (2:1 ratio in most district classrooms) that helps promote use of technology in instruction. Since the thin client is small, technology doesn’t take up as much desk space, as it would with traditional personal computers, or dominate the classroom, thus reducing some space management issues. Uniform technology throughout the district also provides for easier support by both technicians and teachers. In essence, because of its simplicity, the hardware has become incidental to teachers.

The thin client technology had originally been targeted for home use, through a district program to provide technology and access to the district network for low-income families with children in the district. After their experience with the 4:1 student to computer ratio in classrooms, district planners felt that improving classroom access even further would alleviate the management issues faced by teachers, so they proposed using the thin clients in the classroom to move access up to a 2:1 ratio without any additional funding for technology. Ninety percent of the software being used on classroom PCs would also run on thin clients, which was not true for other technologies which they considered, such as WebTV. The simplicity of the hardware is what also makes the home connection more usable than it might be with personal computers running a variety of system software. Since the thin client relies on the district servers and has no storage space available, no software conflicts can be introduced by installing games or other software because the only way to install software is from the district office. As a result, the thin clients are a uniform platform─each one offers the same functionality.

Technical support. The district provides sufficient levels of technical support for teachers and, through the use of the thin client system, has alleviated the press on technicians. The district employs four full-time technicians, who maintain the centralized system and provide on-site technical support. One technician supports the 2,000 thin clients in use, while three technicians are needed to support the 1,500 personal computers throughout the district. A technician visits each school once a week for approximately half a day for routine maintenance and troubleshooting. Teachers submit requests through a Web site, and technicians prioritize requests, determining what requires immediate attention. Typically, the thin clients require little in the way of technical support, but in many cases, teachers get a response during the same class period they report a problem, and they are able to consult with the technician over the phone.

Teacher development program. The district’s teacher development program is focused on instructional rather than technological issues and has generated a collegial network for support and ideas. Instead of learning to install software or troubleshoot a computer through a didactic training approach, teachers learn in a constructivist environment that includes opportunities to explore, reflect, collaborate with peers, work on authentic learning tasks, and engage in hands-on, active learning. The program has four main components: (1) classroom visits, (2) hands-on technology training, (3) group discussions, and (4) participant collaboration. The classroom visits establish the instructional emphasis and prepare teachers for what might occur in their own classroom settings. As one teacher noted, ‘‘I saw good lessons and classroom management techniques in action. It also helped me identify probable and possible problems that will come up with students in my own room. I can address the problems before they even happen.’’

The hands-on technology training offers time for teachers to practice and explore in a non-threatening environment. One teacher pointed out that the ‘‘less structured time [to work on the computers] gave us the opportunity to experiment, stretch, and most importantly collaborate.’’ In group discussions, teachers reflected on how to use technology in their classroom instruction and share concerns and accomplishments. As district teachers engaged in thoughtful dialogue about technology use, they also built a foundation for continued collegial interaction. The following teacher’s comment reflects the view of many: ‘‘Time to work out specific problems with other teachers─sharing ideas or common concerns or a terrific discovery or success you had─made the training very meaningful.’’

Both formal and informal collegial networks developed through the professional development program. The district established formal structures for collegial support by offering ongoing release time for teachers to observe in other classrooms, team-teach with a colleague, or participate in peer coaching. Informal networks emerged among teachers at each school, and teachers throughout the district in the same subject areas and grade levels began e-mailing and setting up ad hoc meetings. The collegial support enhanced sharing of instructional ideas and teachers’ sense of efficacy with technology, as described in this teacher’s journal entry: ‘‘Developing a support system within the ‘ranks’ of your colleagues is wonderful and boosts your comfort level in working with technology. It gives you a sense of confidence and willingness to try new ideas or methods.’’ New approaches spread quickly through the collegial networks and often became topics included in the district’s professional development program.


This district created a setting that prompted a previously unasked research question: What happens to technology use when the technology itself is no longer the central focus of teachers? By removing the personal computer and some of its associated complexity and maintenance costs, the district has encouraged teachers to focus on curriculum and instruction. Reducing the need for technical skills allowed teachers to move more quickly to integrate technology into their teaching and to avoid being bogged down at the initial stage of trying to learn about the technology itself.

A combination of factors moved the district ahead very quickly toward integrating technology into instruction without burdening teachers with the technology. The use of less expensive hardware let the district achieve a 2:1 student to computer ratio in all classrooms. This made it possible for teachers to plan classroom activity differently than when they had only eight computers. With one computer for every two students, managing who gets to use the technology and when is no longer a burden for the teacher. The district’s high-speed network allows all students to use the Internet as a resource and lets teachers rely heavily on the Internet for instructional materials. Widespread adoption of the intranet Web site model of classroom use of technology makes it easy for teachers to focus on finding and developing curricular content, and it facilitates collaboration among teachers throughout the district on training and Web site construction. Centralized storage of student and teacher work at the district office makes student work accessible from any machine on the network and simplifies maintenance and installation of software. Finally, the district’s professional development program focuses on instructional rather than technical issues; and it is thorough, ongoing, and adaptable to teacher needs, allowing innovations to spread quickly throughout the district.


Over the past 10 years, the amount of technology available in U.S. schools has dramatically increased. During this time, state and national technology standards, textbooks, and training programs for teachers have continued to emphasize technical skills as a necessary first step in moving toward using technology for teaching and learning. While learning about hardware may seem like a logical place to begin, our research suggests that spending as little time as possible on the technology itself leads teachers more quickly to greater and more interesting uses of technology. Put another way, we don’t require an automobile maintenance course before issuing a license to drive, so why do we expect teachers to master the ins and outs of personal computers before thinking about how to use them effectively in classrooms? Our findings suggest that a more productive approach is to begin with teachers’ strengths─thinking about curriculum and instruction─rather than putting them into the uncomfortable and unfamiliar role of technicians. To that end, we conclude with the following observations about the use of technology in classrooms.


National and state standards, as well as educational technology textbooks, tend to start with the aspects of using technology in the classroom that are of least interest to most teachers─learning about the hardware and how to troubleshoot it. One consequence of starting with the hardware is that many teachers end up focusing too long on mastering hardware and trouble-shooting, issues which have little relation to using technology for teaching and learning. This focus on technical issues delays teachers’ progress in using technology in meaningful and productive ways in their instruction. In contrast, when teachers are able to bypass the hardware and troubleshooting, they can move quickly to more interesting and inventive uses of technology in the classroom.

As implied by the work of the school district in this study, if we want teachers to use technology, we need to reverse what we are doing. We need to take away expectations for technical skills and allow teachers to focus on developing curriculum, evaluating learning materials, and thinking about how to provide better learning opportunities for their students. Understanding the role technology can play in teaching and learning is different from understanding how the technology works or what to do when it stops working.

The rapid change associated with technology has led to very different expectations over the past 20 years with regard to what should be mastered by teachers. Becker (2001) offers the following list of how using technology in the classroom has been defined:

(1982) Program computers using BASIC

(1984) Thinking skills that will transfer─LOGO

(1986) Basic skills─ILS

(1988) Tools: word-processors, database, spreadsheets

(1990) Curriculum integration

(1992) Authentic work; real audiences; Hypercard stacks

(1994) Not programming again! Worldwide e-mail links

(1996) The Web: Finally research is fun.

(1998) Learning by producing: Publish student work on Web

(2000) Technology is not important; it’s just a tool for reform. (p. 1)

These ever-changing expectations vary in the way they emphasize curriculum and instruction, and although we have moved away from expecting teachers to learn how to program the computer, standards continue to focus on mastering the technology as the first step.


Despite claims by computer companies, most hardware and software are not designed for teachers and students in classroom settings. The personal computer is in many ways ill suited for schools. Designed for use by an individual, the personal computer is an awkward fit in classrooms where 10, 20, or even 100 different students may use it in a single day. File management and storage pose additional problems for classroom PCs. In addition, teachers have to do more troubleshooting because of the complexity of the computer hardware. A network-based system, such as the thin client, simplifies the computer hardware considerably and resolves technical issues for teachers by locating the complex hardware in a central office. However, to a degree, the hardware issues are just hidden, not resolved. Now they are managed by professionals in the district office who do the things that sometimes turn teachers away from using technology─installing software, backing up files, and troubleshooting network problems.

Don Norman (1998) points out that a network computer, such as the thin client, simplifies maintenance, but doesn’t change the nature of the problems associated with using computers:

The NC [network computer] philosophy takes the same difficult computer we have always had, but instead of having many of them, one on each desk, we have just one, in some central location, plus lots of little display units on individual desks. The central computer has the same difficulties as before─probably even more, to enable it to handle the new job. The only difference is that it is maintained by professionals who are used to all the nonsense rather than everyday folks like you and me. So, in this sense, it is a silver bullet─it spares us the everyday issues. (pp. 108–109)

Norman goes on to say that the network computer is an aid to the administration of large systems but that it really does not address the issue of complexity associated with the use of computers.

In addition to the complexity of hardware, software tends to be more complicated than is necessary for K–12 use. While systems such as the thin client can run the same software that students and teachers would use on a typical PC, this is a double-edged sword. Yes, students can use the same productivity applications used in the business world; but at the same time, these applications are complex, full of menus, choices, and features designed to suit office workers and not middle school students. So the advantage that the thin client hardware is able to run 90% of the software previously used on PCs, while a nice feature for marketing still leaves teachers and students using complex software to accomplish relatively simple tasks. Schools and teachers are expected to make do with hardware and software designed for business users, and this formula doesn’t always work.


We believe that it can be counterproductive to force teachers to be technicians and assume the role of supporting the technology in their classrooms. Much of the technology currently available for classrooms is very complex and designed for use by single individuals. Classroom use of personal computers, digital cameras, or other technologies differs from how the same technologies might be used in an office or at home. Multiple students may use the same hardware and software almost continuously during the day, putting more stress on the hardware and leading to a greater need for maintenance and troubleshooting. School districts need to reduce the complexity and technical expectations for teachers by taking over maintenance of the hardware and allowing teachers to concern themselves with instruction.

While unburdening teachers of the technical support role has many advantages, networked systems remain extremely complex, and sometimes even relying on professionals isn’t a cure-all. Although a centralized network can be very reliable, on those occasions when it isn’t working, computer use comes to a halt. Since the thin clients only work as part of a network, when the network is not available, they do not work at all. The network also takes longer to start up after a power outage than an individual PC, and while power outages are very rare, they do knock out computer activity for an additional hour or two. For teachers who rely on the network and Internet access for instruction, network problems can sometimes require a quick change in plans.

Software issues also affect a network-based system differently than they would with PCs. For instance, when a virus hits a centralized server, all users are affected, rather than just those on a single PC. Any other software problems at the network level are also felt by everyone. For example, when the district in this study experienced problems moving to a new version of the network operating system, it was not able to provide secure student logins and storage areas, something that had been previously available. This led some teachers to be more cautious with the kind of work they asked students to store online, fearing that the lack of security could lead to unintentional or intentional loss of student work.

Although shifting the technical issues to professionals can present other types of problems for teachers, we believe that teachers can more readily deal with shifts in lesson plans or changes in student assignments. Until the technology found in classrooms is more reliable and easier to use, professionals should provide support and deal with technical problems. Teachers should be spending less, rather than more, time dealing with and learning about the technology.


How school districts move from a technology-first to a curriculum-first emphasis will vary depending on the goals and resources available in a particular district. What works for one school district may not be possible elsewhere. In the district we have discussed here, a number of factors and choices have produced a unique situation where the district is able to simplify the introduction of technology into classrooms through a centralized network and support system. The lessons from this district won’t work as a recipe for others to copy, but elements of their plan can be used in other settings. Technology use throughout the district is part of a comprehensive plan that encourages collaboration among teachers and allows them to share ideas and techniques for integrating technology into their teaching. Content and curriculum come first, and technology is available to support the instructional and learning goals of the district.

In the end, whether or not students’ learning opportunities are enhanced through classroom use of technology is the measure of success that matters, not how quickly a teacher can repair a jammed floppy disk drive or differentiate between gigabytes and megahertz. To help teachers become more productive in their use of technology, we need to help them focus more on instruction and learning, and less on bits, bytes, and backups.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 3, 2004, p. 487-512
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11525, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 6:32:24 PM

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About the Author
  • Judith Sandholtz
    University of California, Riverside
    E-mail Author
    JUDITH HAYMORE SANDHOLTZ is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside where she formerly directed the Comprehensive Teacher Education Institute. Her research focuses on teacher professional development, teacher education, school/university partnerships, and technology in education. Recent publications include ‘‘Inservice Training or Professional Development: Contrasting Opportunities in a School/University Partnership’’ in Teaching and Teacher Education and ‘‘The Substantive and Symbolic Consequences of a District’s Standards-Based Curriculum’’ in the American Educational Research Journal.
  • Brian Reilly
    University of California, Riverside
    E-mail Author
    BRIAN REILLY is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside. His areas of specialization are technology in K–12 schools and new literacies. His publications include ‘‘New Technologies, New Literacies, and New Problems,’’ in C. Fisher, D. Dwyer, and K. Yocam (Eds.), Education and Technology: Reflections on Computing in Classrooms (Jossey-Bass).
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