The Technology Fix: The Promise and Reality of Computers in Our Schools
reviewed by Lauren Goldenberg & Andrew Hess - 2005
Title: The Technology Fix: The Promise and Reality of Computers in Our Schools
Author(s): William D. Pflaum
Publisher: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA
ISBN: 0871208423, Pages: 220, Year: 2004
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The discourse regarding the appropriate roles of computer technologies in education has shifted over the last decade, at the same time that vast amounts of computer hardware and software have been installed in American schools. Simplistic arguments about whether these technologies will replace teachers, undermine traditional learning goals, or be responsible for the reform or education have generally given way to a rich discussion by researchers and educators about the possible uses of computers in, for example, supporting data-driven decision making, building media literacy skills, or providing online teacher professional development. Whether these discussions will influence public policy in light of current political pressures remains to be seen.
It is in this terrain that the book The Technology Fix: The Promise and Reality of Computers in Our Schools arrives. With the aim of offering, in the words of the books epigraph, ways that we can get our schools out of the technology fix they are in, William D. Pflaum describes, in an engaging and jargon-free manner, the technology uses he observed at 20 different schools around the United States. His use of the word fix is provocative and deliberate; it alludes to a predicament or difficult situation, an immediate an often temporary solution, and an understanding or identification of something. The predicament, as he sees it, is Why, with all the resources that have been invested in technology, do the measurable results appear to be so meager? (p. 5).
In trying to help the reader get a fix on the fix, Pflaum presents 20 school portraits of 8 to 12 pages apiece, with each followed by a brief reflection. He groups these portraits into four main categories with regard to how effectively the schools use technology: schools that have strong leadership, a commitment to high achievement, and a focus on achieving it; schools that have a commitment to good education but less focus on educational outcomes; schools that have an inconsistent approach and lack leadership and focus; and schools that have severe problems that hamper their ability to use technology.
The book concludes with two chapters that address, first, conclusions drawn from the authors year-long sabbatical spent in the world of schools, and second, the steps that the author feels must be taken in order for school computer use to improve. He concludes that schools use currently computers in five basic ways: as teaching machines, as productivity tools, as Internet portals, as data processors, and as testing devices. From this conclusion, he offers a series of recommendations that he distills to four, which we paraphrase here:
Be concerned with equity, not equality: Use computers with students who need additional help reaching standards and achieving academic goals.
Harness computers abilities to handle large amounts of data to facilitate the process of aligning state and district curricula with classroom-level instructional materials.
Focus computer use on test taking, either through scanning devices or computer-adaptive testing technologies.
Do a better job of thinking about when and how to teach computer skills in the K12 curriculum.
The authors aim of providing recommendations based on the real-world contexts of schools is praiseworthy and much needed in the current political and social climate. Our hopes about what this book had to offer were raised by the promise that this book would be politically incorrect by offering personal observations and anecdotes (epigraph). Unfortunately, Pflaums approach ultimately results in a work that fails to shed new light on how technology is being used in schools or to provide meaningful recommendations.
One problem with the portraits, and with Pflaums approach in general, is that there is breadth but no depth in the books descriptions and analysis. He takes great pains to examine many schools, but after several of the portraits, the thread of what he is trying to say about what he has seen gets lost. Ultimately, what emerges are some overly general concepts. Moreover, it was hard for us to see the connection between the portraits and the recommendations in the final chapter.
Pflaums comments about the genesis of the book suggest another cause for its problems. He tells readers candidly at the beginning and again at the end of the book that he conducted this tour for his own personal curiosity and that it was not meant to lead to a scholarly work. He situates himself and his work outside current scholarship. He appears to see himself as a crusader, setting out to uncover, as the title states, the reality and unlock the promise of technology in the schools. He treats research and data as if they interfere with the ability to understand the truth of what occurs in each context. However, we see no conflict between conducting a rich qualitative study and connecting the observations that emerge from that study with scholarly work that could inform the portraits and could situate the conclusions and recommendations within a larger context.
At other times, the analysis in the book suffers from the use of offhand evaluative comments in the portraits that limit the opportunity for deeper inquiry. We might be inclined to accept the assertion that Computers were supposed to transform schools (p. 85). But a statement such as When we think of computers in schools, we often think first of the computer as a teaching machine. Images pop to mind of a lab with 25 students, isolated from human interaction (p. 189) forces us to ask who this we is. Many statements gloss over potentially rich areas: computers are said to be used well and people are described as committed (pp. 25, 30). In other places truisms are unexplored. For example, when one teacher states, Technology is their [students] future and ours (p. 33), we found ourselves wishing the author would further investigate what the speaker means.
The overall result is that, although the school portraits are well written and engaging, ones attention begins to flag. The reflections at the end of each chapter help, but overall they do not delve deeply enough in the question of how technology is being used in schools. There are no surprises in the conclusions for anyone who has worked with computers in schools. By the end of the book, when Pflaum provides recommendations that are supposed to be derived from the portraits, we had a hard time understanding the connection between the two and so found his recommendations difficult to accept. For example, his recommendation that technology is used best when the principal is committed and the school has a full-time tech coordinator (p. 197) will surprise no one. And, is it true that students generally spend too much time exploring the mechanics of software instead of the content being studied (p. 192). If so, who benefits from this general observation?
We were perplexed by the question of who the book is written for. Perhaps graduate students could benefit from reading about the range of technology implementations presented in this book. But we dont believe that educators or researchers will find much here. A teacher who reads this book might be able to place herself in one of the school portrait categories, but the book is too general to help her use technology any differently in her classroom as a result of that categorization. One of the reviewers currently works in a school district helping teachers in four elementary schools integrate a variety of digital technologies into their classroom practice. For him, the book does not provide specific insights into the challenges teachers face in trying to effectively use these technologies, nor does it provide strategies for meeting these challenges. Similarly, a principal or district-level administrator might be able to say that her school or district functions like a school in category x (among Pflaums four categories) but would really like to be more in category y. Yet it isnt clear how the book would help the principal or administrator move her school from category x to category y. The other reviewer does research and evaluation that focuses on the use of technology in schools. She would want the book to offer fresh perspectives, interesting angles, and rich portraiture that could help her gain new insights about technology use in schools. Instead, the book gives stale, atheoretical arguments. For her, the book offers nothing new. Finally, although a policymaker might be interested in the books recommendations, the recommendations offer less than those of many previous works.
In fact, the issues raised in this book have been more thoughtfully considered elsewhere, both in the ed tech world and in the world of education scholarship writ large. We were reminded of Cubans work, Oversold and Underused (2001) in particular, as well as of Lightfoots fine example of portraiture and her conclusions about the importance of leadership in The Good High School (1983). Our own colleagues at the Education Development Centers Center for Children and Technologyalmost 20 years ago, in 1986undertook what they called a national study tour that examined technology integration in 11 districts around the country (Hawkins, Spielvogel, & Panush, 1996). Scholars such as McDonald (1996), Sarason (1990), and Tyack and Cuban (1995) have eloquently explained that strong leadership and adequately trained teachers are only part of the equation that makes up successful innovation and reform. Computer use does not easily fit into what Sarason refers to as the deep-seated regularities of classrooms. Changing school contexts and structuresin Tyack and Cubans metaphor, the grammar of schoolingrequires what McDonald described as rewiring schools, not only in the literal sense, but also in the figurative sense, to accommodate reflective conversations and shared responsibility in teaching and assessment, as well as to provide for the slack in time and space necessary for this to occur. Cuban succinctly describes the tenacity of these regularities in the title of his 1993 article: Computers Meet Classroom: Classroom Wins. The works described here not only predate Pflaums book but generally do a better job of exploring the complexity of computer use as something conditioned by its educational context. Pflaums techno-centric focus (the book is, after all, titled The Technology Fix) hints at this weakness.
In short, the book does not take into account educational research, policy, or theory. It is atheoretical and amethodological, yet it isnt a journalistic account either. It ultimately fails to make the case that context matters. Considering the current educational climate, which values quantitative measures of educational achievement over qualitative insight into how learning takes place, a book like this should be a valuable contribution in helping us recognize that the values and practices we bring to computers are what determine the outcomes of their use. And certainly, the books heart is in the right place. Yet in order to contribute to a discussion of how computers should be used in these schools, we need to embrace educational research rather than avoid it, acknowledge the range of values that condition computer use rather than offer overly general recommendations, and finally, reframe the debate to focus on educational reform and 21st-century learning goals, not on a decade-old straw man: the techno-centric obsession with the imagined promise and reality of hardware and software.
Cuban, L. (1993). Computers meet classroom: Classroom wins. Teachers College Record, 95(2), 185210.
Cuban, L. (2001). Oversold and underused: Computers in the classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hawkins, J., Spielvogel, R., & Panush, E. M. (1996). National study tour of district technology integration summary report. New York: Educational Development Center. Retrieved January 3, 2005, from http://www2.edc.org/LNT/news/Issue4/cct14pdf.htm
Lightfoot, S. L. (1983). The good high school: Portraits of character and culture. New York: Basic Books.
McDonald, J. P. (1996). Redesigning school: Lessons for the 21st century. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Sarason, S. B. (1990). The predictable failure of educational reform. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Tyack, D., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.