Lever and Fulcrum: Educational Technology in Teachers' Thought and Practice

by Stephen T. Kerr - 1991

Describes educational technology's place in classroom teachers' thoughts and practices, examining three assumptions (teaching and teachers, what technology contributes to instruction, and how technology is used). Information is presented from two studies of teachers' classroom practice and technology's place. Implications of changes in practice to improve teacher education are noted. (Source: ERIC)

A Martian coming anew to the American educational scene could well observe that the notion of applying technology successfully in classroom settings is in fact a cruel hoax. After eighty years of efforts to apply technology in ways that would “revolutionize” education, most teaching practice today looks remarkably the way it did at the beginning of this century. Computers, video, and the software used with these devices, our Martian might say, are in reality only a scam, perpetrated on an unwitting audience of teachers, students, and administrators by greedy hardware manufacturers, unscrupulous publishers, vacuous professors, and vain parents in search of an economic edge for their children. Not only is proof lacking that using technology increases achievement, but attempts to encourage teachers to modify teaching practice enough to get a clear reading on the potential of technologically based approaches have themselves often been laughably ineffective.

The problem of technology’s place in education is not an insignificant one. Many observers—even those with moderate stances on what technology might contribute—see technology as offering some solution to a variety of educational ills, from improving rates of basic literacy, to involving apathetic students, to reconstructing the nature of teaching as a labor-intensive profession, to providing the basis on which American productivity (and thus its leading place in the world competitive economic arena) might be restored.1

Government and other subsidies for research on how technology might contribute to the solution of these problems have not been lacking. During the 1980s, funding for educational technology from the National Science Foundation grew from $2,000,000 to over $16,000,000; the Department of Education’s commitment was less consistent, but there were a number of new initiatives in the Star Schools project and several new computer-assisted instruction competitions.2 Similarly, major producers of hardware and software have established demonstration programs of various sorts to try to establish the positive role that technology might play in education. Additionally, corporate projects such as Apple Computer’s Apple Classroom of Tomorrow, IBM’s Teacher Preparation and K-12 Improvement programs, Wicat System’s Waterford School, and GTE’s Classroom of the Future have poured considerable resources into the effort to identify how technology might affect schooling.3

Yet in spite of these attempts, the results to date have been disappointing. While there are indeed countless devoted hackers among the nation’s teachers, there are many more who have made conscious decisions not to use technology, who are too busy to learn what it might do, or who simply do not care. Why technology has found so small a place in classroom instruction, then, is one of the great mysteries of contemporary American educational practice. It is a source of frustration for school administrators, as well as for technophiles among the education professorate.

In addition to the frustrated, there are the critics of technology and how it has come to be applied in schools. Some see technology as an unwelcome intrusion on the higher human purposes of education; others view its promotion as a further attempt by corporate and military interests to define and guide what happens in the nation’s schools; and still others view the arrival of technology with suspicion because of its potential as a de-professionalizing and de-skilling influence just as further intensive efforts are being undertaken to improve the professional status of teachers and enhance their role in the reform of schools. In spite of the negative view of technology held by the critics, it is also true that technology has found a place in many classrooms, and some teachers are indeed fascinated by its possibilities.

What I want to suggest here is that the roots of the problem of technology’s uneven impact on American classrooms go deeper than most technologists, most administrators, and most critics have been willing to admit. These difficulties stem from problematic assumptions in several areas: how teaching and the teacher’s classroom role are conceived, what technology is “good for’ (and thus what it is seen as being able to accomplish in instruction), and how these elements do or do not come together in a vision of how “teaching with technology” might look to a practicing educator. Part of what follows is based on two studies I recently conducted with teachers to unearth and examine some of these assumptions. One, an initial exploratory study, sought to characterize the way in which technology does or does not figure in teachers’ images of everyday classroom life. It revealed that, contrary to the expectations of some pro-technology advocates, the process of adopting new devices and the approaches they make possible is neither rapid nor easy, nor does it automatically lead to the sort of revolutionary restructuring of teaching that proponents have predicted. A second study evaluated a specific technology-based program of classroom and school renewal. It strongly suggested that teachers, appropriately supported and encouraged, can use technology in ways that allow classroom experience to be reorganized and that provide new ways for teachers to recast their own professional roles. While this approach did not lead to rapid change, it did show that technology can alter how classrooms look and feel, and that computers have social implications in schools that go beyond merely making instruction more effective or giving students access to better tools.

This article, then, seeks to describe the place that educational technology has (or perhaps more accurately, is coming to have) in the thought and practice of working classroom teachers. It does so from both a theoretical and an empirical perspective, characterizing teachers’ thinking about technology within their general framework of concerns about teaching, their intents for classroom practice, and their actual work with technology as it becomes available. It will be productive first to examine three types of assumptions made by many enthusiasts for and critics of technology (about teaching and teachers, about what technology contributes to instruction, and about how technology comes to be used); there follows a consideration of the two studies (mentioned above) of teachers’ classroom practice and the place there for technology; the conclusion suggests how programs that seek to introduce technology might be better introduced and how teachers might be encouraged to think about using them.


Those who have been most enthusiastic about the possible uses of technology in education include school and district administrators, who think of technology variously—as a tool for improving academic achievement, a concession to parents concerned about their children’s future, or a symbol of the future—and “technologists,” both in industry and academia, who see in technology a powerful tool to revise educational practices that many characterize as inefficient or ineffective.

Perhaps the strongest of the latter voices over the past decade has been that of Seymour Papert, the MIT-based mathematician and developer of the LOGO computer language.4 Papert’s original claim was that, by working intensively with a responsive computer-based environment, children could internalize skills of problem structuring and problem solving that would transfer to other fields and thus lead to a revolution in thinking about education. In spite of studies that have turned up little evidence for this hypothesis,5 Papert himself remains convinced that such a “constructionist” approach to education can be productive.6 The vision here is one of teaching as an activity directed toward acquisition of cognitive information-processing skills, though there is typically little attention paid to the amount of time required to acquire or master such approaches, nor to the implications such changes might have for classroom life.


Other technologists make similar assertions with regard not just to the use of computers or particular languages, but with respect to what they call “instructional systems technology” as a whole. This process, sometimes called “instructional design” or “instructional development” (purists in the field would contend these are different), is seen by many as the only credible basis for improvement of instruction and thus of schooling. Heinich, for example, asserts that the only sensible approach to the problems of schools is to encourage rapid and comprehensive adoption of instructional design as the strategy for implementing and evaluating any and all instructional programs. Heinich particularly decries the continued “craft” approach teachers take to their work, and sets this in opposition to a “technological” approach. The field of educational technology, he suggests, has more to do with technology than it does with education.7

Indeed, the activities of educational technologists, defined now largely in terms of instructional design and development, are increasingly distanced from the work of ordinary teachers in the public schools. Richey, for example, opens a book on instructional design with the following caveat:

Planning instructional programs and materials has been separated from the jobs of those who actually deliver the instruction in a growing number of situations. . . . The dichotomy between instruction and instructional design . . . is . . . influenced by different theoretical orientations and different practice histories.8

Technologists who have looked at schools think that, if only teachers would use technology (whether qua hardware or qua instructional design), students would become motivated, instruction would become clear and logical, student achievement would increase, teachers would be freed from the drudgery of routine tasks, and classroom activities would become more varied.9 Others are less specific in their criticism, but intimate that the rationale for the existence of schools (almost always discussed in terms of knowledge production and transfer of information to the next generation rather than socialization, acculturation, or individual development) has been so seriously altered by technology and other changes that their presence as a social institution past the year 2000 must be questioned.10

In short, much writing about teachers and teaching by technologists is deeply infused with certain problematic assumptions about the nature of instruction: Rational improvement is possible and desirable; schools and teaching practice may be improved through systematic, rationally applied use of technology; teachers’ ways of coping with the demands of classroom life are barriers to improvement of the educational system. The image of technology (hardware and/or designed instructional systems) in schools thus focuses on rational and systematic change, with the teacher’s role redefined in ways to maximize the impact of technology. Little attention is paid to schools as social organizations and cultural institutions, nor is the work of teachers (and the integration of technology with that work) conceived differently than might be the work of machinists in an aircraft production factory who are struggling to switch to a new system of manufacture based on robotic lathes.


In contrast to technologists, some critics take the teacher’s part and suggest that educators should rightfully be indignant about the advance of technology into classrooms. Some see technology as an insidious threat to individualism and humanism in education.11 Others take a more defiantly critical perspective and place the current fascination with technology in a broader cultural context of increasing corporate and military influence on American education.12 It is not only the dehumanizing potential and corporate sponsorship of technology that bothers the critics; it is also the possibility that technology might significantly de-skill teachers’ work just at a time when there are strong pressures for an enhanced professional role for teachers in making significant decisions about school practice and policy as part of the broader school reform agenda.13

The critics’ vision is important, but no less problematic than that of the technologists, for it has sometimes denied that teachers can and do find value in what technology can make possible. Part of the problem here appears to be that changes in classroom organization and practice take time to occur, and even longer to become so widespread as to be noticeable. Olson, in one of the few careful studies to date of how technology in classroom practice really looks and feels, notes that computers in classrooms often disrupt traditional routines and allow teachers to establish new patterns, and that software itself sometimes brings in the “germ of new practice.“14 But none of these changes happens easily or quickly.

Part of the difficulty here is that the critics have often accepted too unquestioningly the technologists’ vision of schools as dehumanized work places, rather than affirming an alternative vision. To say that technology is irrelevant or inimical to humane practice in education is simply to deny that technology has always interacted with culture, often in ways unforeseen by either supporters or detractors of technology.15 To deny a role for technology in education is to deny a place for part of the very culture that the critics would have the schools protect and propagate. Where the critics are correct is in pointing out that technology should rightly be seen as supplementing, not supplanting, the roles of schools and teachers as parts of a social institution. What may follow from that realization is a heightened awareness of the reality and importance of the teacher’s world, and the ways in which technology might enhance that world rather than replace it.


Many technologists adopt a view of teaching that emphasizes the role of technology in helping to “engineer” answers to instructional problems.16 Teaching, under such a view, might be defined as the administration of instructional materials or programs in such a way as to effect learning. Unfortunately, such an approach often stresses only some types of outcomes—the cognitive over the affective, the short-term over the long, the factual and objective over higher-order and critical/synthetic/judgmental.


The perspective of the technologists suggests that the teacher’s role is something to be refined and shaped by principles of instructional design: Inconsistencies are to be smoothed out, digressions eliminated, predictability developed. The principal product of the educational technologist’s work—a carefully prepared set of instructional procedures (regardless of whether delivered by a computer or the teacher himself or herself)—is designed in such a way as to minimize the teacher’s contribution. Indeed, some educational technologists would posit that an important aspect of their work is to eliminate the need to have a human instructor present.

These views are troubling, for schools as a social institution collectively have other (and, many would argue, more important) purposes than the transmission of information to their charges. Teachers, too, are more than classroom-based implementers of instructional strategies. Schools as seen by a sociologist or an anthropologist are parts of a larger social institution that is concerned with bringing young people into contemporary culture and into a specific society; they have as much to do with the transmission of values, ways of thinking about the world, and a vision of one’s place in it as they do with providing information. What the technologists ignore is the side of schooling that has to do with enculturation and socialization.

On the level of the classroom itself, that focus of technologists has resulted in intense examination of the interaction between student and instructional material, and a relative disinterest in the dynamics of interaction among teacher and students. That interaction, however, especially if subjected to the pressures of a contemporary classroom (a daily procession of five classes with thirty or more pupils in each; accommodation of special-needs students; administrative demands; the need to communicate with parents and administrators; lack of free time), may have a significant impact on the interaction of student with materials. Restructuring classroom time to free teachers from the pressure of constantly needing to control may allow more time for on-task learning by individual students. Technology may help by permitting such new patterns of time use, and thus of classroom organization and management, to emerge.


The critics of technology adopt a set of assumptions that differ from those of the technologists. Rather than assume that all significant decisions can be made in advance, the critics focus on teachers’ efforts to create for themselves a classroom world that reflects both their individual assumptions about teaching and their preferred ways of working with students. That world has been described in several studies:17 Teachers often feel isolated from their peers, but find sustenance in the routine of classroom life; they resent intrusion from outside, and find most administrative requirements to be “red tape”; their interest in constructing curriculum themselves or developing alternative instructional materials is severely constrained by a lack of time for anything other than the most basic classroom maintenance, leading in turn to an almost overwhelming demand for “the practical” in approaches, materials, or hardware.18

Inquiry into the nature of teachers’ professional knowledge has suggested that the links between teaching practices and particular curriculum content may be more idiosyncratically subject-specific (and therefore less easily addressed through the generalized approaches that technologists espouse) than previously thought.19 Teachers have been urged to become more professional not by adopting a routinized approach to problem solving, but by becoming more “reflective”20 and by celebrating, not rejecting, the image of their work as a craft.21 In all these cases, emerging evidence is offered to highlight a vision of the teacher’s work as ambiguous, uncertain, difficult to cast into the molds educational technologists have wrought. Teachers’ ideas of their work, then, are portrayed by the critics in terms of the “‘wisdom of practice,” and the value of teachers’ individual connections with students. They see the barriers to improvement of schools as lying largely in administrative realms and express their frustration with not being allowed to control more of their own destiny.

What is absent from the critics’ view of how technology might contribute to instruction is a sense of how classroom routine can become a barrier to productive teaching, and how the press of trying to deal with large numbers of students at differing levels of achievement can hinder even the most creative teacher. Becoming “reflective” is not something that can happen easily or quickly, especially when much teaching proceeds via habitual paths and when many teachers lack even minimal time free of class responsibilities to devote to professional development. The possible contribution of technology to a liberated and liberating mode of pedagogy thus needs to be explored.


Many visions of how technology can and should be used in education have seen change as a process to be decided on and administered from above. Early studies on diffusion of technological innovations relied heavily on ideas drawn from agricultural extension work.22 Under this model, new instructional technologies would improve educational productivity, if only teachers could be induced to use them. Later approaches focused more on the ways in which new practices developed in use, on the concerns of those asked to use new approaches, and on the need for endorsement, support, and guidance from administrators.23


While the earlier approaches have provided useful ways of thinking about change that is centrally decided on and managed from above, they have not proven especially productive in helping to move technology into a more significant place in the daily life of classrooms. Part of the reason is that the “adoption of innovations” approach has often assumed that, like a new seed strain or new type of plow, computers are merely new educational tools waiting to be picked up and used. The need to adapt as part of the process of adoption has been stressed recently, but there is still much in this approach that suggests that how a new practice is to be introduced, what educational questions it will address, are things to be decided first at the center and then distributed to teachers. That technology might not be best offered to teachers in this way has been considered little. Perhaps, for example, computers are better thought of as “machine tools”—tools for constructing or putting the finish on other, smaller tools of classroom practice, rather than as straightforward, single-purpose tools like hammers or chisels.

If educational technology is seen as a cultural artifact rather than a mono-dimensional device, it may follow that the ways it influences practice indirectly, the ways it interacts with existing modes of classroom life, and the ways teachers’ images of their own work evolve to take technology into account are in fact more important to examine than the number or percentage of teachers who decide to “use a computer” over a given period of time.


If technology is to find a place in classroom practice, it must be examined in the context of classroom life as teachers live it. Cohen, Cuban, and Olson suggest that teaching is an “arena of situationally constrained choice,” and that new instructional technologies impose demands that exceed what most teachers can reasonably cope with in daily practice.24 Even if a teacher were seriously interested in exploring what technology might provide, it seems sensible to assume that the press of everyday activities is such that any change could only evolve gradually over time.

Work on teachers’ understanding, planning, and thinking-in-action indicates that teachers focus on aspects of instruction that are different from those seen as important by outside observers. While many technologists, for example, see the objectives and outcomes of instruction as primary, teachers (especially at the elementary level) are often more concerned with children’s relationships with one another, with the nature of particular classroom activities, and with ensuring that those activities “go well” during any particular classroom session.25

How technology figures in teachers’ thoughts about their work, their planning of instructional activities, and their vision of classroom organization is a topic that has been little investigated. In particular, the literature in educational technology is remarkably silent on such questions as how teachers learn not only to use computers, but also to integrate them into the curriculum and the flow of classroom activities that realizes that curriculum. There is also little attention paid to the important question of teacher time: How much time does it take for the teacher to learn how particular technologies work, to figure out how to integrate one technology (e.g., computers) with another (e.g., video), to develop an image of what a classroom using technology looks like, to communicate that image to students, and to evaluate the results. The discussion that follows is based on some very preliminary efforts to characterize how teachers come to think about technology as they work to integrate it into classroom practice.


How do teachers think about technology in relation to their own teaching practice? Puzzled by the lack of good information to answer this question, I talked with teachers and administrators in three districts near Seattle, Washington. This set of interviews and observations extended over the 1988-1989 academic year, and led in turn to a deeper relationship with one of the districts involved to evaluate a specific technology-based program that got its start there at about the same time I conducted my initial interviews. The perspectives presented and discussed here are drawn from those two sources—an initial set of “question-finding” interviews conducted during 1988-1989, and a more formal evaluation study carried out during the 1989-1990 academic year.

The interviews focused on teaching practice and the place of technology in that practice—images of successful classroom teaching and sources of reward, technological support for instruction, technology’s effect on classroom organization, its use in other professional activity (communication with parents, other teachers; preparation of reports; storage, processing, and retrieval of student information). Additionally, some of these teachers were observed in their classrooms.26

The evaluation included a questionnaire for teachers, with separate versions for administrators and parents, regarding the effects of the project on teaching and learning, classroom interaction among students, and patterns of classroom organization. Six classrooms were evaluated, and each of those classrooms was observed at least once. Additionally, a log was made of electronic mail sent among the teachers.27

In both studies, two issues stood out as being especially important: the general place of technology in teachers’ thinking about their craft, and the changes in classroom organization and practice that flow from incorporating technology. These in turn have implications for changes that might be made in how we educate future teachers to think about technology. Each of these issues will be considered briefly.28


In the interview study, the initial substantive question asked teachers to “identify five milestones that marked changes in how you thought about teaching.” The point here was not so much to collect precisely five career-changing points from each teacher as it was to see what place technology would have in the responses teachers made.

A number of themes emerged from teachers’ responses to this question. Many discussed the uncertainties attendant on student teaching, initial regular teaching following certification, or the difficulties in dealing with real (as opposed to idealized) students during the first year or two of teaching. Other responses concerned the mental shift occasioned by a transfer to another grade level, a different subject, a different type of student or classroom setting (self-contained to team-taught classes, for example). Still others mentioned the impact of starting to work with new or different colleagues on a regular basis, and workshops or other in-service experiences with particular teaching approaches (Instructional Theory Into Practice [ITIP]), cooperative learning, individualized instruction) were mentioned by a number of teachers.

Technology specifically figured in only four of the twenty responses to this question, and in each of those cases it was mentioned as only one factor out of three or four. In no case was it the first item mentioned, and in no case was much affective loading attached to the mention. This contrasted sharply with some teachers’ comments involving people (“Working with [teacher’s name] has changed my life” [L3:1-2]) or particular instructional approaches (“ITIP is very powerful; it made me think through everything I was doing’ [L6:1-2]). Comments about technology-as-milestone were more neutral: “Technology in writing showed me the computer could have an impact on teaching” [L9:1-2]; “O n computers, well, I went to in-services, read Mind-storms, and that gave me a good exposure to problem solving” [B4:1-2].

Another question asked teachers “As you recall how you’ve thought about teaching over the years, what place did technology have in those thoughts?” Responses here were relatively predictable and mirrored results from earlier studies of teachers’ images of the role for technology. Several respondents used the word tool to describe their images, while others talked about the “need to do things better” [L2:2-1] or the possibility of capitalizing on the novelty value of technology “to liven it up in the classroom” [L6:2-1]. Those exposed to traditional audiovisual devices during teacher education programs or student teaching mentioned those approaches, but most seemed to agree with the teacher who noted, “Technology didn’t have a profound impact. I was of the mind that the only things needed in the classroom were chalk, board, and kids” [H1:2-1].

A slightly different picture emerged as teachers were asked to “describe your current image of classroom activity and the place there for technology.” While the responses to the prior question tended toward a utilitarian vision of tool use of technology, in replying to this question the teachers emphasized variety and the potential of technology in opening up specific new teaching approaches, but still stressed that technology generally played only a minor role in their thinking about what happened in their classrooms: “People came here knowing we’d have the latest technology,” observed one educator. “We try to teach students it’s a learning tool, not a game. . . . We try to produce not just kids who can use a monitor, but who can work with each other” [L2:3-1]. Another observed, “I would use anything that gives immediate feedback to students. But it needs to make things easier. I don’t want it if it interferes with learning or creates a hurdle” [L7:3-1]. This theme of cautious adoption was reiterated by others: “I’m not a pioneer; as I become comfortable, I incorporate it” [B2:3-1].

Diversity was nonetheless important for many of these teachers. One noted, “I use it in a variety of ways: for remediation, teaching problem solving” [B3:3-1]. For one teacher, the computer emerged as a kind of classroom omnium-gatherurm: “The computer is in the back of the class; I use it randomly to support basic instruction. I also use it as a reward device, and to produce a schedule of assignments. The kids use it for word processing, printing, problem solving, and skill games” [B5:3-1]. Similar variety was obvious from another response:

Writing skills are important—spelling, proofreading, and grammar skills were low; now, they are better. Keyboarding is important. It’s good for math drill, for problem solving and thinking skills. And I use video for art, literature, and science. You can stop more easily to discuss things. [B6:3-1].

Among the teachers in the evaluation study, a somewhat more developed vision of technology’s place in the classroom emerged. This is understandable, given the experience of these teachers in an environment both rich in hardware and supportive in terms of the help and advice made available by the district. One theme that ran through several of these teachers’ responses was their long-term interest in promoting individual learning by students in the classroom, and their sense that technology was simply another tool to use in pursuit of this general goal. Consider these replies:

My teaching style hasn’t changed too much. I was always into the hands on learning style . . . computers, camcorders, lego’s, just made it easier. [ES2:3]

Ever since I started teaching I’ve wanted to individualize instruction but been without the tools. (Please don’t think textbooks do the job!) My personality has made it hard for me to allow kids too much freedom in the class if I felt they weren’t making good use of their time. Therefore I often coerced kids to operate in groups larger than their ability dictated. That is no longer a problem in my ITC room. My teaching is liberated in that I’m much more free to teach in a way I feel is meeting the kids’ needs. I don’t worry so much now that a parent will “pin me to the wall” if they suspect their child is not getting a “traditional” education. [ES3:3]

My teaching is definitely much different although many elements are not related to technology. I think that the changes in classroom organization that are possible (more small group activity, less whole group) makes [sic] the big difference. Cooperative learning works so well with this model. The use of a variety of materials is much easier when the computers are also available for groups of students. The other aspect is the power of the computer to provide feedback to students- especially in problem solving areas. This interaction keeps students focused and on task allowing for more teacher interaction with individuals. The empowerment of students that technology provides is also important. They feel more independent and in charge. The video camera has helped with this aspect through recording and providing opportunities for analysis. In general, the technology has provided motivation and excitement for all of us. [ES6:19]

For others, however, the shift to a technologically enhanced teaching environment, and the possibilities it provides for dealing more directly with individual students, was a mentally wrenching experience:

At times it seems that I will never find the “way” to teach again and it has caused me to constantly change and refocus. This is rewarding and frustrating. I do know that it has moved me away from the front of the class and the dispenser of knowledge to more student choices to use the classroom environment as they need to. [ES5:13]

Technology makes a huge difference. Without it, I suspect, I would not have left the teacher-centered model. Technology assured me that the kids would still be learning and learning at higher cognitive levels at those stations where the teacher wasn’t present. [ES5:19]

ITC has had a tremendous impact on my teaching especially on my management and organization strategies. There seem to have been stages in my change process. Looking at small group activities rather than whole group activities was the first stage. Stations were developed and are still useful for certain kinds of tasks and curriculum needs. I gradually moved away from much whole group instruction and tend to have students working independently or in cooperative groups or specific skill groups as needed. [ES6:3]


In both studies, there was a strong focus on changes in classroom organization, and thus teaching practice, made possible by the introduction of technology. Teachers in the interview study were asked if their “classroom is organized differently due to the way you use technology.” Here, responses were generally strong and unequivocal: Technology had contributed to significant changes in how classrooms were arranged and used. Several teachers commented on the increased presence of activity centers of various kinds, especially for science classes. Various approaches to clustering students’ desks and work stations were also noted: “There are more activity centers, stations, less directed classroom instruction, except for introductions of new material. The teacher is a facilitator, helper; there’s more hands-on work by students” [B1:3-2]. Still another teacher observed, “There’s an absolute difference, especially as regards front-of-class teaching. Desks are now grouped in clusters of 3. . . . In science, the total organization is determined by technology” [L1:3-2].

Comments about the changes in classroom organization effected by technology often revolved less around the physical presence of devices than the ways in which students were grouped (or grouped themselves) when working with technology. “I can meet the needs of kids needing to do individual activities” [L5:3-2], noted one teacher. Several others commented on the rise of collaborative groups around technology [B2:3-2], [H1:3-2], [L2:3-2].

In a few cases, teachers claimed that technology had made no difference in how classrooms were structured, claiming that “the computer is just a piece of equipment” [B6:3-2] or “technology doesn’t push the program here at school” [B5:3-2]. These teachers comprised a minority; most expressed some sense that rooms looked and worked differently because of the addition of technology.

A further question along the same lines was, “How has your role in the classroom changed as a result of your use of technology?” Here again, there was solid agreement that roles had changed. Most teachers expressed this in terms of becoming “more of a coordinator” [H2:3-4], “a facilitator, not a lecturer” [H1:3-4], “I became a facilitator and . . . coach” [L8:3-4]. There was some sense that this allowed a more individual approach to students: “Because I have become more of a helper and don’t lecture, I learn more about my students- what they need and how I can help them. I can’t do that in a traditional lecture setting” [L7:3-4].

The idea that using technology resulted in a fundamental redistribution of power and authority in the classroom was also prevalent: “They see you don’t know everything; they see you as a learner” [B4:3-4]; “I give up power to the kids” [H2:3-4]; “For the intermediate grades, a ‘coach’ approach works. For students to take a chance is easier” [L5:3-4].

For some teachers, the principal change was the possibility of restructuring their role in ways that led to more flexibility, the opportunity to do more things and different things in the classroom. As one said: “It allows multitasking. When I use a videotape on the laws of motion with the remote control, I can be checking student note-taking see how they’re doing and pause the tape if students are confused or behind. It allows me to do two things at once” [L4:3-4]. Others commented on the need for new approaches to teaching thinking skills and problem solving: “Teaching used to be all facts and knowledge. Now, we don’t need to teach facts; instead, we need to teach ways of getting facts and to learn how to use information instead of just remembering it” [B7:3-4]. There were at least some indications, however, that the changes in structure and roles were not all to the good, as indicated in this reply: “Computers can be more taxing because you don’t have as much control over what they’re learning. I’m more tired after a computer lesson than a normal lesson” [B6:3-4]. Several teachers were quick to point out that they saw their own roles as continuing to be important: “With changes in family structure, the teacher is more important than before—a stabilizing influence in students’ lives. The teacher isn’t replaced by technology” [L2:3-4].

To try to get at the confounding question of why teachers often express initial enthusiasm for technology and then turn away from it after minimal actual use, we asked: “What determines whether a technology really gets used, or whether it gets put on the shell?” The responses here would not surprise any practicing teacher, but they should give pause to administrators, technologists, and instructional developers who are often carried away by the potentials absent a clear understanding of teachers’ practical lifeworlds. Qualities mentioned included: fit of the technology and associated software with the curriculum; the match to a particular teacher’s teaching style; ease of use, and ease of learning, together with appropriate models for use; time to learn new materials and applications; administrative support; and ready access to quality software and materials.

The evaluation study demonstrated even more emphatically the impact of technology on classroom organization and management. Teachers here were unanimous in their belief that the use of computers and other devices had significantly altered their ways of organizing and handling classes; all their responses were extremely positive. Consider:

For most of the day now I work with individuals in a conferencing mode or with small groups. After years of talking about individualized instruction, I finally think it is a viable option. In order to use the technology efficiently and to maximize kids’ time on it, I have moved to large blocks of time dedicated to literacy activities and math/science activities. During these blocks of time kids plan their use of time. This could have happened before I had the computers in my room, but the incentive wasn’t there to make it happen. The classroom physical setting needs to change, too. I want to get rid of the desks in my room and replace them with a few work tables in order to free up more floor space. Can’t do it yet because I don’t have any cubbies or lockers for the kids to keep their belongings in. Right now we are pretty cozy, because there are thirty kids in the room, each with a desk, and five computers on moving tables in the room itself (the others are in a little office space connected to the classroom). [ES4:3]

Many things have contributed to the evolution of my classroom, but having the hardware to help break into groups for the first time was significant. With extra hardware at my disposal, I can now offer a wide variety of activities and students can choose from a wide variety. [ES1:19]

The classroom organization has changed because I couldn’t put everyone on a computer doing the same thing at once. I had to change. I also discovered that there is much learning in allowing kids choice. Technology allows for choices, and enables a wide variety of ability levels to work on the same task and work together. [ES2:19]

These changes clearly did not come easily to all. The combination of things to deal with was impressive: new hardware, new software and the capabilities it offered, physical changes in the classroom environment itself, and thus the chance to deal more directly with those students who needed extra attention:

I had a tough time dealing with size. Where do I put things and what would make the best set up for the general flow of the classroom? I really didn’t have much space to deal with so I really didn’t have that many questions to answer. The other factor was how many kids would I have. My biggest problem to solve was the managing of students. Making sure all kids had an equal opportunity on equipment. Rotation systems and some kind of monitoring method at the beginning were really important. Once the system was set up, equal opportunity was at its height because they will fight for their time to use the equipment. [ES2:3]

I no longer do as much behavior management since that need seems to disappear when students are more actively involved and in charge of their own learning. I realize which students are not as self-motivated and concentrate on them while allowing others to continue moving on. It is assumed that all students will continuously be involved in learning activities while in the room. No one is ever “finished” because work is ongoing. . . . I don’t feel the need to check on “amount of work done” because I am working with them and know where they are and that they are involved in the learning process—even though each person’s “amount of work done” might be quite different, which is OK with me now. [ES6:3]


Toward the end of the interview study, we asked these technology-using teachers for suggestions on how technology ought to be best introduced to teachers during preservice teacher education programs. A common theme that emerged here was the need to develop what some called “comfort in practical use”: “Teach them how to get over the fear. There needs to be a focus on using technology, otherwise it may never occur [to new teachers] to use it” [B3:5-2]. Or, “They must know the Gestalt of technology and learn by using it, hands-on” [H4:5-2].

The need to become familiar with utility software that would bring practical benefits outside of strictly instructional settings was also stressed. One noted, “Teach them tools: word processing, databases, graphics are ‘musts’; spreadsheets are an option. Without these, they cannot be an effective teacher” [L1:5-2]. Another commented, “Teach utility programs. Show them what can be used in all areas, especially management and preparation” [B6:5-2].

At the secondary level, there was some agreement that teachers-to-be might most effectively learn the potential of using technology in teaching by seeing how professors in their intended discipline used it: “Train teachers by subject specialty areas, that is, use technology as it is being used in the discipline” [L4:5-2]; “You can’t separate technology from coursework. They need to integrate it into all subject areas” [B1:5-2].

There was an additional thread of concern that it might not be either possible or desirable to integrate technology effectively into pre-service teacher training. Said one, “Don’t offer courses on technology until graduate school. For undergraduates, provide modeling by having all the professors use technology in their teaching” [B5:5-2]. Another commented that “I’m still waiting to see how one could effectively teach teachers how to use the computer in the classroom. It seems too difficult to do in pre-service training’ [L3:5-2].

The teachers in the evaluation study saw the possible benefits that technology could bring as requiring careful and slow consideration before adoption. In discussing the issue of how to initiate teachers into a technology-rich environment, they focused more on changes in teaching style and approach than on specific training in either hardware or software use:

The first piece of advice is to begin the process slowly. Decide on one area that they wish to concentrate on, learn the equipment that is necessary to use and develop an organizational pattern so kids can be successful. Along with this, the teacher must have a willingness to change what they are doing. They may not change right at first, but they must be open to looking at how they can better meet the needs of kids. They need to read and think about what they are doing and be willing to try and risk new ways of doing things. And when doing new and different things, they have to be willing to learn from mistakes and grow from them. [ES2:17]

Develop a plan first then seek the technology to carry the plan forward. Move slowly. Take one piece at a time. Be sure you know how it is used, how to use it with kids and be sure the kids are comfortable with it before you consider moving onto other technologies. Give careful consideration to the possibility that your teaching style will be changed substantially over the course of several years. [ES4:17]

Start slowly. Look at your activities differently. Try to provide more times for students to work in small groups rather than in whole group. Try for more independence in the students’ work-more open ended, wide-ranging assignments. Start with word processing and math problem solving. Relax and enjoy learning with the kids—don’t feel you have to know it before you try it with the kids. [ES6:17]

The need for teachers to “go slowly” is stressed throughout these responses, together with the importance of trying to keep one’s image of teaching open and flexible as one constructs new ways of thinking about classroom reality with technology.


Two visions of the place of technology in teaching seem clear from the studies reported here: All of these teachers saw themselves as teachers first and as users of educational technology a distant second. The dominant word those in the interview study used to describe their own use of technology was “tool”; technology was a lever, a way of getting parent reports out faster, compositions delivered in more readable form, student feedback provided more regularly and more rapidly.

The idea that technology might become a fulcrum for broader educational change—a point on which teaching practice could be consciously shifted in new directions—was strongly present among the teachers in the evaluation study, and this makes sense, since they had had more direct experience with a technology-rich environment. A few teachers in the interview study did note the value of technology in engaging student interest in ways they could not do themselves, and some predicted that greater changes in classroom life could come in the future if persistent problems surrounding technology (access, time to learn new approaches) could be overcome.

There are signs, however, that technology may provide more of a fulcrum for change in classroom practice than some of these teachers consciously realized. Many spoke of the unexpected gift of having more time to work individually with students after implementing technology-based instruction. In the evaluation study, many commented that they now arranged more cooperative learning activities and team projects, and used more computer-based activity centers since they had started using technology intensively. They saw both themselves and their students as capable of a “multi-tasking” approach to learning. Interestingly, they also said that starting to use technology forced them to become more organized in what they do in classrooms.

As they considered the question of how to introduce new teachers to the use of technology, these experienced instructors saw as most critical giving novices a feeling of comfort in use, and providing a feeling for the utility of technology as a tool. There was considerable doubt, however, that all this could easily be done through a typical pre-service “one-shot” course on computers or audiovisual techniques. Time to learn what technology is for, and to develop a way to integrate it into a personal teaching style, was a critical requirement. “Move slowly, and try to think about what you’re doing before you start” appear to be the watchwords these teachers would give to teacher-educators.


Those of us who try to foster the use of technology in the schools are often guilty of hubris: We start from a premise that the value of the new approach we urge is self-evident, and that teachers should naturally want to shift their ways radically to take advantage of the new. Impatience is another characteristic of those interested in seeking transformation of the educational system through technology; they assume that schools, districts, and the colleges that train teachers should push ahead with a variety of in-service workshops, short courses, and technology-specific preservice course work. These ideas are powerfully expressed in much of the current writing on technology in the schools, whether written from the pro- or anti-technology perspective: Those who like technology want the changes they think it will bring to come as fast as possible, while those opposed fear that unplanned changes will come too rapidly, and thus harm the schools and their charges.

The studies discussed here, on the other hand, suggest that efforts to provide preservice and in-service education about technology in the classroom should not proceed from an assumption that teachers’ views of technology need to be "fixed,” or that teachers are recalcitrant without reason in their approach to technology. The veteran teachers studied here had considered the use of technology thoughtfully and in their own ways, and had found ways to incorporate it successfully into their practice. But while technology brought change, that change was neither rapid nor revolutionary in the sense of forcing them to become radically new teachers overnight. What happened, rather, was a measured development in their thinking about instruction, their role as teachers, and, most significantly, the look and feel of classrooms as the arenas where education takes place.29

Among the teachers in the evaluation study, technology did allow classrooms to be physically transformed in ways that were obvious and dramatic. These changes included, universally, a decrease in the amount of frontal instruction and a move toward more project activities and independent learning. In several cases, teachers noted that these changes allowed them to work more intensely with the students who most needed extra help, and that their need to manage behavior problems also decreased. The shift in classrooms toward a more individualized plan, then, is something that technology surely facilitates. What it is difficult to tell from the evaluation study at this point is the extent to which these teachers were already inclined toward a more individualized classroom arrangement prior to their involvement with the technology-based classrooms; several, for example, clearly indicated that they had always preferred to structure classrooms flexibly, and that technology simply made that approach easier. Others, given the supportive environment for interchange among these teachers that the district had encouraged, obviously learned from those who turned their classrooms in this individualized direction.

Teachers accommodate slowly to the new possibilities that technology presents, but that accommodation, when it happens, may in fact lead to new perceptions about teaching and about their roles as instructors. There are realizations that there are new ways of doing things, that students can use technology to work productively in groups, and that technology can make a contribution to out-of-class professional activity, but these take time to develop. When they do appear, they become parts of an integrated vision of classroom life that we probably should not expect to pass on to teachers through a workshop lasting a single afternoon, or through a stand-alone course on technological applications taken as part of preservice training.

Technology can indeed become a fulcrum for educational change, but we should consider carefully the new patterns and ways of organizing classroom life that it is really promoting in real classrooms as we listen to the predictions of both the prophets and the doom-sayers. Instead of the machine-dependent, sterile, dehumanized environment pictured by the critics of technology, or the gloriously hi-tech, efficient, and perhaps teacherless vision of the technologists, teachers appear to be crafting their own new model at present. The I fulcrum of technology may in fact be providing a point around which classrooms can be restructured to feature the teacher, perhaps in a more complex and more demanding role than before, as organizer, encourager, director of and participant in classroom activities.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 93 Number 1, 1991, p. 114-136
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 231, Date Accessed: 12/7/2021 9:42:38 AM

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