Where should technology skills be taught? In specialized technology courses, within subject-matter courses, or in a combination of the two?
The answer to these questions say a lot about how a school approaches curriculum, where they are in the technology adoption lifecycle, and its professional development programs and priorities.
The Technology Adoption Lifecycle
In a previous post (The Goldilocks Number: Academic and Operational Goals) I used the Technology Adoption Life Cycle (TALC) as a means to address the number of support staff required in a school. TALC is also useful in examining when and where technology is addressed in the school curriculum.
The first two stages of TALC are dominated by innovators and early adopters. How has this played out in education?
Personal computers started making their way into U.S. K-12 schools in significant numbers starting in 1977 with the introduction of the Apple II computer. By 1988, there were approximately 250,000 computers in classrooms and labs across the country.1
Initially, computers were expensive novelties, with unproven merit, and the province of “experts.” These experts were isolated teacher-geeks who taught themselves to program in BASIC and Pascal, gradually introducing their colleagues and students to using computer applications on 5 ¼” floppy disks. Word processing, databases, and spreadsheets were in their infancy, communications was via expensive dial-up modem telephone lines, CRT screens were monochrome, and printers used dot matrix technology. Little wonder that many teachers, even those who were genuinely interested in learning more about computers, left the bulk of technology to “computer” teachers.
Given the high cost and relative dearth of computers in schools, these resources were collected in central locations–computer labs. Regular classroom teachers were not expected to have mastered the black arts of computer use, and many would simply drop off their classes in the labs for “computer time” with the “computer teacher.”
In many cases, students were learning to use computers with little regard to what was happening in the other parts of the curriculum. Computer class was unfortunately treated like other non-core classes (P.E., music, art) and not integrated with other lessons.
Given the fact that we are now in a mainstream market for school technology, why does the model of labs and “computer teachers” continue to be so popular? The answer lies in teacher attitudes towards–and administrator expectations of–the use of technology in the classroom.
What School Approaches to Technology Reveal About Curriculum Practices
Perhaps you have heard this old saw: “Ask an elementary teacher what she does for a living and she will tell you “I teach eight year-olds.’ Ask a high school teacher what she does for a living and she will tell you ‘I teach English.’” This subtlety may be lost of some people, but not on wise educators. There’s a world of difference between focusing on a child than on a subject area. And while this example is an oversimplification of a complex subject, there’s a truth to it that lies at the heart of the question about where technology should be taught.
What does it mean when technology enters “mainstream markets” in general, and mainstream education markets in particular?
In education, the term “mainstream” is often associated with placing students with learning differences in the “least restrictive environment,” that is to integrate children with special needs into regular classrooms and activities wherever possible. This practices enriches the lives of all of the students in the classroom and the school.
When technology is “mainstreamed” into a classroom, it too is appropriately integrated into all aspects of the curriculum and student life. Technology tools are not an add-on but in the same class as paper, pencils, rulers, protractors, calculators, microscopes, and so on that one uses to perform a task. Computers simply happen to be tremendously adaptable tools that are good for many, many tasks. Schools that are fully in the TALC mainstream market are characterized by technology training for students that happens as needed, within the context of classroom projects, and in the classroom. Schools at this stage have 1-1 laptop programs or a vigorous laptop cart practice, and the role of any technology specialist is one of “help the teacher do it” and not “do it for the teacher.”
For this to be completely successful, school administrators must:
- require that faculty make appropriate use of technology in their classrooms in the same way that they expect faculty to make appropriate use of textbooks, assigned readings, library resources, and other tools,
- provide teachers with the knowledge and training on appropriate use of technology,
- measure the appropriate use of technology in the classroom,
- celebrate, promote, and make public the appropriate use of technology,
- apply logical consequences to faculty who continually fail to live up to expectations up to, and including, termination.
As the saying goes, “what’s measured is treasured.”
Technology as Content
It should be clear that I think that most schools should not be using separate classes to teach basic computer skills in which technology is a basic tool of inquiry, organization, and creative expression. But what about instances in which technology is itself the object of study? Instances such as computer programming, robotics, electronic music, movie making, and digital photography?
Clearly there is a time and place for highly specialized courses to be taught apart from other subject areas. The depth of the skills required of the teacher, the interests of the students, and the requirements of advanced curriculum standards such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs require distinct offerings. But here, too, we may be simply in the early stages of TALC. Students are creating their own robots to use a sensors in science courses, or writing simple computer programs to solve equations in mathematics. Video making has become so commonplace that many students use these tools to complete reports in a range of subject areas. What is novel and “deep” today may become “mainstream” in a few years. What educators must guard against, therefore, is a system in which specialized courses are maintained when they are no longer needed, thereby keeping TALC from progressing from the early-adopter stage to the mainstream.
So how does your school approach this? Separate classes? Integrated curriculum? A combination? Let me know…
- Anderson, R, & Ronnkvist, A. (1999, June). The Presence of Computers in American Schools. Retrieved from http://www.crito.uci.edu/tlc/findings/computers_in_american_schools/report2_text_tables.pdf ↩