Transforming Schools with Technology

Winter 2009

By Andrew A. Zucker

In 1974, when I became director of Milton Academy's "computer center," it consisted of a single noisy teletype machine connected by a leased phone line to a computer at Babson College. We soon purchased a PDP 11/40 from Digital Equipment Corporation and the school used it in math, science, history, and art, at almost all grade levels. In addition, Milton used the computer for administrative purposes, such as scheduling students and helping the admissions office with record-keeping. The DEC computer was bulky and expensive; personal computers had not yet been invented. There was no Internet and we had to write many of our own computer programs.

Since that time, in just one generation, technology has begun to transform schools throughout the United States and around the world, largely for the better. The trend will accelerate and the challenge for schools is to use new tools and options well.

A survey in late 2004 of more than 1,000 people with extensive knowledge of the Internet asked how much change they expected the Internet would bring to various institutions during the next decade. Respondents were asked to indicate the degree of change on a 10-point scale, with 10 representing the most radical change. "Education" ranked second highest among 11 institutions, with an average rating of nearly 8 out of 10. Only "news organizations and publishing," at 8.5, ranked higher.

Critics sometimes suggest that schools are technological backwaters. That is unfair. The Boston Globe recently reported that the legal profession has resisted the age of digital technology far longer than most, and many doctors still scribble notes on paper rather than write or store records electronically. It has simply been difficult for many professions and institutions to change as quickly as technology has changed — and schools have no profits to reinvest, no R&D budgets, and a collection of complex goals and objectives rather than a single bottom line. Nonetheless, purported resistance to computers by schools is a myth. In fact, the great majority of American teachers have reported for years that computers are now "essential" to their work. Despite the inevitable challenges — from paying for computers, to combating viruses, to training teachers, to helping students use new tools constructively — the experience of recent years provides reason to believe that schools will use digital tools thoughtfully to more effectively meet their goals.

We don't have to fret, but we do have to consider how these tools can, and will, transform the way we teach and learn.

Transformative Technology

To understand why computers, the Internet, and other digital tools are so important for schools, we must avoid the false arguments of skeptics and zealots alike. The overzealous use weak arguments, such as "students are digital natives, so we should use more technology in schools," which is like saying that, in the past, schools should have used radio and TV more often because students grew up with those technologies. In other words, we need to resist the hype that many technology advocates employ. At the same time, we need to ignore skeptics — and there have been many — who argue that, because technology cannot replace good teachers, educators should make little use of computers or other electronic devices. Undoubtedly, some outstanding teachers do not use computers, but most want to and do.

The fact is that computers are beginning to transform schools into more effective institutions. As digital technology continues to increase in power and versatility, schools need a framework to help apply these tools productively.

The Pace of Change

It is hard to remember that the first practical Web browser, Mosaic, only became available in 1993. In just 15 years, the World Wide Web became pervasive. "To google" is a commonplace verb and nearly everyone uses e-mail, including my 92-year-old father. Virtually all public and private school classrooms in the United States are now connected to the Internet.

Since the year 2000, hundreds of thousands of students have received personal computers to use as learning tools in school, including all middle school students in Maine and, soon, all high school students in Pennsylvania. The number of state-supported online high schools (which typically supplement face-to-face schools for students, rather than replace them) has more than doubled since the summer 2004 issue of Independent School was devoted to exploring the role of digital technology in education. Hand-held digital devices are used in tens of thousands of schools, including probes for collecting science data, and "clickers" that permit teachers and students to rapidly gather and view assessment data from the whole class.

Schools have worked hard to adapt to the host of new possibilities offered by technology. It is a major challenge — but a vital one. With the disappearance of high-paying blue-collar jobs and a far greater financial premium on completing college, the demand by policymakers and the public for better schools has outstripped the pace of school improvement across the nation, despite the fact that, by many measures, schools actually have improved. And digital tools are proving to be essential for large-scale school improvement efforts.

Computers and the Internet are no panacea, of course. Schools still need excellent teachers, high-quality curricula, talented administrators, parental support, motivated students, and the other components of good education that we know are important.

Nonetheless, in the U.S., we have passed the tipping point when it comes to using technology for education. Schools are being transformed by digital technology. It has impacts on:

• Where and when students learn. Michigan, for example, became the first state to require that all public high school students gain experience with online learning, a method that enables students to learn from almost anywhere there is a computer and to engage in "class discussions" at any time of day or night. For traditional, face-to-face classes, open-source software like Moodle allows teachers to extend classroom discussions online, where they can continue 24/7 from any networked computer. "Blended" learning (face-to-face courses supplemented with online interaction) is growing quickly.

• Who students learn with. The Web makes it possible for students, and not just those in online schools, to learn with, and from, a much larger community. Authors, scientists, students abroad, or others outside school walls can now be included more easily in classroom presentations and discussions.

• What students learn. Millions of high school students are learning computer skills, ranging from programming to computer animation to network maintenance, that help them prepare for technical careers and other jobs. Students access a variety of resources that previously were difficult or impossible for them to use, from government databases to history sites, like Valley of the Shadow, that make it feasible for large numbers of students to do authentic historical research easily.

• How students learn (i.e., the tools they use). Students use word processors that, research shows, help them learn to write better. Online images (of great art and architecture, portraits of historical figures, early motion pictures, and the latest scientific discoveries, to name a few) are cheap and easy to incorporate into teaching and learning. There are millions of graphing calculators in schools, and tools like Geometer's Sketchpad (in math) and other dynamic games, models, and simulations make it possible to teach and learn many important concepts better and sooner, notably in science and math.

Because this is the era of the No Child Left Behind Act, the goal for schools that is most often the focus of public attention is "increasing student achievement." Although independent schools may use different terminology than public schools, the goal of educating students to high standards is essentially the same. Many of the examples above illustrate how digital tools help "raise student achievement." Some of these methods — like using word processors to teach writing, or using "probes" to collect science lab data — are well supported by rigorous education research showing that these methods are better than traditional approaches. We need more such research, and more development, both of which are underfunded in education compared to health, agriculture, and many other disciplines. In some important situations, however, research is unnecessary. For example, it is a waste of time and money to "prove" that the Internet is an essential tool for teachers who focus on civics and current events; everyone who thinks about it for 30 seconds knows that!

Six Key Education Goals

"Increasing student achievement" gets most of the attention in discussions of school improvement, but there are other important goals for education that should not be forgotten in discussions of digital technology. In my new book, Transforming Schools with Technology: How Smart Use of Digital Tools Helps Achieve Six Key Education Goals, I identify five more key education goals that have been established in state and national legislation:
• Making schools more engaging and relevant (thereby helping to reduce the disastrous high school dropout rates in many public school districts);
• Providing a high-quality education for all students (including learners using English as a second language and students with disabilities);
• Attracting, preparing, and retaining high-quality teachers;
• Increasing parental and community support for children; and
• Requiring accountability for results (including providing more information about schools to parents, policymakers, and the public).

Educators should consider how digital tools are used to help achieve all these goals because transforming schools into more effective institutions requires attention to all six, not just one or two.

For instance, leveling the playing field is a key national education goal — for students with disabilities, learners using English as a second language, students from low-income families, and others with special needs. The school-age population is more diverse than ever. Fortunately, computers enlarge fonts, translate to and from English, convert text to speech, correct mistakes, and help teachers individualize instruction. As one special education teacher said about a school's laptop program, "It's like an instructional assistant in my class…." One reason that policymakers, like former Maine Governor Angus King, have adopted laptop programs is to provide equal access to computers and information to students from all families.

Computers linked to the Internet have dramatically enlarged and improved professional communities. It is easier for teachers to communicate with parents, administrators, and colleagues, near or far. Websites provide teachers with online courses, video vignettes showing excellent instruction, and other forms of professional development. Professional associations offer a wide range of online services to teachers, including listserves and discussion boards. If I were czar of American education — not a position to which I aspire! — I would require all schools to provide each teacher with a laptop computer, because computers are now essential tools of the trade. Teachers should not have to pay for them any more than they should pay for the desks, chairs, and whiteboards (or digital smartboards) they use at school. Boston is one large school system that is setting an example by giving laptop computers to all its teachers.

The Internet provides parents, teachers, heads of school, and others with up-to-date information about schools and students. A few years ago, there were already more than one million logins annually to the Fresno, California, website that provides information to parents and students about assignments, grades, instructional resources, absences, and other items. One million in just one school district! And every month, there are millions of visitors to websites like Great Schools. Computers and "clickers" (handheld devices similar to a TV remote control) can also be used to provide teachers and students themselves with instant feedback about assessment questions, allowing teachers to quickly adapt instruction in light of students' needs. Because feedback can show the responses from a class but make individuals' responses anonymous to other students, individuals need not be embarrassed when their responses are wrong.

Key Characteristics of Digital Tools

A computer is a machine that imitates other machines, which means that computers are flexible, all-purpose machines that can substitute for other devices, like stand-alone word processors or fax machines. Some schools, for instance, now distribute instructional film and video through a local area network, obviating the need to store and distribute individual videotapes or DVDs.

Unlike TV and radio, computers and the Internet are interactive. Students or other users are able to receive instant feedback (e.g., from applets, simulations, tutorials, or other software). The technology is also customizable and able to keep records. Computer software and Internet services (such as can be tailored to individual needs and store information about users. For schools, tailoring may involve students' special needs (e.g., software can speak to blind students), their particular interests, grade levels, achievement levels, etc.

Computers and related digital tools also have other characteristics that make them important to schools. These tools are:

• Inexpensive and pervasive. Digital technology is increasingly inexpensive and, therefore, increasingly pervasive. The fact that parents, teachers, students, and others already use computers and other digital tools means that they find it much easier to use these technologies in a school setting.

• Scalable. Thousands of people, or even millions, can use the technology within a particular system or entity, such as a business, a school, or a school district. (By way of contrast, automobiles scale in an entirely different way, causing massive traffic jams.) Of course, we have not yet been able to clone excellent teachers simply because there is an Internet. Any claims to the contrary are pure hype.'

• Democratizing.The World Wide Web provides access to vast amounts of information in many forms (e.g., sound, pictures, text) that was once far more difficult to obtain, if it was even possible. From historical documents and early Edison sound recordings, to the latest pictures from the Phoenix Mars lander, to up-to-date medical information, the Web "levels the playing field" in a remarkable and unique way.

• Immediate. Unlike television and radio, specific information is available whenever you want it, and often — say, with the weather — in an up-to-date form.

• Dynamic. Because of the speed and flexibility of computers, many representations, such as drawings or pictures, can respond in special ways to the user dragging or clicking a mouse. One can zoom in on photos, rotate figures to look at them from different perspectives, play with simulated planets of different sizes in different orbits, and so on.

• Insensitive to distance. Using e-mail, online courses, discussion groups, and other formats, the Internet easily and inexpensively bridges the world.

• Community-friendly. New forms of community have developed because of digital technology. At one extreme, social networking groups such as and are used by more than 100 million people, especially students, while Internet-based support groups for people with rare diseases and their families might include only a few hundred, but be of great importance to those few.

• Less sensitive to time than other communication technologies. E-mail, threaded discussions, and other digital techniques are asynchronous (time-independent), allowing people in different time zones, or who respond on different days or at different times, to interact with one another more easily than other media, such as the telephone.

• Service-oriented. The Internet provides a huge variety of services, free of charge or for a fee. Government agencies, for example, provide searchable databases of information once available only in a static form.
Schools are using websites to provide parents with access to password-protected information about students.

• Evolving. Not only are more data, as well as new services, being added all the time, but users themselves are also part of that evolution. An obvious example is the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, constructed by users, but there are also many other websites to which ordinary people contribute, or create.

• Complementary. Rather than only displacing old forms of communication, new media may be used to complement the older forms. Newspapers and magazines, for instance, often include special online features; textbooks include website references. (More than a dozen publishers cooperate with the National Science Teachers Association's SciLinks project, which provides up-to-date science references to accompany printed texts.)

• Extensible. A wide variety of devices can be attached to and used with computers and the Internet, ranging from music keyboards to digital cameras to sensors for gathering scientific data, to graphing calculators into and from which data or software can be downloaded or uploaded. Even some telescopes and other scientific devices can be controlled through the Internet. Students have even cooperated in making valuable scientific discoveries via the Internet.

This remarkable set of characteristics explains why computers, the Internet, and the World Wide Web became pervasive so quickly — and digital technology will become even more remarkable as prices continue to drop, new capabilities become feasible, and various media converge. The proliferation of jargon (Internet II, HDTV, Web 2.0, even Web 3.0) is confusing. What is important is how digital tools actually help schools meet key education goals. We don't have to be out front on the cutting — or bleeding — edge of technology. We don't have to invent new learning skills for the 21st century. We just need to keep focused on our mission in education and be aware of the many ways digital technology can help us transform our schools into the schools we say we want.

Andrew A. Zucker

Andrew A. Zucker is the author of Transforming Schools with Technology: How Smart Use of Digital Tools Helps Achieve Six Key Education Goals (Harvard Education Press, 2008). He has been a teacher and computer center director and, for the past 20 years, has worked in independent nonprofit organizations as an education researcher, strategic planner, and evaluator. He is a senior research scientist at the Concord Consortium.