Critical Factors in the Effective Use of Technology

Laura J. Dowling and Darci J. Harland

Walden University

January 6, 2001

Part One


Definitions of Technology

The word “technology” has had varying connotations as society has progressed during the last fifty years or so.  Technology can range from the first phonograph to the tools that make space travel possible.  However, technology is commonly defined in terms of gadgets, instruments, machines, and devices.  Others broaden the definition of technology even more broadly as, “not only the obvious such as robots, computers and the assembly line, but also the less obvious, such as bureaucratic rules and manuals prescribing accepted procedures and techniques" (Ritzer, 1996 p. 101).  Robler (2000) says that technology is “us—our tools. Our methods and our own creative attempts to solve problems in the environment” (p. V).  Using this definition even the use of a spoon could be considered a technology. 

For the discussion here, the definition will be narrowed to educational technology. The word technology is used by some to mean “hardware-the devices that deliver information and serve as tools to accomplish an educational task-but those working in the field use technology to refer to a systematic process of solving problems by scientific means” (Ely, 2000 p. 1).   Educational technology can be broken down into two parts; the process of analyzing learning tasks and the products that come from them (Heinich, Molenda, Russell, & Smaldino, 2002 p. 21).  The process to analyze tasks in this paper includes using electronic sources like computers or graphing calculators.  These electronic gadgets are considered a part of educational technology not because they contain silicon chips but because students will use them to solve problems and/or construct products that will show how they have come to understand concepts they have learned. 


Learning Outcomes That Can Be Enhanced By Technology

In today’s educational world, the learning outcomes that are deemed the most important are not always agreed upon by everyone. Many believe that standardized testing is the best indicator. These are the way that administration, school boards, and state government agencies can easily decide if students are learning and receiving a quality education. It runs, however, in direct contrast to the research that has been done in recent years which leans to constructivism, portfolios, and project-based learning (Halpin, 1999).  This type of outcome is more difficult to evaluate, and that is one of the reasons that change has been slow in coming. Technology can make a difference in easing the process, but if constructivist type learning outcomes are to ever be fully achieved, the curricular goals of schools must progress from specific, low-level thinking to more open-ended, broad-based knowledge areas (Vannatta, & Beyerbach 2000).  Technology can play a significant role in enhancing these kinds of learning outcomes.

There are two ways that research has determined will contribute to raising the student learning outcomes: engaged, meaningful learning and collaboration involving challenging and real-life tasks and technology as a tool for learning, communication, and collaboration (Jones, 1995).

It is through these methods that students can begin to make great strides in their learning. Technology can not be taught as a means unto itself. It is important to embed the use of technology into the curriculum to produce the outcomes rather than to invent new ones.

There are several ways that the teacher can promote the use of technology as a way of enhancing the student learning. The most obvious and far-reaching way is by the use of the Internet. According to Becker (1999), the Internet enables the teacher to approach teaching in a new way that more closely represents the pedagogical beliefs of the constructivist theorists. The Internet allows the teacher to send students to discover the subject matter in a way that is unique to every student. By opening up the classroom walls, the students can work and research on projects in a more meaningful and individual way. The Internet allows students to collaborate with others from all over the world. With the trend toward class size increase, the Internet can provide a way for the teachers to individualize the learning experience of each student. Web sites that reinforce the text material in such a way as to engage the learner in an active way can greatly enhance learning outcome of the student.

Technology should not be looked upon for what it is but for what it can do. Computer programs can help to enhance the curriculum by providing the structure or backbone material from which the students work to create their learning experience. In order to accomplish this, computer programs should be open in structure. The students supply all the material. These types of programs are called mind tools. Jonassen ( 2000, p. 4) describes mind tools as “ computer applications that require students to think in meaningful ways in order to use the application to represent what they know.” He maintains that students can not use these applications without thinking critically.

One such mind tool is the program Inspiration. This program allows students to build visual representations of information and knowledge and arrange it in such a way that it makes sense to them. When the students can actively manipulate classroom material, they become engaged learners, and this greatly enhances the students’ retention of the curriculum.

Presentation software such as Power Point, database programs such as Access, and spreadsheet programs such as Excel are other ways that students can actively create their own learning in a meaningful way. For instance, students collaborate on the Internet at a site called “Journey North.”  Here, students from all down the eastern coast track and chart the migration of birds each season. They use a database to collect and share information. It is extremely engaging for the students to watch the progression of the birds as they make their way up or down the coast. Spreadsheet information is also shared as the students chart the speeds of the birds.

In summary, technology should be used as a way to extend the curriculum to new levels of involvement for the students. Students can use technology as a tool to make the content more engaging and meaningful.


Critical Factors for Technology Integration

“When in pursuit of educational reform via the implementation of technology-rich information age classrooms, educators …often seek reform by performing the ritual of acquiring computers, without engaging in the collective redesign of the organization”  (Dexter, 1999 p. 10). Between 1998 and 1999, the number of computers in the US schools increased 13 percent, and almost 80 percent of schools have Internet connections (Shelly, 2000).  However, schools are experiencing difficulty in effectively integrating these technologies into existing curricula (Brand, 1998).  Many schools treat technology as an addition to rather than an integral part of the regular curriculum.  Technology will only be effective if it is embedded in other school improvement efforts (McNabb, 1999).

It is common belief that technology and critical thinking skills are an important way to prepare students for the unknown technical jobs in the twenty-first century.   School boards are willing to spend money on preparing schools to be technology compliant, however, more computers, more hardware, software, and increasing the number of  computer peripherals without giving teachers training will never impact students.  “One of the biggest barriers to effective use of technology in education is the lack of professional development” (Norman, 2000).  Recent research indicates that although teachers are eager to use technology for professional and curricular activities, a lack of teacher development programs and time dedicated to experimentation hinder teachers’ skills and knowledge (Parr, 1999; Schrum, 1999; Shelly, 2000).  If teachers are to become the link between students and technology, they must be trained, not only in the skills of how to use technology itself, but on how to use these skills with their students.

            Education has always been slow to change. Technology use in the schools by its occupants is no exception.  Historically, schools have rejected or altered technologies that have been announced as revolutionary and transformative, extending as far back as the introduction of Thomas Edison’s film projector in the 1910s and including radio and television (Cuban, 1993; Dexter, 1999).  Research shows that the “introduction of technology does not radically change teaching; instead, technology can serve as a symbol of change, granting teachers a license for experimentation” (Sandholtz, Ringstaff, & Dwyer, 1997 p. 171).  Therefore, many school districts have computers, laser disks, digital cameras, scanner and other technology equipment that are only used by a very small percent of the faculty.

Even with the best equipment and training, the misunderstanding concerning how long it takes technology to become a part of the school creates difficulties. The business of using technology effectively in schools will only be seen as a step-by-step process and will not manifest itself immediately. Too many schools believe that when the computers are installed and the teachers are trained, there should be immediate results (Crouch, 1999).


Possible Explanations for Resistance to Technology Integration.

Teachers give many excuses for not using technology.  Not having the resources that they want, computers not working when they need them, and not receiving practical application-based training several are common complaints that teachers have about technology integration (Dexter, 1999). The most often heard grievance of teachers is that learning technology and how it should be integrated takes too much time (Schrum, 1999; Shelly, 2000).  Others are not comfortable with the idea that technology is the tool that is being used to change their teaching methodology.  At the source of these excuses is an underlying skepticism that even if a teacher changes his/her philosophy about teaching, technology will not be able to revolutionize student learning enough to make it worth the effort the change would require.

Teachers, their personalities, their philosophy about teaching, their competence with using technology, the traditional model of education, and the lack of resources and time all contribute to chaos of understanding why teachers are so slow to integrate technology into their curriculum. 

In order to understand the different resistance levels that teachers have in using technology with their students, one must consider the differing personality of teachers.  Research in personality shows that personality does make a difference in a teacher’s willingness to use technology.  Extroverted, stable, and tough-minded personalities were more receptive to the use of computers (Katz, 1992).  Other research concluded that “sensing” individuals desired direct access to technology but that the “intuitive” types were cautious and needed some prior training before initiating multimedia procedures (Knupfer, 1989). 

More recent research supports the idea that personality can be a predictor of what teachers may be more willing to use technology in their classrooms (Smith & Munday, 1995). Smith and Munday used the Myers-Briggs personality test, based on Jung’s theory of personality, to compare teachers’ personality with their willingness to use technology.  They found that “Intuitive/Thinking” personalities, or those who are creative, analytical, logical, and imaginative are more receptive to the use of technology than the “Sensory” types who are practical, realistic and sociable.  The “Sensory/Feeling” teachers who are interested in examining meanings and relationships are least likely to be comfortable with technology than the other personality types.

Since most technology professional development workshops are usually presented in the same format as traditional professional development, teachers’ differing needs are not met.  In order for teachers whose personalities are not predisposed to technology to be successful in using technology for themselves and their students, training must be more individualized.  Teachers need to know specific ways and reasons that technology can be successful in their classrooms.

Another major barrier in getting teachers to use technology is that every faculty member has differing levels of technology competence (Glenn, 1997).  Some have almost no skill; others, through their own initiative, have acquired sophisticated skills.  This creates very difficult decisions about what type of workshops are needed for teachers.  Often times, districts opt for a one-size-fits-all approach that may only meet the needs of a few individuals.  The workshops that they do offer usually are on a needs basis, and focus on things like word processing, test construction, automated transparency creation and grading, rather than how to use technology with students.  Most districts do not have the funds to create a diversified technology continuing education program for its teachers that would give the time and individualized instruction needed to help teachers apply what they are learning.   

The community’s view of education possesses another huge threat to technology integration. Getting teachers to use technology in the classroom is difficult because of the commonly perceived notions of what a school should look like (Glenn, 1997).  Since most went through a traditional school setting with the teacher up in front dispersing knowledge to students, people believe that this system is good enough for future students (Darling-Hammond, 1997).  Others believe that students learning in the traditional classroom, with desks all facing forward, listening to the teacher, talking only when called on, is an essential element that helps teach students necessary skills for the future (Hirsch, 1996). It is argued that changing from the traditional methods of teaching would cause more problems, and these problems cannot even be argued because the outcome would be unknown.  However, there is one very large assumption in this view.  If students are quiet, sitting in desks, writing, turning in homework, and are not a discipline problem, that they are learning (Sizer, 1992).  Many students have learned how to play this game, can go through the motions, and yet learn nothing. 

If an information age classroom is to impact students of America, the traditional design of the school and classroom form a road-block to the inquiry-based, real-world activities that a more innovative technology environment should provide (Dexter, 1999).  The school schedule might discourage interdisciplinary work, report card forms discourage performance assessment and long-term projects, and the need of the public to use standardized testing to keep schools accountable discourages creating a balance between student’s learning of content and process skills (p. 9).  A problem with leaving the traditional school setting is that communities, teachers and some students are comfortable with letter grades, heavy textbooks, and a teacher firmly in charge and up front (Kohn, 1999 p.13).

Lack of resource time is the most common reason teachers do not integrate technology into their curriculum (Ferraro, 1999; Glenn, 1997; Maxwell, 1997; Messmer, 1996; Norman, 2000; Schrum, 1999). Teachers are, by the nature of their work, pragmatists.  They must survive the day; they must be ready for the next (Sandholtz et al., 1997 p. 171).  The pressure to use technology, to use new teaching methods, even if it promises success in the end, may not be enough to motivate teachers to change the way they teach.  Since many have been successful in the methods they have used in the past, they have no reason to spend the time modifying it, especially if they can not be sure of the outcome.  Benefits perceived by teachers who participate in in-service technology training, must outweigh their investment of time and energy (Shelly, 2000).

The commitment to technology must come from all levels of all stakeholders involved in education. Administrators, teachers and parents are all a part of the circle and must be in a position to work together to improve learning through technology. Also important to the circle of influence is the community at large. There is so much expertise and assistance that can be had by calling in the community to assist in the technology program. Ironically, it is the collaborative nature of the Internet that can assist the schools with their interrelations within the community. This connectivity allows teachers, parents, and businesses to work together as never before.

All stakeholders must be together in the belief that the technology will assist in the students’ learning. Attitude and motivation are key ingredients in creating a positive environment for teachers and students to explore new ways of learning (McNabb, 1999).


Part Two


Field Observations


Darci Harland’s observation.

Janet Smith’s 8th grade math class was observed on December 19, 2001.  TI-73 calculators had recently been purchased through matching grant funds.  Ms. Smith teaches at Gridley Grade School.  This district has the privilege to be part of a NSF (National Science Foundation) grant in which local graduate students work with local educators to help build positive relationships between “scientists” and educators.  The unit observed in Ms. Smith’s class had been co-planned with a graduate math student from the local university.  Students had spent two days in an earlier unit learning the basics of the calculator so when the observation occurred, students knew the basic functions of the technology.

Two separate classes 8th grade math classes were observed back to back.  As students entered the room, they were instructed to pick up a calculator from the front, get into groups of 2, and begin moving through the instructional packet being handed out to them.  The first 20 minutes of the 43 minute period was students working individually and in pairs following the directions of the packet. The packet itself was put together by Ms. Smith and the graduate student.  It contained easy to follow instructions “narrated” by a calculator graphic.  The instructions lead students through a process of entering in data for equations in order to make graphs.  The packet includes a picture of what the graph should look like if they entered the equation correctly.

Students worked diligently, and sometimes asked for help from their partner and other times asked help from one of two adults in the room.  Ms. Smith does not directly answer their questions, but probes them to figure out the answer themselves.  Students worked their way through the packet individually with the instructors moving from group to group.  Some students work together, staying on the same page of the packet, helping each other to get the right answer.  Other pairs of students see it as more as a race; who can get further faster in the packet.  Some students were able to go beyond the packet questions and would “just try some things” to see what happened.  The sounds of “Oh, cool” come above the quiet mumbling of students working through the packet. 

Students seem to be on task the entire time.  Groups often check their work with each other.  They also show each other what they can do.  “We found out how to do the……”   Graduate student heard a student say that the technology was nice because it “does the work for you.” The grad student was arguing that you still have to be able to understand graphing, because you have to know whether it is giving you the right answer.  The student didn’t seem convinced.   The teacher would often have students help other students who had the same problem they had.  “John had that problem, have him help you.”  One student was heard saying “I’m bad at this sort of thing.”  An adult helped her get through the equation she was working on, but her attitude was always one step away from being ready to give up.  Other emotions ranged from frustration, “This is stupid” to excitement, “This is fun.”  However, all students remained on task for the entire class period.

The last twenty minutes of class was spent in group discussion and analysis of the processes they learned at the beginning of the hour.  The instructors used an overhead projector that is hooked up to a calculator.  The grad student is worked the calculator and the teacher discussed lead discussion.  They put examples of common errors that students were making up on the screen.  Students were asked how they figured out how to fix the problem.  This discussion time was very well thought out.  The graduate student and teacher worked great together.  While the graduate student called out equations to enter so the class could work together, the teacher walked around and helped students follow the directions.

It was during this discussion that higher level questions were asked.  After students had all entered in the question y1-2x+1 students were asked, “How would I find what y is if x is 5245?”  One student raised his hand and was allowed to use the teacher’s calculator to complete the answer.  Students seemed to think working on the teacher’s calculator was a privilege.  The graduate student then asked for another method of getting the same answer.  A female student was allowed to answer this question.  Higher level questions continued, many questions beginning with the phrase, “What would we have to do if we wanted to know..?”  Then the graduate student and teacher lead the students through a discussion of dependant vs. independent variables.  Student responded to questions quickly and easily. (However, the first class made the connection much quicker than the second class.)

After many “what if” scenarios were played through, the graduate student led students through a few new features of the calculator.  Students were particularly “wowed” by the calculator’s ability to shade in over or under the line or tracing the line.  As the class period came to a close students were asked to put calculators away making sure they were shut off.

Ms. Smith, in a post-observation interview, helped describe some technology integration issues. Ms. Smith said that the technology added to this unit was not helping them to teach a concept that the instructor had not planned on teaching.  Students in previous years had done calculations manually and then graphed them on paper.  However, using the technology allowed students to quickly see how numbers affected the graph and allowed students to spend more time on the higher level thinking rather than the computations and physical graphing.  Ms. Smith’s goal with the technology-based unit is to help students see directly numbers affecting graphs.  She also was pleased that the calculators seemed like a motivator for a majority of her students. 

Ms. Smith thought that the technology had some strengths and weaknesses compared to the paper and pencil version of this unit.  One benefit was the quick visual of what the equations look like.  Another huge benefit was the ease of which the “What if…?” questions can be asked.  She loves the fact that using the technology gives her more time to make sure students see the connection between the math and the graph and therefore understand the meaning of what they are doing better than before. A weakness is that students may be easily impressed with the nice visuals but may not really get the full value of understanding.  

When asked about critical factors and barriers to integration of technology into the curriculum, Ms. Smith responded with the word “money.”  Working in a small rural district doesn’t leave a whole lot of resources.  The rapid change in technology may also be a barrier to integration efforts by teachers.  She also thought that a teacher “buying-in” to the idea of using technology was important if it were to be successful.  The teachers’ technology ability and the amount of effort were both mentioned as factors.  She also felt that administration must see technology integration as important if technology integration is to be successful.


Laura Dowling’s Observations.

The content area of the observed class was a sixth grade math class studying geometry. I was in the computer lab on the dates of December 12, 13 and 17. The duration of each observation was approximately 35 minutes. Mrs. Albrecht, the instructor, is a veteran teacher with many years experience in the middle school level.

The students are in an accelerated class. They have a great deal of experience with computers and are quite comfortable in the lab with the computers. The students were to make a Power Point Presentation of the different shapes to which they had just been introduced. They worked at first individually and then with a partner.

On the first day, the students worked individually on this day to discover the Power Point environment. They explored the options and tinkered with the functions within the program without doing any work required for the project. The teacher started them by working through the basic functions such as different slide layouts and adding clipart. The teacher assumed that the LCD projector would be in the room as it was in previous years, and she had intended to use it for demonstration purposes, but the media center took it out at the beginning of the year leaving Mrs. Albrecht to give instructions verbally. This made it more difficult to show the students exactly what they were supposed to do. As the teacher walked around and worked with individual students as questions arose, other students explored on their own.

The students were already in progress when I entered the room on the second day. They were working in pairs to create the Power Point Presentation. Heinrich (2002, p. 27) mentions this very process of working together to produce a presentation. It is important to ensure that the students are all working together to create the project and that all students have a role in the production. For one computer, two students seem to be a good number, especially for the type of project in this class. The students could both sit in front of the monitor and add material to the presentation.

According to Johnson, & Johnson (1999, p. 19), the smaller the group size the better the students will learn and interact together. This is true especially true for the younger grades. The only bit of controversy that I could see is that the students were able to pick their own partners instead of being paired. Johnson, & Johnson (1999, p. 21) suggest that students be placed into groups in order to make them heterogeneous. “When students form their own groups they usually form homogeneous ones.”

Many of the students were working at high levels of competency and were able to assist other students as they were having difficulty. The teacher was available to direct students back on track when they were doing something other than the project and to direct less proficient students to students who might be able to assist. Some of the more proficient students wrote their names on the board as a way of letting the others know that they could assist.

The last day was a continuation of the day before, and the students were finishing up their projects.  They had accomplished a great deal after I left on Day Two, and were almost ready to finish up their projects. Many of the students had added data from Access into their Power Point Presentations. The presentations were to be saved to a floppy and used in the classroom to present to each other. It should be noted that some of the students appeared to be working the entire time but never came up wit a finished product when the time was up. They could have used some additional direction that was unavailable because Mrs. Albrecht had no one to assist her.

During the lessons, the teacher seemed pleased with the behavior of the students as well as their attentiveness to the project. They were almost totally engaged in the process. There were several unforeseen problems that developed, such as a computer that crashed during the project, but the teacher worked through them without undue stress.

The students seemed satisfied with the lesson, and they all worked very hard to perfect the presentation. The groups while supposedly homogeneous were all functioning well. This may be in part because the class consists of students who excel in their studies and work well in many circumstances.

Given the level of sophistication of the students, there should be a way of assigning each student a different shape upon which to explore and report. When it comes down to the presentations this would give the others something different for each presentation. Perhaps some Internet exploration might be in order to find relevant facts about the different shapes to include in the presentation.

There are many ways to present new programs to students. There are many levels of student expertise coming into a class. Teachers cannot expect to start at the beginning and hold all students’ attention. Students need time to explore a new program before they can produce, but it does not take very much time before students learn to do basic functions on a computer. The best motivator for student learning of a function is to see another student doing it.

It would have been helpful for the teacher to have had access to the LCD projector for demonstration purposes. Because of this and the fact that she was in the computer room without any additional assistance, some of the students, even though they were working, were not quite understanding exactly where they needed to be going with the assignment.

The following are e-mail interview excerpts from Mrs Albrecht:

What teaching methodology is being used in conjunction with the technology being used? (Teacher/lecture, demonstration, group work, hands-on?) “Demonstration, group work and hands on,  with an emphasis on inquiry method  as the students need a skill they found someone to teach them that skill.  It was totally cooperative.  Students could shine in many ways.”


When asked, Is the technology being used to accomplish a task that could not have been accomplished before? If yes, explain. If no, how was it taught previously, and how does this method compare? “Students could have accomplished this in a booklet form and has been in the

past.  But the technology took this project to the next level, I have never seen these students so excited about coming to math... asking are we going to the computer lab today.  It also allowed them to be very creative in their presentations, looking for connections in applying established clip art.” 

What do you feel are the critical factors for technology integration to succeed in the K12 environment?

1.      Availability of computers

2.      Teacher comfort level

3.      Chunking out of projects for different levels

4.      Assigning pieces to all subject areas, i.e. Math....spreadsheets, Language arts.......word processing, Social studies...internet and so on.... while each area would not be limited to those alone...they would have a responsibility to teach that piece


Comparison and Contrast of Observations

Ms. Smith-Darci Harland’s Observation

Mrs. Albrecht-Laura Dowling’s Observation



It is interesting that both classes observed were math classes in action especially in light of the article describing math teachers as less likely to use technology in the classroom (Becker, 1999). Perhaps the Internet is the only area where Math teachers are less likely to go. In both of our observations, we noted that the students were motivated and, for the most part, fully engaged.

The students in both classes were able to use their prior math knowledge to complete the assignments. These assignments were both directly related to the curriculum.

The teachers from each class allowed the students to work at their own pace and in their own way to obtain the results desired. They guided students when it was necessary, but were not overly structured in their direction.



Of particular interest is the fact that Ms. Smith’s class had an additional adult in the room working with the students. In Laura Dowling’s observations, it was noted that there needed to be an additional adult in the room to assist the students when difficult questions arose. Ms. Smith seemed to have planned the activity well in advance and thought out the lesson in detail before the class started the activity. Mrs. Albrecht, possibly because of prior experience or computer expertise, did not seem to possess as thorough a plan for the students to use. Direction sheets such as the ones Ms. Smith gave her students would have been helpful.


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