Those Who Can't

Few are trained to use PCs as creative tools in teaching.

WHEN KIDS GO back to school next month, odds are good that their classrooms will have computer technology in them. But odds are equally as good that teachers won't be prepared to effectively use that tech.

Great strides have been made in outfitting classrooms with PCs and Internet access since the first NetDay in 1996. That seminal event put volunteers in schools around the country to wire classrooms to the Web. Combined with local technology levies and federal E-Rate discounts for Internet connectivity, the absence of an Internet- connected PC in a classroom today is unusual. Washington schools boast 3.5 students per PCand 8.6 students for each computer located in a classroom instead of in school libraries or computer labs. Statewide, 93 percent of schools had classroom Internet access in 2002, according to research firm Market Data Retrieval. All are slightly better than national averages.

On the floor at the National Educational Computing Conference in Seattle last month, more than 350 companies tempted nearly 10,000 teachers and tech coordinators with everything from electronic whiteboards to remote-control devices for students that turn pop quizzes into couch-potato game shows. But whispered by educators and exhibitors alike was the same concern that dogged early NetDay supporters seven years ago: Teacher training is lagging the adoption of technology.

It's not just a matter of showing Mr. Kotter how to create a slide in PowerPoint. "Training teachers how to use hardware and software is only the foundation," notes Conn McQuinn, director of the Educational Technology Support Center at the Puget Sound Educational Service District, an agency that supports 35 school districts and private schools primarily in King and Pierce counties38 percent of the state's K-12 public-school population. "The much more complicated, time-consuming, and expensive partand the only part that actually makes a differenceis training them how to teach in a way that will take advantage of the technology."

TECH TRAINING REQUIRES time and money that is in short supply. Not only is the state dealing with a budget crunch, but time is increasingly sucked up by the demands of state educational reform (including WASL testing) and the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which, though signed into law last year, is just beginning to be implemented.

That's not to say training alone is the only factor playing into teacher reticence to rework lesson plans to include technology. Chalk doesn't crash. "I have spoken with teachers who have had a half-semester's worth of student work lost when a file server crashed. They were understandably not enthusiastic about trying that particular technology a second time," says McQuinn.

Another factor is the school principal's vision. "I have seen many teachers who wanted to use technology drop it in the face of resistance or lack of support from their principal," says Julie Evans, CEO of the nonprofit NetDay organization.

Yet schools are slowly crossing the tech divide with wide variation among districts, schools, and even individual classrooms. Poster children include the large Lake Washington School District and the tiny, three-school Dieringer School District south of Auburn, which has snagged help from Intel and the Gates Foundation to train teachers and principals.

Educators are holding out hope that the federal No Child Left Behind Act will help fill the training gap. Explains Sara Fitzgerald of Funds for Learn- ing, an educational- technology consulting firm: "Districts are now explicitly required to use 25 percent of the funds they receive under the Enhancing Education through Technology block grant for teacher training." While that might help large districts like Seattle's, which could wind up with $100,000 for training, small districts can get so little that McQuinn figures "the amount ends up being enough to pay for a one-day workshop, or even less." Searching for training dollars in large funding programs seems to be the educational equivalent of the optimistic child enthusiastically digging through a huge mound of manure in the hope that, with such a big pile, there must be a pony in there somewhere.

IF SCHOOLS AND TEACHERS don't successfully integrate the technology they've installed, the students lose. "What is missing is a sense that the computers are in schools for students to do interesting and productive things," notes Dick Barnhart, educational technology director for the Educational Service District that supports schools in five southwestern Washington counties. "This creates a perception that the school's technology is irrelevant."

Even worse, it means limited educational resources are underused or even unused in tough economic timesa lesson no district, or taxpayer, is going to want to learn.

Frank Catalano is a tech-industry analyst, consultant, and author. He can be reached via www.catalanoconsulting.com.

 
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