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The Technology Debate: Optimism or Caution?

Spring 2002
Ian Jukes and Alan Warhaftig
Ian Jukes and Alan Warhaftig


SA: What can school administrators do to best prepare their schools and students for a world in which technology-driven societal change has become a constant?

IJ: Constant change means that today's skills, knowledge, and products live fast, get old before their time, and die young. As information technology reshapes America, public education must change in three fundamental ways. First, it's not enough for students to learn how to rapidly assimilate information; they must also master how to create and share knowledge. Second, beyond learning from teachers and textbooks, students must become proficient participants in virtual knowledge-building communities that encompass schools, homes, businesses, and community settings. Third, it is no longer acceptable for academic success to be reserved for a small minority of students; all learners must reach high levels of competence in sophisticated content and skills.

This requires a completely different set of skills, knowledge, and attitudes beyond information recall. It requires individuals to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, and decision makers — attributes that are not typically emphasized in today's standards-based, high-stakes testing learning environment.

SA: You often stress that technology is a tool — not a subject. Put another way, there's a big difference between "using technology to learn" and "learning to use technology." Can you elaborate on this distinction, and do you still find that schools are teaching mostly the latter? If so, why do you think this is true?

IJ: When I write with a pen, I'm not pondering the pen. I'm not staring at the pen trying to figure out how they got the ink in there. It's not the pen that's important, it's what I do with it that matters. Technology in schools is not about teaching a kid Microsoft Word, it's about helping that student to become a better writer. It's not about teaching students how to use Excel, it's about helping them to become better problem solvers. It's not about having students learn PowerPoint, it's about helping them become better communicators.

According to research done by Henry J. Becker at the University of California, more than 70 percent of technology used in schools today focuses on "literacy" uses — where the emphasis is on the tool. More than 25 percent of the emphasis is placed on "integration" uses — where the focus is to use the tool to reinforce everyday practices. And less than 5 percent of the emphasis is placed on "transformative" uses — where the technology is used to transform teaching and learning practices as well as assessment strategies.

It's a waste to use these powerful new technologies simply to reinforce our traditional mindsets about learning and our traditional teacher-learner relationships. What's the definition of insanity? It's doing the same thing you always did, but expecting, wanting, or needing completely different results. If we continue to use new technologies to reinforce what we've always done, we'll continue to get the same results we've always gotten.

SA: You've often said that schools need to move from "just-in-case learning" to "just-in-time learning" because knowledge is changing so rapidly. Obviously, the Internet and computer technology have helped make this shift not only necessary, but also possible. But could it be that schools are in danger of confusing the act of accessing information with the process of learning?

IJ: Today's educators are faced with the challenge of preparing students for jobs that don't currently exist, jobs that will require the use of technology that hasn't yet been invented, jobs that will require them to solve problems that we haven't even begun to consider.

If this is the world that awaits our children, then I believe it's necessary that we help students cultivate a set of skills, knowledge, and habits of mind above and beyond those that are defined as the traditional foundations of learning. We need to invoke a model of education that also promotes "just in time" learning, in which learners are able to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge just in time for that next job opportunity. This is contrary to the model we use now, which is "just in case" learning — learning things just in case we might need them to pass the test, or perhaps because we might need them if we become a biochemist.

Of course, it's not a matter of one or the other. It's critical that students have both the traditional basics as well as the new basics that they will require to survive and thrive in the culture of the 21st century.

SA: A lot of educational software is game-driven, with the stated intent of making learning fun and entertaining. But some critics say this superficial engagement often distracts from the deep satisfaction that can come from real learning. What do you think of the current crop of educational software, and where do you see room for improvement?

IJ: I am absolutely appalled at the direction that much of educational software development has taken. Management guru Tom Peters says that "what gets measured gets done," and what's primarily getting measured these days is student performance on tests. Since a significant aspect of these tests is based on content recall, much of the software being developed focuses on content acquisition.

While I don't want this to be interpreted as a sweeping generalization, much of the software we see today is a throwback to the 1980s, when students would complete 30 math questions and, if they did well, a barnyard animal would do backflips across the screen accompanied by circus sounds. The reward had little to do with the activity. I consider software such as that to be a pathetic attempt to keep learners engaged in a meaningless task.

Going back to something I said earlier: Do we want to use new technologies to simply reinforce what's already in place? The answer is no. We should use them to transform learning, giving students and teachers the ability to create innovative learning tasks that would be impossible without technology — tasks that focus on developing skills in collaboration, self-directed learning, complex thinking, communications, and the use of electronic information.

SA: As a former school administrator, what are your thoughts on the administrator's role in education technology leadership?

IJ: First, we need to be clear that we are building instructional plans, not technology plans. Administrators should think of themselves as instructional leaders, not technology leaders. One of the major issues related to leadership today is that our technology intentions often are not aligned with our instructional intentions. As a result, our technology plans often work at cross purposes to our instructional plans.

As the great American philosopher Yogi Berra once said: "If you don't know where you're going, you'll probably end up somewhere else."


SA: There is wide agreement that technology tends to increase student motivation levels. In the absence of hard data on technology's specific effects on achievement, isn't the motivation argument a sufficient reason for schools to invest money in instructional technology?

AW: It is sad that adults believe that children need to spend more hours in front of a screen in order to be motivated to learn. We impose unacceptable limits on ourselves if we believe that we should only learn fun things, or via media we regard as fun. Where is it written that learning and entertainment must be synonymous?

Today's children have a very narrow definition of what is fun, and "boring" is the first word out of their mouths when confronted with anything they regard as unrelated to their interests — which derive almost entirely from the pop culture that is marketed to them. We owe it to our students to educate them, to lengthen their short attention spans, and to help them to overcome their pampered indifference.

I also have serious concerns about the long-term health effects of children using computers. Children already spend several hours a day watching television, and their sedentary lifestyles place them at risk. The intention to motivate through technology may only produce obese children who squint, don't know how to interact with others, and can't catch a ball or shoot a basket.

SA: One criticism you've leveled against the uncritical use of computer technology in schools is that it's often driven by products that have been developed for other markets, rather than by what's needed in the classroom. In what ways do you view current technology as inappropriate to school needs? What's your advice to hardware and software vendors to help them offer products that are better suited to school needs?

AW: The sensible educator's rule of thumb should be to use instructional technology when it clearly improves teaching and learning. Educators should not fetishize technology and look for every opportunity, however meaningless, to use computers in a classroom. For example, handheld computers are being promoted as multiple-choice assessment platforms. A handheld may be a spiffy way to collect answers, but should teachers revert to asking multiple-choice questions simply because that is what the technology allows us to do?

Other vendors are promoting management systems that give parents access via the Internet to see how their children are doing in their quest to master state standards. Learning is assessed instantly, which requires the use of multiple-choice questions, and the results determine the next curricular module for each student. This may represent an advance in information management and customer service, but fitting curriculum and assessment to the possibilities of computers, rather than the needs of students, doesn't look like progress from where I stand.

My advice to hardware and software vendors is simple: Visit schools to learn rather than to sell. Observe the best teachers, the ones you would have wanted to have, and see how they go about their work. Ask what they would like technology to do for them, and let their answers guide product development. Be guided by what's best for children rather than what children say they want.

SA: You've noted that the use of instructional technology tends to drive teachers to employ a constructivist approach in the classroom. Many educators would see this as a positive development, but you disagree. Why?

AW: Constructivism posits that students should design their own learning goals and that teachers, rather than being the primary providers of knowledge, should coach students as they undertake individual inquiries. The "sage on a stage" is often derided as a vestige of an old, irrelevant mode of instruction. Computers fit well with constructivist pedagogy because only one user or a small group can use a single computer. If five computers are installed in a classroom, the teacher is forced to break students into groups, whether effective or not, in order to use the computers.

A successful constructivist classroom requires a particular type of teacher, but a surprising number of teachers, even those with teaching credentials, are entering the profession academically unprepared. Many elementary teachers are terrified of math, and too many secondary humanities teachers have only a passing acquaintance with literature and history. If these teachers have a hard time teaching a single curriculum using a textbook, then they are not qualified to simultaneously guide as many as 150 individual student inquiries.

I believe in diversity of pedagogy, that teachers must find a mode of teaching that fits their individual talents and personality — one with which they are comfortable and which promotes student success. A good sage on a stage beats a mediocre constructivist any day.

SA: In many schools, students are handing in assignments in the format of PowerPoint presentations with bullets, sound effects, and video clips. Should school administrators be worried about the implications for educators' traditional notions of literacy?

AW: As an assessment strategy, multimedia presentations are simply not on a par with essays or research papers. Writing an essay forces students to organize and polish their thoughts. More importantly, it helps them discover their voice-the place they can come from, within themselves, that is persuasive to others. Writing doesn't just capture the thoughts we already have; it allows us to discover what we think, and language leads us to subtleties that are not discernable in an outline.

Preparing a good multimedia presentation requires thought, planning, and execution, but writing a good essay requires much more — and in the best case allows students to discover themselves. Students should not be deprived of this deeper experience simply because technology allows us to do multimedia.

SA: To what extent do you see curriculum changing to accommodate instructional technology, and do you view this as a positive or negative trend? Is the tail wagging the dog?

AW: I am concerned about the technology equivalent of "mission creep," in which computers and the Internet increasingly become the curriculum in language arts, social studies, math, and science — and the focus becomes how to use computers rather than the material that is supposed to be studied.

It would be a terrible mistake to allow the untested promise of computers to determine what students should study. Whether it's fashionable pedagogies or fascination with new technologies, educators should keep in mind Henry David Thoreau's caution in Walden: "What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields."

Ian Jukes is the director of the InfoSavvy Group, which helps school districts and other institutions prepare for the needs of the future. His background includes being a school administrator, teacher, writer, educational consultant, university instructor, and keynote speaker.

Alan Warhaftig recently served as coordinator of Learning in the Real World, an organization dedicated to examining the costs and benefits of education technology. He is a national board certified English teacher at the Fairfax Magnet Center for Visual Arts in Los Angeles.

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