Computer Use In Public Schools

(click here for the full published version of this article)

In this column I am going to present the results of a small study I conducted with some Masters in Education students in regards to computer use in schools. Computers have become ubiquitous in our society. Shopping and planning travel arrangements, social networking and entertainment are often done through the computer. Jobs from mathematics, the sciences, and even the arts usually require creative and skilled use of computer applications. Groups such as MoveOn have even created new forms of political organizing and activism. Blogging and other Web2 applications are changing the way people get their news. Most people now agree that our schools should therefore be preparing students to be technologically competent.

In considering what such a shift might mean for education, educational theorists interested in the topic have tended to predict one of two types of changes. Some have focused on the ability of the computer to empower students. Others have focused on the power of the computer to effectively and efficiently deliver instruction.

When personal computers were first invented, some claimed that computer technology would transform schools and education as we know it, bringing on new ways of teaching and learning that were not possible in the past. They argued that computers made the traditional role of teachers as lecturers—the sage on the stage—obsolete. Others, while not claiming the inevitability of such a change, promoted the idea that computers could be used to make constructivist, learner-centered teaching easier. With the use of such computers, teachers can and should now play more the role of guide, coach and facilitator.

Another view has been that computers would or should transform schools, not by changing our basic paradigm of learning and instruction, but as a more effective and efficient way to deliver instruction, or at least as a strong supplemental aspect to the curriculum. The idea of using technology for programmatic instruction goes back at least to the 1960s. According this view, the promise of programmatic instruction is now possible with the powerful computers of today. Computers can now assess the individual learner, and tailor the instructional pace and problem presented to that student. No longer will each teacher need to be the expert in instructional techniques, since it will be programmed into the computer. Once we have identified the steps, any skill can be taught most efficiently and effectively this way. While this approach could significantly alter the teacher’s role as deliverer of instruction or information, it does not substantially alter the role of the student.

As of yet, there is not much evidence of either of these becoming realities. There are many individual examples of teachers using computers in creative ways that do speak to the claim of a more constructivist paradigm (see Coppola’s book Powering Up for an example of this). On the other hand, these appear to be the exceptions that prove the rule (read Larry Cuban’s book Oversold and Underused for a full treatment of this). While there is some evidence that many schools are using computers in ways that match the programmatic instructional idea—that is for teaching basic skills—there is of yet little evidence that it has improved learning beyond small-scale examples.

Another issue that has concerned many in terms of technology use is the digital divide. Not surprisingly, those with more money and resources, and those of higher socio-economic-status, are more likely to have computers at home, and use them more powerfully. Potentially, public schools could be the place where those with fewer resources could get that access. However, often resources at schools mirror the resources of those in the community. Therefore, schools, rather than leveling the playing field for disadvantaged students, may exacerbate those differences.

In looking at 16 local public schools, evenly divided between primary and secondary, and between schools serving predominantly low-income or more middle and upper income students, we asked the following questions:

  • For what purposes do the students use the computer technology at the schools?
  • In regards to the above question, what differences do we see among schools? Do socio-economic factors correlate with those differences? Is the age level of students a factor?

In particular, for our analysis we divided computer use into two basic categories. On the one hand were uses we saw fitting more of the constructivist paradigm, where computers were tools the students use to enhance productivity and creativity. On the other hand were uses with skill and drill programs, or as assessment tools of basic skills, fitting the programmatic instruction model.

Our study did find that computers were used differently based on the socio-economic make up of the student body, and based on the grade level of students served. There did not appear to be any consistent factor related to quantity or quality of hardware available to students. However, schools serving middle- and high-income students were more likely to have well-trained computer technicians and teachers to help make the computers more useful. Schools that served low-income students mostly used computers for drill and practice type programs and as an assessment tool. Schools serving middle- and high-income students were more likely to be using computers in ways that built computer literacy, though still not to any large degree. We also found that high school students were more likely to use computers in ways that built their computer literacy skills than elementary students.

The data suggest that schools serving low-income students use the computers mostly for drill and practice due to pressures of the standardized testing. Most of these schools are Program Improvement schools. As such, boosting standardized test scores is their top priority. They are then likely to use the computer programs designed as test preparation. Schools serving middle- and high-income students, not being under those same pressures, may feel the freedom to use computers in ways that are more creative.

In regards to high school versus elementary student use, the findings suggest that high school students are already likely to have basic computer literacy skills, allowing teachers to assign more creative projects without having to spend much time teaching how to use the technology itself, especially among middle- and high-income student bodies.

This study suggests that if we want to create equity for students from all backgrounds we need to rethink what opportunities we provide for low-income students to use computers in ways that prepare them to be able to use them in as powerful ways as their more well-to-do peers.

Given that high SES students tend to have more opportunities and access to powerful technology at home, and that high SES students have more opportunities to use computers in ways that build computer literacy, current school practices are likely to exacerbate rather than mediate the digital divide between low and high SES students.

To change such practices a serious reconsideration of what it would take to really bridge the gap needs to be undertaken. Such an examination is unlikely at most schools serving low-income students, given the pressures on district administrators, principals, teachers on down to students, to raise short-term standardized test scores. With such pressures, almost everything else becomes at best secondary, if considered at all. Such pressures are only increasing under the current Federal policies.

It would also take an enormous input of resources. The real cost of having enough up-to-date computers, the software to use them well, the personnel to keep them running, and the professional development so that teachers would know how to use them effectively certainly does not exist in these times of economic crisis and education budgets cut to the bone.

These are real difficulties that all of us who are committed to equity face. Those of us who do work with low-income students are therefore forced to think of creative ways to overcome these difficulties. While it is true that all students need to learn to read and do basic arithmetic, it is not true that for some students this should be done at the expense of learning other things, including being powerful users of technology. The brains of poor kids do not learn and function differently than those of rich children. Therefore, we do not need to teach them in fundamentally different ways. Without being prepared with equal technological skills, this lack will be just one more division and barrier when these students leave school, leaving them less prepared not just for the world of work, but the world of social empowerment, and access to information to improve their lives and make informed decisions.

Even without a change in resources, it is possible to use technology differently than is now often the case. As the data showed, the difference in resources in the schools between types of schools was minimal. The real differences were in how they were used. These differences underscored an implicit or hidden curriculum. The use of computers as programmatic instruction treats students as passive recipients of knowledge and instruction whose job is to input the correct answer. The uses that the the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) standards promote, for example, ask students to be active participants in their own learning, using computers as a tool to create and convey knowledge. When these uses are promoted differently, for different types of students (which may coincide with the non-computer based instruction they are receiving), students come to view learning and the purpose of school in fundamentally different ways.

The argument for the need for this different instruction is, as mentioned earlier, the need to raise test scores. However, many schools have been effective using constructivist approaches to learning effectively with low- and high-income students alike. When we ask and support students to use their minds creatively and constructively, they not only do they do better on standardized tests of knowledge in the short term, but they also develop the abilities necessary to succeed in many arenas, in and out of school.

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Will Computers Free Teachers to Teach More Creatively?

At a party of a friend recently I got into a discussion with someone about education and the use of computer technology. The person I was conversing with suggested that educational software could and should be developed to relieve teachers of the technical aspects of teaching. Why should each teacher have to figure out how to teach reading or arithmetic when the best minds could solve that problem and create a computer program to teach the children these basic skills? Having software relieve teachers of this technical aspect of teaching, he argued, would free teachers to do the work that needed human interaction—teaching critical and creative thinking. I would like to use this column to explore why this suggestion makes me uncomfortable.

In some ways I agree with this fellow. The main problem in education is not the difficulty of teaching children to read or do arithmetic. Despite claims to the contrary, virtually no student leaves school illiterate. Our students may not be as literate as we would like, but students who truly cannot decode text and do accurate arithmetic are rare outside of classes for the severely disabled. And such failures have only gotten rarer over each decade (1). I agree with him as well that an inordinate amount of time and professional development is spent on the training of the technical aspects of how to teach reading and arithmetic skills more effectively and at an earlier age. The main point we agree upon is that helping students to learn to use their minds well, in critical and creative ways, is given far too little attention in the large majority of classrooms. This is especially true in classrooms serving low-income and minority students. Due to the fact that these students generally do less well on standardized tests, the schools that serve them are pressured to focus on raising those test scores. Most of these schools rely on teacher-centered direct instruction focused on discrete skills to achieve this.

His solution of using computerized instruction of basic skills to free the teacher to do the work of teaching critical and creative thinking is based on a couple of assumptions. One assumption is that if this software actually did efficiently teach these skills, teachers would engage in the critical and creative teaching we both believe is necessary. Is that what would happen? There is certainly no guarantee that teachers would be allowed, much less encouraged to use their time that way. It assumes that those who decide how teachers may use their time want teachers to do those other things. What could happen instead is that teachers, as professionals, are seen as superfluous. Since the computers are doing the “real” teaching, teachers become monitors whose job is to ensure that the students are sitting at the computer doing what they are supposed to be doing. I have actually seen after-school programs that run this way, using adults who are not trained or certified as teachers to oversee the students as they engage in such computer reading or math programs.

To counter this, I argue that we do not need to focus on developing or advocating for such software (and in any case, such software is rapidly being developed by the multi-billion dollar educational publishing industry which spares no expense in advocating for its usefulness). What we need to do is advocate for the second half—the focus on creative and critical thinking for the purpose of developing democratic citizens. There is a real lack of movement in that direction in the public schools. According to the mainstream media the purpose of education is about raising test scores to create a competitive workforce for the global economy. (And what does competitive mean? Best skilled? Or willing to work for the lowest wages?). Even if this first assumption is true, that software could be more efficient in the technical aspect of teaching, the second part is unlikely to become true until we change the perception of the purpose of schooling. That won’t happen without some strong grassroots advocacy since it challenges the status quo.

Another assumption of the software solution is that one can divorce the technical aspects of learning from the emotional, motivational, critical and creative aspects. This is a more fundamental difference in learning theory. What is known as Critical Learning Theory, as developed by Paolo Freire and others, argues that the technical aspects cannot be separated from these other factors (2). This theory claims that the context of our learning, the content of the curriculum, and the power relationships over who decides what and how we learn, are part of the learning itself. When we learn to read by being put in front of a computer, we are learning about what the purpose of reading is. The content of the material teaches us what and who is considered important. If the ideas and content of what is read or learned about are not discussed, the child has no guidance and help in making meaning of it. Constructivist learning theory (as developed by Dewey, Piaget and Vygotsky) shows us that learning is a process of making sense of the world based on one’s actions and interactions with the environment. This theory tells us that we learn skills best in the context of meaningful and purposeful activities. We learned to speak and walk, not by being explicitly taught to do so. Rather, we learned to talk because we had something we wanted to communicate and were surrounded by people who were doing so, and who helped us to do so, in a non-coercive environment. We learned to walk because we wanted to get somewhere—to have more freedom to explore our environment, again in the company of others who already knew how to walk, and were willing to offer assistance when we wanted it. Maybe this is true of all learning—that it is most efficient to learn to read, write and do arithmetic, as well as to learn to have strong democratic habits of mind, by having reasons that are meaningful and purposeful to the student in the company of others who can model and assist them as they learn. Am I talking pie in the sky? Let us examine the evidence.

What is the evidence for the efficacy of using software to teach basic skills? There is currently mixed evidence with some research showing no gains, and other research showing some short term gains, in reading and math scores for some students (3). There is no long term evidence as of yet.

In contrast, progressive schools based on constructivist principals of learning have a track record. The famous Eight Year Study (4) demonstrated its effectiveness at the high school level as far back as the 1930s. Contemporary examples such as Central Park East in New York City (5), Mission Hill in Boston (6), the Shutesbury Elementary School in Massachusetts (7) and many others have been extremely successful with children of all walks of life, over the long term. These schools avoid scripted curriculum and use a minimum of teacher-centered—or software-centered—instruction. They maximize the time students are engaged in projects that have a purpose beyond getting a grade from the teacher. They allow students to be the active agents in the learning process, in charge of much of the “what and how” of the learning. It is creating more of such schools and classrooms that I believe needs our advocacy and support. A focus on technological solutions may distract of from this larger purpose.


  1. Richard Rothstein, The Way We Were? The Myths and Realities of America’s Student Achievement (New York: The Century Foundation Press, 1998).
  2. Joan Wink, Critical Pedagogy: Notes from the Real World, Third Edition (Longman, 2005).
  3. Andrew Trotter, “Major Study on Software Stirs Debate,” Education Week, April 11, 2007, pp. 1, 18.
  4. Wilford M. Aiken, The Story of the Eight-Year Study (New York: Harper and Row, 1942).
  5. David Bensman, Central Park East and Its Graduates: Learning By Heart (New York: Teachers College Press, 2000).
  6. Deborah Meier, In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002).
  7. Ron Berger, An Ethic of Excellence (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003).