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Technology Can Save Time and Expand Roles for Teachers

February 2003

Irvine, California -- Internet access has become standard in almost every school in the country, according to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Ninety-nine percent of public schools in the U.S. and 87 percent of instructional rooms have Internet connectivity. The ratio of students to instructional computers with Internet access has reached 5.4 to 1. The infrastructure has arrived, but the transformation has only just begun for the teachers who find it in their classrooms.

" The networking capacity of the technology breaks down the isolation of the classroom teacher," says Tom Carroll, Executive Director of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF). "We had solo teachers practicing in isolation. Now with networked learning activities they can collaborate and draw on each other to strengthen their instruction and the resources available to students."

Once progress was measured in drops and devices, now educational organizations are talking about data-driven decision making and measuring student outcomes. During the 1980s, businesses adopted computing and networking technology to transform business. Economists still argue whether it had a meaningful impact on productivity. It seems that measuring the impact of technology in education will be just as challenging.

Streamlining Non-teaching Duties
The first place to look for change is in the paperwork that every teacher must manage: student records, gradebooks, reports, assignments, handouts, and communications with parents.

"Of course computing and telecommunications makes teachers more productive," said Cheryl Williams, Vice President, Education, Corporation for Public Broadcasting. "It seems to me that these folks are professionals with advanced degrees asked to do a lot of secretarial work. Every other business we're in, whether public service or for profit business, uses information technology."

Many of the tools used to manage this information -- whether simple spreadsheets or commercial programs designed for education -- require an investment of time at the beginning to learn new programs, customize them, and enter most of the information for the first time. But once a teacher or school is over the initial hurdle, they can maintain the information with simple, regular updates.

The More You Know
Businesses found that new applications and communications technologies increased the amount of data available for analysis and the complexity of decision making. When teachers spend less time entering numbers and calculating grades, they have more time for quality interactions with students, parents, colleagues, and peers. But productivity is much harder to measure in terms of actual teaching time.

"If they [teachers] spend more time with a student, does that make them less productive?" asks Williams. "What is it that we expect teachers to do? What do we expect students to learn? What about remote students? Teachers say they spend more time with students online. Does it make them better? It is an active relationship important to contextualize and motivate learners."

Many organizations have addressed these questions and begun to formulate guidelines, standards, and suggestions to assist administrators with planning and teachers with professional development. The CEO Forum STaR charts provide assessment and evaluation tools to measure progress. The ISTE National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) project has taken the wisdom of many practitioners to craft guidelines. According to Williams: "It gives teachers and students touchstones for what you need to know to have a more exploratory or constructivist learning environment."

Change Is Apparent
While technology may not have a measurable impact on teacher productivity, it does have the power to change roles and relationships in the classroom.

"The traditional role of teachers was information transmission, structuring learning for students and transferring knowledge to student," said Carroll. "Technology redefined that role, not making the role more efficient or productive. It gives teachers new capacities as a collaborative learner, modeling learning, and their own acquisition of knowledge with students."

The development of Learning Management Systems will support teachers in this new role. Diagnostic tools assess students' learning needs and help tailor learning activities to the progress of the individual student. Teachers have more time to discover and explore with students. Perhaps the measure of success will be in the degree of change to the whole system rather than a simple increase or decrease in expectations from the past.

The Bumpy Road to the Future
Some teachers and administrators embrace this change while others resist it. The 87 percent of instructional rooms wired for network connectivity represent a broad range of integration. Most leaders in education, government, and business agree that technology will change the education system, but there are many visions of the future and opportunities to define it.

"My experience says there are hurdles," says Williams. "We still have access, maintenance, and professional development issues... What I care about is a strong education system in which as many kids as possible get the education they need."

"Making schools a more professional environment may help with teacher retention," said Carroll. He believes that teacher retention is one of the most critical challenges facing schools. "The way to address it is to develop strong, small, well-focused professional communities, enhanced by networking; prepare new teachers well for teaching; create a collaborative environment; and support mentored induction so they are not in a sink or swim situation."