Harnessing Technology in the Classroom

Don't panic. Yes, this is an article about technology, but it's not written for computer experts. Even if you consider yourself a long way from being on the information highway—does a dirt path sound more like it?—what you'll find here starts with basic technology information, builds from there, and offers plenty of explanations along the way. The goal is to help you feel comfortable with what technology can offer you in the classroom. Then you can use it to help your students.

Why now? Because it's time. Remember all the talk about preparing students for technological life in the twenty-first century? Well, this is it. The twenty-first century is now. And that means it's time to look at how we're all doing—and get up to speed if we need to.

A number of impressive statistics tell us that schools are, indeed, making some of the twenty-first century technology progress that was hoped for. The National Center for Education Statistics, a part of the U.S. Department of Education, reports that by Fall 2000, 98 percent of U.S. public schools had access to the Internet. Furthermore, the ratio of students to an Internet-connected computer is approximately one computer to every eight students, according to Market Data Retrieval, a Connecticut-based research company.

But being wired isn't enough. Unfortunately, there's also evidence that, in many classrooms, the understanding and actual use of technology is still somewhere back in the last century. Sometimes, way back. As the Washington Post put it in June 2001, "leaders of technologically advanced schools... say there is still much to do, particularly in training teachers to use computers for something more than teaching how to use computers."

And there you have it: To harness technology, teachers need help in how to use computers (and other forms of technology) as tools to enhance the curriculum. According to an Education Week newspaper survey, currently only 29 percent of students have teachers who use computers to explain difficult concepts. That means the majority of students (the other 71 percent), do not have the full benefit of what technology could bring to their lives and minds. It also means that most teachers aren't getting the kind of substantive assistance that technology could give them. There's still a major disconnect when it comes to putting technology to work as a truly effective classroom tool.

To help make technology an integral part of teaching and learning, while simultaneously creating more and more tech-savvy teachers, there are steps that teachers, administrators, school boards, and communities can take together. We believe that there are five major aspects that need to be addressed simultaneously—and addressed well—if top quality, technology-enhanced instruction is to take place in classrooms:

1. infrastructure and hardware
2. software
3. professional development
4. maintenance
5. long-term support

(Throughout this article, we're using the word technology to mean more than computers, defining technology as electronic equipment that can be used to enhance teaching and learning. This definition includes hand-held calculators, digital cameras, scanners, and computers, as well as the expanding world of telecommunications.)

Teachers can't do it all by themselves. But if they are knowledgeable and articulate, they can play an important part in getting schools on the right track, technologically speaking. Here are details about what we believe are the five major areas that schools must address to ensure that technology becomes an effective, curriculum-enhancing teaching tool. And these are exactly the kinds of things that all teachers will want to be working toward.

Infrastructure and Hardware

Infrastructure and hardware are inextricably linked, so they're linked here as well.


  • Building wiring. It's wiring (which includes things such as Cat 5 cables, routers, and connectors) that provides computer access for everyone throughout a school. Most schools are connected to one high-powered computer with lots of memory (a server) that shares information. Generally speaking, files that students and teachers create are stored on the classroom or media center (client) computers.
  • Computers. In elementary and middle schools, computers are used most effectively when they are distributed to classrooms for student use. High schools need computer labs and distributed computers to meet the needs of diverse course offerings.
  • Peripherals. Classroom or media-center computers usually are connected to what are known as peripherals—items such as a printer, scanner, and DVD (digital versatile disc) player.
  • Network. A school's network, which is made up of all the wiring, connectors, cables, and servers, is able to accommodate both PC (IBM type) and Macintosh (Apple type) computers. If the correct software is used, files can be shared between the two types of computers.
  • LAN connector. For computers to be connected to the school network (which is a type of local area network or LAN), they must have a cable attached to the network through each computer's RJ-45 connector. This connector, usually found on the wall connected to network wiring, looks similar to a phone jack.
  • Wireless system. Schools also might have a wireless system (network). This allows students and teachers to take their computers (usually laptops) to any location in the school building where there is a wireless signal box (also known as a wireless node, access point, or airplane). A wireless system can be installed after a building has been wired, and it usually employs the existing network wiring. To learn more about wireless networks, try this Web site: www.dcet.k12.de.us/teach/reynolds/wired1.html.


  • Projection capability. It's extremely important to have some sort of computer projection capability in a classroom, so that a whole class can see what is on a computer screen. Separate projection devices that produce high-quality images are still quite expensive. However, a simple computer connection (available for under $200) plugged in to a large-screen TV works well; and a single device that can be shared among the teaching staff will allow for quality projection when needed. Note: LCD (liquid crystal display, similar to the display on a digital clock radio) panels rarely work well as projection devices because they need a darkened room and a powerful overhead projector for students to be able to see well.
  • Appropriate student/computer ratio. Realistically, it's not yet possible to have a one-to-one student/computer ratio. A reasonable goal for now is five computers for a classroom of thirty students. This provides enough computers for data collection and analysis, lab report writing, or exploration.
  • Space and hookups. It's important that people designing the computer network plan for the best use of space when computers are added to classrooms. Electrical outlets and network connectors will need to be installed. If Internet access is desired, a cable for connecting to the Internet server or Internet service provider (ISP) must be added.
  • Graphing or graphics calculators. Science and math teachers will want them. The advantage: Students see what changing a number in a simple equation does to a graph of that equation. And they'll remember what they see. Once you have them, a graphing-calculator teaching station with projecting capability makes using them much more effective. The Web site at www.prenhall.com/divisions/esm/app/calc_v2 provides a tutorial for using nine different calculators. An excellent lesson plan for using graphing calculators, designed by two Fairfax County, Va. teachers, is at www.fcps.k12.va.us/RockyRunMS/Fractal/compless.htm.
  • Digital cameras. Recording field trips, individual student work, or lab setups with a digital camera creates a record that can be analyzed or discussed for additional learning. Instead of just talking kids through their field trip, have them record images that illustrate the important points you want them to take away from their experience. Documented discussions can help them remember what they saw on the field trip—and what it meant. Archive the pictures in a file on your computer, or on a CD-ROM, for review or assessment later. Most digital cameras can be connected to a computer so that the images can be saved and displayed.
  • Videodisc players. Although this is an older type of equipment (and some people call them obsolete), videodiscs still do what they were designed to do, and they do it extremely well. For example, in our experience, Videodiscovery's BioSciII disc is better than any biology slide collection you'll ever have. You can access a series of colorful, clear slides to illustrate a discussion of habitat, feeding habits, or animal camouflage. Videodisc players and their accompanying videodiscs provide excellent images to enhance science concepts and investigations. They are as easy to use as your VCR at home—maybe easier—complete with a remote control.
  • Still-usable old equipment. Don't forget that older equipment, even Apple //e computers, can still be used for basics. And if no one else wants the older, albeit slower, machines, why not make them an integral part of your program? (For example, students can use them to write reports or create databases.) Computers are really quite hardy pieces of equipment. They don't break easily. If you keep them dry, they will give you many years of good service. Some software is still available from http://hometown.aol.com/rrbp; and Vernier, a computer equipment company owned by an ex-high school physics teacher (www.vernier.com), has equipment for older computers.


  • Basic-package components. Most computers are delivered with a useful collection of installed software (a "basic package") containing a word processor, spreadsheet, database, and presentation software. Many have additional capabilities. Each of these applications, whether in Microsoft Office or Claris Works, can be used immediately in your instructional program to write science lab reports (word processing), compile and graph data from student interviews (spreadsheets), or analyze student classification schemes (database).
  • One-at-a-time approach. When it comes to computers and learning about software, start slowly. Try one new application at a time. When you and your students are comfortable with one application, try another.
  • Existing Web lessons. There are really excellent World Wide Web (www) sites with lessons that employ technology creatively and are all ready to use. Log onto Kathy Schrock's site (http://school.discovery.com/schrockguide) for information about a wide range of teaching materials; Education World (www.education-world.com) for recent education news, lesson plans, tips from teachers, and interesting Web site reviews; or Blue Web'n (www.kn.pacbell.com/wired/bluewebn) to find projects, activities, lessons, resources, and research for K-12 classrooms.
  • Webquests. Help your students answer questions and learn about a topic by taking them on a Webquest. There are good, proven Webquests at http://edweb.sdsu.edu/webquest/matrix.html. Or you can put together your own using a template forWebquests (http://edweb.sdsu.edu/webquest/LessonTemplate.html). For more on Webquests, click here to see Going on a Webquest sidebar.
  • Visual-addition enhancements. Use technology to enhance a lesson you developed to address a standard. Whether you add a series of space images from NASA (http://spacelink.nasa.gov/Instructional.Materials/Multimedia/Online.Multimedia/Image.Archives) or demonstrate buoyancy and properties of gases using hot-air balloons (www.omsi.edu/explore/physics/air) or display a problem from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (www.nctm.org) to enhance algebraic thinking, the visual additions will help students understand a concept.
  • Teacher-rated software. If you're interested in purchasing software or seeing what other teachers think, log onto the California State Clearinghouse at http://clearinghouse.k12.ca.us. Within software with exemplary ratings, you can search at any grade level and in any content area. A comprehensive online catalog of software can be found at www.edsoft.com.
  • CD-ROM installation. Most software is delivered on CD-ROMs now. Each CD-ROM has installation instructions, usually on the inside cover of its plastic box. If you can't find installation instructions, try this. For a PC: Insert the CD-ROM into your CD-ROM drive. Click on your Start button, then choose Run. Type D: (or the letter of your CD-ROM drive). You should see a screen that represents the CD-ROM. Double-click on a startup icon or one that has an ".exe" extension as part of its name. For a Macintosh: An icon will appear on your desktop when the CD-ROM is read. Double-click on the icon.
  • Reusable (multiple-use) software. To save money, look for software that can be used more than once. If a software program presents problems that use only one set of data and have only one solution, students rarely want to revisit the software. Programs such as Vernier's Graphical Analysis, Videodiscovery's Understanding the Earth, Key Curriculum Press's Geometer's Sketchpad, or the software that comes with your computer all provide opportunities for many uses during an instructional year.

Professional Development

  • Budget requirements. Professional development should be at least 25 percent (preferably, a full one-third) of a technology budget. It is essential, not an option. Really.
  • Follow-up. The best professional development includes some kind of follow-up.
  • Extracurricular work. If you want to learn how to use technology along with your students, take a class. While they usually require a fee, online classes allow you to learn about using technology when and where it is most convenient for you. Check Classroom Connect's Web site (www.k12connections.iptv.org) or Indiana University's site (http://etc.iupui.edu/tutor.html) to explore some online offerings. Note: Online courses require regular attendance to be effective.
          A good place to start is one of the three-hour sessions designed to introduce you to a new software package. Or take advantage of the online tutorials for the software that comes with your computer. For instance, try www.craneis.co.uk/excel/index.html or www.ceap.wcu.edu/Houghton/EDELCompEduc/Themes/Spreadsheets/spreadsheets.html to learn some of the ins and outs of a spreadsheet. A number of CD-ROMs offer training.
  • Talk-and-watch approach. Talk with a colleague in your school who is already using technology effectively. Watch a class to get some ideas about what works and what doesn't. If you want to search the Internet, but don't know how to begin, log on to www.lib.berkeley.edu/TeachingLib/ Guides/Internet/FindInfo.html.
  • Search engines. Learn to use the Web and the search engines that help you navigate it. AltaVista (www.altavista.com) is one comprehensive search engine. A world of information awaits your investigation. By typing in a word or two that describe your interest, then pressing Enter, you will start the engine searching the Web. If you get thousands of returns (names of Web sites where you can go for information) from a search, pick one or two from the beginning of the list and review them. There is too much information for you to investigate it all, but you can quickly skim a couple of sites to find the best fit.
  • Project-based sites. Investigate one of the many great project-based Web sites such as Annenberg's Journey North (www.learner.org/jnorth), which provides opportunities to investigate all kinds of migration. A list of many projects from the TEAMS Distance Learning schools can be found at (http://teams.lacoe.edu/documentation/projects/projects.html). Or try the list of sites that promote international collaboration at (www.ed.gov/Technology/guide/international/science.html). Your students will be able to explore real-world situations, collect data, and share experiences with students all over the world.
  • Comprehensive approach. When there are products with comprehensive uses, such as a graphing calculator or probeware, professional development becomes more valuable than ever. Most classes for these forms of technology should include ideas for using the materials, lesson plans that can be helpful, and hands-on experience with equipment. Several Web sites offer good ideas for using calculators (Texas Instruments, Inc., www.ti.com) and probeware, devices that can measure temperature, pressure, flow rate, or light intensity when connected to a computer or calculator (for examples, go to the Vernier company Web site at www.vernier.com).
  • Commercial show-and-tell. Equipment suppliers and software publishers often will come to your school to show you how to use a new resource. Don't hesitate to ask them—nothing ventured, nothing gained.
  • Hands-on comfort. To produce a greater comfort level for new users, teachers should have the actual equipment that they will be expected to use on hand and available to practice with.
  • Continuous learning. The best support for technology use that a teacher can provide is to become a continuous learner. Technology is constantly changing, but not all new technology is right for you or your students.
         To keep on top of what's happening in educational technology, get a free subscription to Technology and Learning (www.techlearning.com/content/about/tl_sub.html) or T.H.E., Technical/Logical Horizons in Education (www.thejournal.com). Better yet, get both. They are free to educators and full of good information about technology use.
         Each year, T.H.E. Journal publishes a list of quality Web sites for all content areas, T.H.E. Journal's "Road Map to the Web for Educators." Signing up for a free subscription is worth it for the list alone. The most recent road map, released in September 2001, is available at www.thejournal.com.


  • Repair timeframe. Tech maintenance usually is handled at the district level. Districts that are familiar with the demands of technology use in classrooms offer a forty-eight-hour turnaround for repairs. A twenty-four-hour turnaround is a goal to work toward.
  • Contractors. For small districts, when providing maintenance in-house isn't cost effective, maintenance can be contracted with knowledgeable independent companies.
  • Loaner units. Most districts (and contractors) keep replacement equipment (loaner units) for hardware that must be removed from schools for major repair. You'll be glad they do.
  • Network manager. When a network is established in a school building, it's essential that a network manager be a part of the plan. For large high schools (1,000 students or more), the network manager shouldn't be expected to have teaching responsibilities as well.

Long-term support

  • Policy. Policies for acquiring, using, and supporting technology are essential for continuity and to keep everything up and running. Policy provides the vision that keeps the program on track. And teachers can propose policy, too.
  • Budget line item. The technology program must be a line item in a district budget. If it's not, the program will sputter and die.
  • Annual updating. A technology plan that is updated annually becomes a vehicle for program development. Check out the National Center for Technology Planning (www.nctp.com) for guidance.
  • Community support. The community must know how technology is used and why it is essential. Community education builds support for technology—and that helps ensure funding.
  • Replacement planning. School boards must expect technology to be replaced at least every seven years. A three-to-five-year replacement period is more realistic for a district to stay current.
  • Supportive principals. For technology to be put in place in schools, it's essential that the principals be onboard and committed to the whole process.
  • Enough time to get up to speed. It takes at least three years—and often up to five years—for most teachers to be able to use technology creatively and effectively. The transition does not happen automatically.
  • Acceptable use policy. Schools planning to use technology need an acceptable use policy (AUP), which outlines expectations and provides ethical guidelines for students, teachers, administrators, and parents. Good examples of AUPs are at www.pen.k12.va.us/go/VDOE/Technology/AUP/home.shtml.
  • Ongoing evaluation. Continuous evaluation of how technology is used in a school provides data that can help adjust professional development and planning. Self-assessments for teachers, administrators, and students can be found with Memphis's resources for administrators on their Web site at www.memphis-schools.k12.tn.us/admin/tlapages/admin.html#self.

*  *  *

Bringing the range of technology that's possible and needed into twenty-first century classrooms isn't an easy task, and the five crucial aspects described here can be difficult to put in place simultaneously. There are lots of players in the process, and often many points of view.

Teachers are able to play an important part in the process when they become articulate, technologically savvy advocates of technology. Some teachers are already there. For others, it's new ground, and there's a learning curve that includes becoming comfortable around various types of technology and discovering how to use technology to the greatest advantage for students.

By now, we hope that what you have read here has helped you get ready to start exploring what technology has to offer you and your students. Take a deep breath, then let it out slowly. Then get going. The kids are counting on you.

Ellen Ficklen has been an education writer and editor for more than twenty years; she lives in Washington, D.C. Carol Muscara, who has over thirty-five years of experience in educational technology, has developed and helped carry out technology plans in school districts nationwide, most recently in San Francisco. She is currently working with the New Jersey State Systemic Initiative to develop technology resources correlated with the state mathematics and science standards. She lives in Gaithersburg, Md.

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American Educator, Fall 2001