Oct 31 2006

7 Hurdles to Overcome to Get the Most Out of Technology

Learn how to avoid roadblocks that stop teachers from using technology to its fullest.

What keeps schools from using technology to its fullest? An informal survey revealed the main obstacles: lack of time, followed by lack of vision, weak staff development, fear and control. An emerging barrier among students is that “our school blocks all the fun stuff!” They were talking about instant messaging, podcasting and blogging.

Many educators also worry that network safety and the possibility of abuse by a few students trump the creative use of technology for the majority. For example:


“We can’t use Skype [a program that lets users make free calls over the Internet to anyone who is also using it] to let students debate others around the world, because we might be letting in viruses.”


“We can’t podcast language lessons because we don’t have the bandwidth.”

“We must filter student blogging because they’ll abuse the power.”

How do we manage these hurdles?


We all recognize that time is the most treasured resource for teachers. But does “lack of time” really mean “This is not a priority of our leaders”?

Availability of time is a function of leadership and vision. Does your district have a clear and compelling vision for why technology is essential? Too many plans aim to give students technology skills delivered by teachers who just came back from staff development.

But many of the technology skills we teach students today will be obsolete by the time they graduate. Technology can support a vision, but it can’t be the vision.

I know firsthand that many students are not globally competitive at this moment in economic history when work can instantly flow via the Internet to anyone, anywhere who can provide better or cheaper services and products. Our country has never faced this kind of global competition before — and it’s only beginning.

To compete in the global economy, children need three essential skills, and technology is critical to all of them. The skills are: sophisticated research skills and information processing skills; global communication skills; and the work habits that lead to being self-directed, self-assessing and fearless learners.

The traditional industrial culture of too many of our schools continues to create a dependency on the part of the learner to be taught. Bolting technology onto this culture will not prepare children to be globally competitive.

Instead of teaching students how to be taught, we must change the culture to teach them how to take responsibility for their learning. We have to prepare our students for the possibility that they will lose their careers to global competition and will have to continuously retool their skills.


Just when we need to prepare our students to work with people around the world, some schools worry more about network security than about expanding the boundaries of learning. Paper continues to be the dominant technology tool in most schools. Indeed, too many computers are used as $2,000 pencils. Our curriculum continues to be delivered largely through textbooks, which in some states can be updated only once every five years.

However, the real revolution is about information and communication. Hardware is only the digital plumbing. We don’t need technology directors; we need information and communication facilitators. We don’t need technology plans; we need learning-results plans. We need to think about how technology can expand the boundaries of learning — time, space and relationships — for every student.

Blogging, for example, is a wonderful tool that teachers can use to expand the audience for student writing and to teach students how to manage their writing. A blog is a personalized Web site where users can post anything they like: stories, comments, photos, multimedia presentations, etc. Blogs are relatively easy to set up, and you can create content in minutes.

Chris Burnett, a language arts teacher at Mount Clemens Middle School in Michigan, is one of my teacher heroes, thanks to her Web site, visitmyclass.com/blogs/burnett05. Her students’ assignments are read and commented on by students and teachers around the planet.

“I’ve never had students who are so excited about writing,” Burnett says. “For the first time in my career, I have students who are submitting their writing to me without an assignment, just so they can have their work published for review by a global audience.” Burnett has motivated students who ordinarily don’t enjoy writing to invent their own assignments. This represents a major shift of control.

Another education blogging advocate is Will Richardson, supervisor of instructional technology and communications for the Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, N.J. He oversees a blog program of more than 400 sites.

“There’s no question that being able to share ideas with a larger audience changes the equation when it comes to writing in the classroom,” he says. “Blogs allow teachers to repurpose their approach to writing instruction and show students how writing can be a means to engage in connections and conversations in very powerful ways. That ... can be a transformative motivator in the classroom.”


Tap student talent to make time.

When I was in high school, I was too embarrassed to ask for extra help in French class when my more-accomplished classmates were listening. If I were in school today, I might access my teacher’s oral language lessons on my iPod.

I could review every lesson without fear of judgment and without trying to guess what I had heard during the lesson. What if language teachers could create a Web-based library of all their lectures?

Yet many teachers don’t know much about podcasting to iPods and don’t have time to learn. But some of their students do. We could send them to an after-school workshop to learn how to podcast, rather than training the teachers. See http://genyes.org for more resources that describe the ability of students to serve as tech leaders.

My favorite questions for teachers are: What do you love to teach? Where do your students struggle?

I spoke with a science teacher in British Columbia whose class was monitoring duck eggs in the classroom. The teacher worried that the students might miss watching the eggs hatch. I suggested setting up a Webcam on the incubator and a Web site to which the video would stream. The students could then create a slow-motion video about the entire process.

Tapping into what teachers love to do and aligning that with technology is more effective than having teachers learn to create PowerPoint presentations. Blogs are a classic example. They allow for improved writing, an authentic audience, building portfolios and self-reflection. But don’t give a workshop on blogging; give a workshop on writing and the authentic audience.


I have asked hundreds of leaders, “Have you maximized your investment in your existing technology?” The most common answer is, “Not yet.” My travels have revealed two widening gaps: the numerical gap (some students have more stuff) and the creative application gap.

The winners are the students who attend schools where technology is used to raise expectations of what all students can achieve. Two elements differentiate these schools: 24 x 7 learning opportunities and more rigor, discipline and creativity in the way student assignments are designed.


We need curriculum directors who fully understand the power of networks to support and expand the boundaries of learning. That’s why the school district’s network director should report directly to the curriculum director.

School districts should shift network traffic from administrative activities, such as scheduling and payroll, to 24 x 7 learning. The sooner we help curriculum leaders move from paper-based curricula to digital access, the sooner we will be able to help students who can’t keep up in class.


Teachers can respond to the massive increase in cutting and pasting by trying to catch the culprits or by redesigning assignments to make it almost impossible for students to cheat.

If you assign students to find project sources on the Internet, some may use the information without gaining any real knowledge. The alternative is to give students academic challenges that place little value on cutting and pasting.

When students have an audience for their presentations, such as connecting a World History class with students in Japan, England and Germany using Skype — or any video broadcasting tool — they’ll be better prepared to debate the lessons of World War II than if they have to hand in a paper. And, the debate can be saved as an audio file for podcasting from the teacher’s blog. When students know their work will be available for anyone to access, it has a chilling effect on plagiarism.


Students who use the Internet must know how to deal with massive amounts of information, separate fact from fiction, think critically about time spent on the Web and keep themselves safe. Being information-literate means that a student understands the grammar of the Internet: how to read a Web address, determine the owner of a Web site and cross-reference information to determine its credibility.

Too often schools try to protect children by blocking sites. How confusing it must be for a student who uses Google in a filtered school and then uses it at home in an unfiltered environment.

Unless we teach students what they must do when they’re on their own, school filtering may be a cruel trick: “Now you’re safe; now you’re not.” Let’s develop standards to teach students critical Internet thinking skills. We can’t assume the rest of the world will be filtered.

Alan November is an education consultant with November Learning (www.novemberlearning.com) in Marblehead, Mass.

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