A few years ago, I was wending my way through Ohio on what I liked to call “the evaluator’s road trip.” At the time, I worked with a couple dozen K-8 schools, evaluating the effectiveness of educational technology grants they had received. I remember one school in particular because of what I did not see — any real use of technology. This school had a two-year grant, and I was visiting them during the school year following the expiration of that grant. The reason: to determine if the grants had long-term impacts on the use of technology in each school. Fortunately, most schools that I visited were chugging along quite well. But at this particular school, I walked into an empty, darkened computer lab with 20 or so desktop PCs all powered off. Many were unplugged — from power, from keyboards, from monitors, or from the LAN. There was a laser printer sitting on a mobile cart in the middle of the room connected to…nothing.
My surprise aside, I was not there to judge. My goal was to understand what had happened to the school’s educational technology program. I sat down with the principal and simply asked what kind of use the computer lab had been getting. “None,” he replied. “We just don’t have the time.” He told me about the problems he faced coming into the school as a new principal just that year: a higher-than-average truancy rate, a lack of basic school supplies and textbooks, major disciplinary problems, and a lack of parent participation in the educational process. Then we started to talk about his use of technology as the school principal. All communication with teachers and parents took place through printed memos and newsletters. Face-to-face staff meetings were required regularly for announcements and Q&A. Student grades and teacher performance evaluations were all kept on paper, despite having access to the district’s online portal for such information.
I walked back to the EvalMobile (read: rented minivan) in astonishment. Look at all he has access to that he’s not using, I thought. And if he would use that technology, his teachers would do the same. This man needs to lead! Was I right? Well, yes and no.
On the one hand, this principal was old school, as evidenced by how much information and communication took place on paper even though he had access to email, a school Web site builder, and online tools for data management. I visited many schools facing similar challenges to those listed above where the principal led by example. And you know what? It caught on. Teachers began building class Web pages, even recruiting students to help, who could then learn HTML and Web design skills. Students’ study materials, performance and attendance data were kept online, and parents had access to that information so that they could more regularly participate in their children’s education.
On the other hand, the problems this principal faced were not just excuses for avoiding the time investment to get up-to-speed with his school’s technology resources. They were real, and they were staring him in the face every day. For example, email and Web-based communication with parents wasn’t going to go very far when a large percentage of those parents (possibly a healthy majority) didn’t have Internet access or a computer at home. Supplemental learning materials provided via the computers wouldn’t do much if there were not enough primary resources, i.e., textbooks, to supplement. And it would have been darn difficult to get students excited to use the computer lab if many of those students weren’t even coming in the front door.
In short, there is much that this principal, indeed any school leader, can do to encourage relevant and effective technology use in schools. But there are also social-structural problems that must be addressed (particularly in schools in low-income areas) that stand in the way of change — any change — that could have a positive impact on learning.