The BIG Picture

What we need to know about technology

09/03/2009  |  PETER ROBERTSON

The American vision of school is still rooted in what Horace Mann called the “common schools” of the 19th century.   Schools mutated into the universal sorting system (“time is fixed, results vary” ) that served our industrial economy in the 20th century.  But technology and the global knowledge economy require us – and empower us – to reconceive schools today as institutions that can prepare all students to succeed in a rigorous curriculum through a personalized experience.  The principles laid out here are fairly basic, but their application can get quite complex.  As you think through how these apply to your situation, stay focused on your goals and know when to get some expert help. 

Technology is nothing new.  Merriam-Webster defines technology as “the practical application of knowledge.”   In the 19th century, “hornbooks” were technology.  But today we are talking about information and communication technology, which like any transformative technology (the book, the wheel, the automobile) both permits and requires different approaches to knowledge and its practical application.  The hornbook is old technology, and it is as important to think about what old technologies to retire as it is to think about what new technologies can and should do. 

Technology belongs in schools for five reasons.  These reasons are relevant to all useful technologies.  But the technology we’ve focused on in education for the past 30 years has been the personal computer or PC, and it (still) belongs in schools because:

People use technology in the real world, too.  It would be unrealistic to keep the PC out of schools, and it is sensible that schools help students learn to use it.  That is one reason schools have taught students to use books, pencils and pens, and typewriters in the past.  This is the least important reason for PCs to be in schools, but it is still important.

Technology can make existing learning tasks more efficient and effective.  The dominant use of the PC in schools is still in learning labs where students practice math facts or vocabulary with computer software that has more patience and attentiveness than teachers can afford.  Software keeps improving, too.  Today, some students can learn whole courses of study with little human intervention. 

Technology facilitates access to other learning resources.  In 0.06 seconds, a Google search can locate more information on any topic than any teacher could absorb (much less share) in a lifetime.  While access to this wealth of information will not translate directly into student knowledge or skill, neither will a textbook.  Today, if a school could have only one tool, a Web-enabled PC would be infinitely more valuable than a book.

Technology makes possible entirely new kinds of learning.  Students can use PCs to perform virtual dissections, breed thousands of generations to study genetics, explore virtual epicenters to solve real-world public health problems, or practice with fellow language learners around the world.  Online gaming is now a hot topic in education:  Whether or not such gaming proves its instructional value, it was not possible on a large scale before the PC.

Technology improves the efficiency and effectiveness of schools themselves.  Much of the work done in schools is transactional (filling out forms and recording attendance), rule-driven (determining residency and calculating grades), and logistical (routing buses and scheduling courses).  All of these categories of work are ideally suited to improvements in efficiency and effectiveness through the use of PC-based tools.

When thinking about any particular piece of technology – its role in the school, how and when to support it, or determining who should use it – it’s important to be clear about which of these five reasons are relevant.

Technology is never just one tool, and it is always part of an ecosystem.  If you have a PC, you’re really using multiple software tools, such as spreadsheets and word processors, as well as peripherals like webcams and projectors to do your work.  In order to function, the PC relies on and is affected by the rest of the ecosystem:  electrical outlets; printers and printing supplies; Internet connections, including outlets and/or wireless routers, switches, and an Internet service provider; servers for file and printer sharing; server software and updates; anti-viral and other security software; spam blocking; internet filtering; and other content protection.  Don’t plan for or introduce a technology without thinking through all the different tools and their ecosystem – or getting some help in thinking it through.

People are also part of technology’s ecosystem.  That sounds too obvious to state, but failure to anticipate human responses and interaction is one of the most enduring reasons for failed or misdirected technology.  Such responses and interaction can include very big-picture unintended consequences, like the fact that email begat spam, which is now conservatively 85% of the world’s email traffic and can easily, if safeguards fail, overwhelm and crash a computer network.  It can also include much “smaller” surprises, like the fact that children can find VCR tape slots and CD disc trays to be inviting receptacles for everything from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to paperclips.  Teachers have used computer monitors as doorstops, students have stolen mouse balls for games of “marbles,” and users have hidden illegal file-sharing businesses inside schools’ networks.  Think about the people who will be in your technology’s ecosystem – and prepare for the unexpected.

Technologies are only as good as their use.  Larry Cuban may have made this point most thoroughly with respect to how technology is adopted, or not adopted, in schools. (See especially the 1986 Teachers and Machines and the 2001 Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom.)  This is no different from technology in any profession, and one study has shown that effective efforts to “build new ways of working” around new technologies in the private sector can cost up to nine additional dollars for every dollar spent on the technology itself (Jorgan & Dowdy, 2004).  Don’t commit to a new technology without committing to figuring out and making the changes needed to take advantage of that technology. 

Critical mass is needed to get effective use.  The first telephone owner had no one to call (and Western Union saw the device as having “no value” ).  Even when technology is pervasive in the school – replacing books, chalkboards, and filing cabinets – it is unlikely to change anything until a critical mass of users agrees on how to address some fundamental aspect of teaching and learning, collaborates on how a technology can be used, and collectively generates enough experience that the impact of the new use is apparent.  Then the innovation can attract the notice and generate the case studies needed to drive replication, adoption, and ultimately transformation.  Until then, “it makes little sense to expect any kind of return on the investment in technology, especially in relation to student achievement.” (Bain & Weston 2009)

Only technology can improve cost, quality, and speed at the same time.  For all of the complications described above, new technology is essential if schools are to meet the challenges of the new century.  The Price of Government (Osborne & Hutchinson 2004) makes this point with a number of public-sector case studies, and the business world is full of examples.  But speaking practically, it boils down to the reality of trade-offs between cost, quality, and speed – unless you find a new way to do things.  And a new way to do things is, by definition, new technology.  If you need to make two or three improvements at the same time, such as cut costs, improve outcomes, work faster, or work more efficiently, you need to use technology:    However, keep in mind that navigating all the complexities requires a framework for thinking through the issues and some practical guidelines.

What’s Next? The pressure is on: from students tired of “powering down” to come to school; from parents who “helicopter” and are used to instant web access to everything that’s important; and from a global culture of speed, innovation, efficiency, and change.  If you aren’t already soaking in the newest technologies, you’re practically obsolete.  At the same time, if you are soaking in those technologies, you’re undoubtedly feeling the undertow.  Wherever you are on the spectrum, your challenge is to step back and reflect on the basics above.  Know why you are moving forward with a particular technology; identify new technology that can replace old technology, and make sure you have the right ecosystem in place and well-protected.  Above all, follow through on training, supporting, documenting, and sharing of best practices. 

Peter Robertson is 21st centry schools advisor to SchoolOne. For more information, visit
Comments & Ratings