The Challenge of Writing about Change and Stability in a Technology-Rich High School (1998-2010)

I and two graduate students studied Las Montanas High School (a pseudonym) in 1998. In 2010 I had completed a two-year study of the same school that had, in the interim, become a 1:1 laptop school. (See last post on the background to this unfunded study). Here is what I did.

With the permission of the principal and volunteer faculty in 2008, I interviewed individual teachers and administrators, observed classrooms, shadowed students as they went to their classes, and surveyed over 800 students and 60 teachers. I completed the study in June 2010 and now face a Mt. Everest of data. I have yet to analyze the data and reach crisp conclusions. I have yet to figure out the story I have to tell.

In fact, I have yet to figure out what Las Montanas is a case of. Is the decade in which the high school has used technologies extensively a case of success or failure? Does examining the high school at two different points in time reveal the difficulties state and district school reformers have in improving teaching and student achievement through new technologies? Or does this high school case shed light on how schools are mobilized to deal with state and national economic and social problems?

Years ago when I taught and did research at Stanford I would create a course around the question driving my study and teach a seminar directly dealing with that question. Graduate students who chose to take the seminar–usually around 10-15– would read portions of the manuscript, write papers on the readings I supplied, and discuss issues I raised. That seminar helped me think through what I wanted to say in a book. That process of teaching-while-doing-research happened with How Scholars Trumped Teachers, The Blackboard and the Bottom Line, and when David Tyack and I did Tinkering toward Utopia.

No graduate students now, however. Now I do have readers and, of course, family and friends. So to answer puzzling questions about using new technologies and the process of painting the larger picture into which the story of Las Montanas might fit, I will be using this blog as a tool to help me tell the story. There may be readers who might, if they are so inclined, comment on upcoming entries (these have yet to be written) about teachers using laptops and interactive whiteboards in lessons, changing school leadership over a decade, using new technologies when a school is put on academic probation, linkages between the school and the district and state reform policies, and other topics.

I have taken away a few impressions after two years of being at the school. These impressions are only that and much too early to be called either conclusions or findings.

They are:

*In shifting from computer labs at Las Montanas in 1998 to 1:1 laptops in 2004, in the past six years, teacher and student daily and weekly use appears to be more frequent and spread far more broadly among both than in 1998.

*Even with nearly complete faculty turnover between 1998 and 2010, there seems to be far more stability, rather than change, in how teachers taught then and now.

*Connections between student achievement and teacher and student use of laptops appear, at best, indirect and, at worst, non-existent.

Given these impressions, why do these periodic entries? The main reason is that I do not yet know whether these impressions will become conclusions–note such words as “appear” and “seem”–or whether I will find evidence in the data that contradicts these impressions even leading to opposite conclusions. Thus, sifting the data and analyzing it sufficiently to compose entries will help me figure out what has happened at the school over the past decade. Moreover, and of equal importance to me as a writer is figuring out what Las Montanas in 1998 and 2010 is a case of–see above.

If all of these impressions and meandering sounds like I am thrashing about, that is accurate. In past writing projects I have circled around and around in the early stages as I try to unravel puzzles embedded in the data and answer questions that arise surprisingly as I muddle through interviews, classroom observations, survey results, and other documents. Working with graduate students in seminars had helped me considerably in the past. Now I am about to embark on a similar venture in future entries to this blog.



Filed under school reform policies, technology use

11 responses to “The Challenge of Writing about Change and Stability in a Technology-Rich High School (1998-2010)

  1. Patrick D

    I look forward to your “thrashing about.” I know that it will inform the thinking I do around the still increasing use of tech in my library and in the classrooms at my high school in SF. Appreciate your thoughtful work and your willingness to share its shaping as you go along. Thanks.

  2. I appreciate your predicament and look forward to your posts. While we all have limited time to sift through information, many are sifting through similar questions. As the technology director of a small school district with a 4:1 ratio, I am often asked about moving 1:1. I have my standard answers but they are just estimates. I would love to have some guidelines, cautions or recommendations to offer. The 1:1 idea sounds like a solution to many of our public school teaching/learning issues but comes with it’s own issues.

    If you can make some of the data available (or just want a reaction), I’d be happy to add our experience/perspective.

  3. This could be the single most important study for today’s educational crossroads. If tech doesn’t cause teachers to change, what is the point? Rather than spend all this money on tech integration, perhaps we ought be trying to change th fundamental beliefs of teachers in regards to teaching & learning.

  4. One question about continuity/change may not be about the specific teachers but the source of those teachers. Did the teachers in 2010 come from backgrounds that would have been familiar to the 1998 teachers (and here I mean educational backgrounds as well as the standard class/race/ethnicity questions)? In some ways, as you’ve written, the continuity of secondary curriculum can trump other characteristics of teachers. But I suspect there are other continuities.

    The other question about continuity/change with a specific school would be the school district and the surrounding community. To the extent you can do so without breaking any agreements about confidentiality, that would be useful in framing the context about why a community would encourage/allow its schools to use technology more intensively in 2010.

  5. Steve Davis

    Maybe technology integration is becoming more about schooling than education. Although technology doesn’t change teaching practices and has specious impacts on student learning it is still lauded as a “must” for education. There must be a reason why. All of the other things that we do in school that have no educational value are part of “schooling” and the hidden curriculum. Maybe that’s the case with technology.

  6. Would it have made sense to go 1:1 in 1998?
    Why does it make sense today? If it does?
    Did the complete turnover in teachers actually facilitate the transition to 1:1?

  7. Steve Davis

    I have noticed something interesting about the responses to Larry’s blog posts. His June 17 post “High Tech Gadgets: Addiction, Dependency, or Hype?” received insightful comments that seemed to come from all over the world and from all walks of life. The topic of technology dependency really struck a chord with a whole lot of people, and many of them agreed that we have become at least dependent on technology, if not addicted, yet many of the posters had no opinion about whether or not that dependency should be enabled and cultivated through schools. Larry’s subsequent posts. e.g., “Putting New Technologies into Schools: Explaining Non-Rational Behavior,” dealt even more specifically with the issue of technology in schools yet the topics failed to resonate with such a wide audience. Not sure what that means, but I am going to take some leaps of imagination here.

    Technology may not seem to be part of the “hidden curriculum” because it’s in plain sight. However, if the academic value is limited or null then our largely unquestioned commitment to technology in schools may very well serve some as of yet unarticulated societal norming value. In many circles it’s downright heretical to question technology’s role in schools. So maybe we have a case of societal denial when it comes to technology. We [as a society] know we want students to use technology and we’re not really sure why so we just pretend that it has academic benefits. Then we engage in attribution bias to strengthen our beliefs and deflect ideas that run counter to our own. Well, what about that one 1:1 laptop school “High-tech High?” OK. Now name another successful example. I can’t. But if I go do a quick search I know I can come up with a dozen or so schools that have not faired as well. But maybe that’s my attribution bias speaking.

  8. I think if you are looking for technology and/or a 1:1 laptop program to change learning or instruction, you may be looking for a long time. Regardless of whether you have technology or not, it still comes down to teaching and learning. The research has been very clear for a long time about this. It’s the teaching and learning strategies that can be tracked back to student achievement. So if student achievement has not changed appreciably, one must look to how technology is being used, how much teachers know about technology, how technology is a tool that extends learning strategies, how teachers are trained, what kinds and forms of professional development do teachers have access to and is it related to using technology for learning. My immediate reaction is that the teachers have never had the professional development that addresses how to integrate technology. I might add that it is not innately obvious how technology should be used by learners , thus there is a right way and a wrong way. For example, if teachers are using technology to keep grades and produce class materials there will be very little learning and achievement that is affected via a 1:1. But if a teacher is using a hands-on, project based approach there is likely to be some degree of influence. Thus, if I were a luddite, I would not jump and yell hooray the wicked witch is dead.

  9. Bob Calder

    Sherman’s teachers will have been sinking deeper into technology’s embrace at the same pace as everybody else, so turnover is unlikely to have an effect. But at some point the principal will hire a batch of teachers who will have expectations about technology integration; management system for documents, curriculum, testing, and communications. (It’s likely they won’t have any use for telephones in the classroom.) Until then, it will be an uneven or ragged process. The principal could have hastened the process by hiring people who were used to teaching and learning using a CMS.

    But because computer technology is increasingly about communication, obvious changes will come from that sector of student computer use. Of course that’s obvious today as we watch everyone haul out his or her preferred hand-held microcomputer no matter where we are and no matter whether they are young or old. This is indicative of a sea change in more than academic use.

    In a 1:1 program, there is an underlying assumption that we are creating a common dwelling for learning to take place that is egalitarian. That may or may not be true because the institution must bring those with no skill up to speed. In 2009 that went for teachers as much as students. Even though many teachers had been using computers for a few years, their usage was severely channeled by their analog, thus limited, and myopic.

    Today, devices, software, and social behaviour have evolved in parallel to the point where 1:1 as a concept is outmoded. I don’t mean to be nasty, but accessibility is what is important and it is device independent. If you think of students listening to Paul Duguid talk about the history of the speed of information on their mp3 players as they shuffle between buildings, you can see an important part of what I mean.

    If we look at earlier adoption of technology, one of the first books printed was a grammar. Printing eventually created a literate society and schools without books could not have lasted long. Measuring the effect of books versus lecture in the 1700s may not have unearthed effects. Measuring the effects of computer access on learning may be useless. I don’t suppose reading tests were common in schools prior to 1450.

    High school students have to grow into the idea that the tube that feeds them is capable of more than entertainment. Teachers have to grow into the idea that they don’t need much besides a computer to teach with.

    Everybody is oooh-ing and aaaah-ing over Bill Gates saying that we can do away with the campus last week. I wouldn’t go that far, but don’t be offended when I yawn over interactive whiteboards.

  10. Yet another hugely well informed thread of thoughts, to which I’d add this one, which I hope meets the standard set.

    Bob’s assertion that, “Teachers have to grow into the idea that they don’t need much besides a computer to teach with”encapsulates the current dilemma in this field. I’m always interested in excellence and what the best do, and the idea that any great teacher I’ve known or worked with would rely on a textbook or a machine, rather than their own skill and knowledge, just doesn’t make much sense to me because it is the difference between communicating directly with your pupils and being the messenger.

    Great teachers are always the former: not the latter.

  11. The interesting statement, if it is a statement is -“Connections between student achievement and teacher and student use of laptops appear, at best, indirect and, at worst, non-existent.”

    The questions that pop up for me around that are:

    How is student achievement being measured? Can we reasonably expect computers to ‘improve’ something that has never really been measured previously and on a broad scale?

    Are teachers and students using computers to do the same things they did before they used computers? If so, why?

    How much and what kind of training, staff development, and support did the students, teachers, and administrators receive, and for how long?

    Has portfolio assessment been considered or implemented?

    I’m very much interested in detailed answers to my questions and am willing to assist in the process of getting the story out. I’ve been using desktops 1:2 for a couple of years in my 3rd and 4th grade classroom and have some experience from which to draw regarding the above. I wish I had time to answer all of those questions of my own practice.
    Good luck with this important work !

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