Computer Use in a High School (1999-2010): Progress or Regress?

In a rare event for researchers, I had a chance to study a northern California high school– dubbed a technology magnet–at two different times. In 1998-1999, I and two graduate students had observed classrooms, interviewed teachers, shadowed students, and counted the times teachers used computer labs and the school’s Media Center at Las Montanas, a high school, then with 1200 mostly minority students.

Between 2008-2010, without graduate students, I did the same tasks at this high school–there were now just over 1000 students–except this time there were 1:1 computing and mobile carts stocked with laptops (see posts of August 7 and 31st, 2010).

I completed the study and now face a Mt. Everest of data. In analyzing the data, I have to answer hard questions. Is the decade in which the high school has used computers a case of technological progress or regress? In what ways, if at all, has teaching changed? In what ways, if at all, has student achievement changed? What, if anything, does this high school case say about district, state, and national reform?

Of these questions, the first is one that I want to address now. To do so, I need to fill in readers with data on teacher and student use. Then, I can take up the question of progress or regress between 1998-2010.

1999-2010 Table for Las Montanas

In the shift from computer labs in 1999 to 1:1 computing (since 2006), the numbers show increased teacher and student use of computers.

In 1998, three out of four academic subject teachers used computer labs and the Media Center where 30 iMacs were housed. Of these Media Center users, however, about one-third came from the English and social studies departments and accounted for nearly 70 percent of all machine use. Students reported (and we saw) that much of that occasional use in lessons was typing up assignments, working on reports, and doing Internet searches.  Classroom observations and student surveys showed some computer use in English and social studies but little use in math, science, and foreign language. Variation in use also marked each department: one or two teachers were heavy users, ditto for occasional users, but the rest were non-users.  In short,  about two-thirds of academic teachers’ lessons revealed either occasional or non-use of computers.

And what kind of teaching did we observe and student report in 1999? Academic teachers routinely lectured, orchestrated group discussions, reviewed homework, worked on assignments and occasionally used overhead projectors and videos. For the most part, teacher-centered instruction was the norm, even in computer-based classes.

In 2010, of the 33 academic subject teachers, 29 used three mobile carts and the Media Center for lessons or classroom Interactive White Boards (seven math department teachers had IWBs, seldom using mobile carts or the Media Center). Altogether, then, in 2010, nearly 90 percent of the teachers used laptops or IWBs. When asked on a survey about using technology in lessons, 88 percent of the teachers checked “very positive” or “positive.”

Teacher use of high-tech machines, however, was not equally distributed. The math department used IWBs daily in lessons (see posts of August 13 and 17, 2010 for description of math lessons I observed). For the rest of Las Montanas academic subject teachers, however, just seven teachers (two English, two social studies, and three science) or one-third accounted for 72 percent of Media Center and cart use.

All of these figures, of course, say little about daily classroom use or the activities in which students and teachers used the laptops between 2008-2010.

I used four sources to determine what occurred in classrooms: my observations (46) including shadowing of students;  70 administrators’ 1-page sheets recording what they saw during 10-minute walk-throughs; teacher surveys with 95 percent response (2009); over 800 student surveys, 80 percent of all students, (2009) of technology use in lessons; and a district office team’s evaluation (2008) of how much computers had been integrated into lessons.

What did I find?

From sign-up sheets in the Media Center for carts and space for laptop use by classes, students reports, teacher surveys, and classroom observations–clearly, far more teachers used high-tech devices in classes than a decade earlier. No question about that.

Of the four sources of data, however, the district office team’s site visit was damning. While acknowledging math teachers use of IWBs and a few teachers using digital activities, the team  gave the school a 1 (the lowest of four levels) for technological “infusion” into lessons. But the items on the evaluation sheet noted only what machines and tasks teachers and students were doing at the moment of the walk-through. Not a word about how teachers were teaching.

Other sources of data go beyond this glaringly negative snapshot. Academic teachers who were occasional-to-regular users of technology routinely lectured using Keynote or IWBs to illustrate points, led group discussions (in math classes students used “clickers”), reviewed homework, had students write blogs–what used to be called “journaling”– and had students use laptops to send in assignments to teachers’ “digital lockers.” Again, as in 1999, teacher-centered instruction was the norm.

The next post takes up the question of progress or regress between 1999 and 2010.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

16 responses to “Computer Use in a High School (1999-2010): Progress or Regress?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Computer Use in a High School (1999-2010): Progress or Regress? | Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice --

  2. KLS

    Was tracking of targeted professional development part of the study?

    • larrycuban

      There were district professional development workshops (offered on days when no students were at school) on integrating 1:1 computing into lessons that teachers referred to in interviews with me. Also there was an active Tech Committee at Las Montanas that sponsored an occasional after-school session for teachers who chose to attend. I did not document or track these activities.

  3. One of the supreme challenges of 21st Century technology is the reality it changes at a breakneck speed. We have taken technology, which in many cases children use better than us, and added it to a teacher-centred model of education. The overhead projector slides are now saved to an electronic file cabinet to be summoned at a moment’s notice for the IWB to shine on the wall.

    I have found students are the technology experts and innovators in my classroom. I have worked to reshape the relational nature of learning, tapping into the student mastery present. Roles in the classroom and the school are changing and they will shake up the status quo.

  4. Bob Calder

    I would like to mention two things. First, an observation from a person unused to teaching with technology – just about everyone that observes – is almost useless. The classroom next to mine is for word processing and associated office-related learning. Students are almost constantly using their computers. But in my classroom, we leave them and discuss a lesson then we may end up using them for 30% of the period. My students will be engaging in a project but must stop frequently to discuss what they have found and how they have engaged with resources. Sometimes it takes a short time, sometimes it takes the entire period.

    I should also mention that the TIMMS advanced talk I just attended included an analysis by Liv Sissel Gronmo from Norway and Barbara Pavesic from Slovenia of the results for their respective cohorts. The discussion touched on the use of graphing calculators and their use. It turns out that Sweden and Norway both use them extensively. Sweden’s math dropped about 89 points from the last time but Norway only dropped a bit.

    When Dick Askey discussed math test items, he pointed out that students with calculators could have accounted for a particular pattern he observed. This may need investigation with regard to the way students behave in testing when they abandon reasoning in favor of the “engine” provided by the calculator.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the two comments. About your class, you have said consistently in your comments that teaching is about learning, not technology. Your description of lessons support that.
      On the connection between graphing calculators and a nation’s test scores in math, well, both of know that is a stretch and much more data and description will have to fill in the holes.

      • Bob Calder

        Yes, I know it’s a stretch. But the people involved and the data from the other countries make their comments look fairly solid. I am getting in late from a full day of symposia and may not phrase it well, nor may I remember it clearly. Slovenia thinks they have solid pedagogy, Norway thinks they are slipping a bit, and Netherlands is strong like Slovenia while Switzerland has multiple issues that cloud interpretation of their nasty drop. The specific problems on the test that were analyzed *could* have been affected in the fashion described because we know the distractors were set up a particular way. I’m not a mathematician and I’m not a math test designer. Askey was saying the Japanese have a response system that reveals more about why students chose particular answers that would have revealed more about student’s thinking.

        It’s not about graphing calculators per se. It’s about Sweden relaxing some standards and the student’s answers using graphing calculators in a particular way that reveals a possible thing that has nothing to do with reliance or lack thereof on calculators. The calculators are speaking to us.

  5. It’s hard to come by knowledgeable people on this topic, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

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